Thinking about teaching 4: History of Women/History of Sexuality

In addition to my U.S. survey classes, which I examined in earlier posts, I also taught 200-level courses on the history of women in the U.S. in the fall and history of sexuality in the U.S in the spring of this past academic year. I’ll be teaching history of women again this fall, which is reason enough to revisit it, but the two courses proceeded so differently as to be worth some reflection and examination.

I taught history of women as a one night, 2 hour and 20 minute class, and history of sexuality as a two day a week, 75 minute class, but the basic goals and structures of the courses were the same. Rather than lecturing, which I don’t do, I had my students students read one journal article/book chapter each week as well as 2-8 pages of primary sources I curated. The classes were entirely discussion based.

In women’s history, I had students keep commonplace books to keep them accountable for the reading, to give them a resource for paper writing, but primarily to encourage reflection and careful reading. In history of sexuality, I had them do brief reading reviews for everything they read instead, trying to answer the questions historians ask of secondary and primary sources as preparation for class. Again, this was mostly to encourage them to think about the readings rather than skim them, as a way to encourage better discussions. Both classes had two short but broad papers where they got to examine themes of their choice, and in both classes students had to pick extra articles to read and present on in class.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but women’s history was broadly a successful class, and history of sexuality was…not. Women’s history made me feel like I was a great professor and history of sexuality made me feel like a Grade A failure. But I think it’s important to note that the course design was very similar, a fact which led me to ponder, all throughout spring semester, what the heck was making the difference. Things that I think impacted the success, or lack thereof, of these two courses.

  • Time of year. I don’t think we can say that fall or spring courses are inherently “better,” but I think spring courses that are primarily upperclassmen have challenges that fall courses do not. I also was able to spend more devoted time prepping women’s history in the summer.
  • Size of the class. History of women leveled off at 12 people; it was capped at 15, and filled, but some people dropped. History of sexuality had a cap of 20, which I over-enrolled because demand was so high, but by the end of the semester it had leveled off at 17.  I have obviously run hundreds of discussions with 25, 28, and 40-person classes, but perhaps the five person difference in this class made a difference.
  • Assignments: Women’s history loved the commonplace books, and I’m looking to do something digital with them this fall. History of sexuality loathed having to write down scope/argument/sources and author/audience/form/argument every week. I suspect that might have also been the case had I assigned women’s history to do the same.
  • Composition of the class I: Women’s history had five history majors in it, sexuality had two. The majors didn’t necessarily have any content knowledge, but they knew how historians thought and what their goals were, and that is helpful.
  • Composition of the class II: Women’s history had history majors and a blend of students majoring in English, sociology, psychology, and even musical theater. History of sexuality was dominated by students majoring in psychology and sociology. Many of them told me flat out that reading for an argument was unfamiliar to them – they were used to looking for terms – and they did not like having to read primary sources at all.  (I don’t buy the idea that they’d never been asked to read for argument before, but that’s how they understood their college experience and it shaped our interactions.)
  • Composition of the class III: Women’s history was all women. History of sexuality was about evenly divided. Imagine the ways that that divide might shape the dynamic in these two courses as taught by me, a 33 year old woman in her first year at this university and the only woman in the history department. Everything you are imagining is correct. I had expected some of this, especially having read Historiann’s post on her own history of sexuality class, which I read in preparation for teaching this course. While my students didn’t complain too much about the amount of rape, the class discussions of childbirth, nursing, menstruation, and tampons had a distinctly different feel to them.
  • Expectations: For women’s history, what students expected they’d learn in the class was pretty close to what they got, if a bit longer in duration. In history of sexuality, the expectations were not at all matched by my course, a fact which was clear to me immediately. But I couldn’t change it, and wouldn’t have, and here’s why.

I think the biggest difference in the classes, the thing that shaped the tone of the discussion in the long-term and confounded expectations, was the argument I was making and how students felt about that argument.

In women’s history, most students expected to start either in the mid-19th century, or more commonly, with suffrage, because “women couldn’t really do anything before then, right?” Starting, instead, with colonialism – with Kathleen Brown talking about gender and race and Nina Dayton talking about abortion in colonial Connecticut – was very disruptive, but the class seemed to like it. They were amazed and interested to find out this history that had been “hidden” from them, something that went doubly for the non-white members of the class, who were surprised to see race emphasized so much in the course.

There were still dominant narratives that we struggled against all semester – most notably the idea that there was a point at which women “started to work” – but for the most part, they were receptive to the complicated narrative I present about the experiences of being a woman in the U.S. Sure, they complained in the evaluations about the level of reading, but discussions were lively and engaged, they knew each other’s names, and in general, I think we all looked forward to class each week.

The first indication I had that expectations were mismatched in history of sexuality was when a student said, at the start of the first class, “So, this isn’t the class where we go to a strip club?” Some had clearly taken the course thinking it was human sexual behavior or the like. My activity for the first day – building a word cloud of the things we might talk about in a class on the history of sexuality – helped me see that they had a very limited sense of what the history of sexuality meant.  They expected the class to start in the mid-20th century somewhere, “when the sexual revolution happened,” and that many of them thought it would primarily focus on gay Americans. Once I realized that second part was really causing some students difficulty getting on board with the class, I was able to work in a lot of discussions about how just as men have a gender and white people have a race, straight people have a sexuality, and in fact the construction of the idea of sexual orientation was part of the story we were telling.  I think I did make some inroads there.

The larger issue, however, was this issue of when the history of sexuality “starts,” which was very much wrapped up in ideas of repression and liberation. We started the course by reading the three introductions to D’Emilio and Freedman’s Intimate Matters to get a sense of how the field had changed, and I made explicit that repression to liberation was not the argument this class was making. That really bothered some students. They thought it was wrong to study anything before some indeterminate point at which things became “liberated,” and if they were going to have to read about “backwards” views, the only appropriate form of analysis was to stand in judgment of those people. When confronted with secondary and primary sources that contradicted the previously-held narrative, a small subsection of the class was fascinated, but most of them were annoyed, and almost offended. I vastly underestimated how important it would be to some students to feel like they were of the post-60s period that “invented” liberated sexuality.  And when you already Know the Truth of the past, like many of them did, you read that Truth into everything you read.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, female students seemed to give up the “liberation” narrative much more easily, and I think that was as much a result of hearing male peers talk about sexuality in and out of the classroom as it was any specific content they learned. But I think that for many in the class, the point of looking at sexuality through a historical lens was utterly lost.  I know that I emphasized how important and central that was at the start of the class; many of them just rejected my reality and substituted their own. I had no way to respond to that.

The one common issue in both classes was that while they were both mid-level history courses, most of the students had not had any history since high school. In re-thinking women’s history for the fall, I need to think more about how to teach historical thinking skills in the course. I spend so much time on them in my intro classes, but in a situation where those aren’t pre-requisites, I have to figure out some other way of teaching them better alongside the content and argument of the course.  I think that with a greater understanding historical thinking, students in history of sexuality would feel more comfortable letting go of dominant narratives.


4 responses to “Thinking about teaching 4: History of Women/History of Sexuality”

  1. Historiann Avatar

    Hi Erin–thanks for your report on your two classes and the very different experiences you had with them. I think your diagnosis of the differences (more women in women’s history & more majors proportionally; more men & historical tourists in your hist sex course) is persuasive. I would urge you to persist in teaching both, because it sometimes takes a few outings for classes to find their audiences. Once the word is out that you’re not doing field trips to strip clubs, you’ll get the students you deserve.

    One more thought: you write here that the classes are “entirely discussion based.” I think that works better with 1) fewer students (as in your women’s history class) and **more reading**. One article/chapter plus a few primary sources seems pretty light, IMHO. 2) You might consider doing at least one short lecture per week in order to model the questions historians ask and possible interpretations of the evidence, as well as to set the scene & offer some historical background & context for the issues you’re discussing that week. That’s what Ruth Alexander & I do in our History of Sexuality course, and what I do in all my courses–one brief (45 minute) lecture with the rest of the time devoted to discussion & other in-class activities like reading through primary sources together, analyzing images & material culture in class, etc.

    I know we’re all supposed to be flipping our classrooms and being the Guide on the Side instead of the Sage on the Stage. But with the rich collection of historical images & of material culture available via, my lectures have become very participatory and interactive. I love showing students a provocative image or editorial cartoon & letting them have a go at analyzing it. That way, you’re doing a lot of modeling of historical analysis before their very eyes, and usually in a very interesting or entertaining way.

    1. Erin Bartram Avatar
      Erin Bartram

      Thanks for reading and weighing in – I have to say, reading your thoughts on teaching these things made me feel less singularly dreadful at my job!

      I like the idea of lecture-as-guided-source-analysis very much, especially with all the great material we have to work with. I think I’ve been wary of modeling because I didn’t want to intimidate (as egotistical as that sounds), but your approach sounds fruitful

      As for the amount of sources, as I look at my syllabus now, I think I underestimated the upper end. Generally early in the semester, when it’s more opaque language and they’re newer to sources, I gave them two or three pages (single spaced). Some weeks, later on, they had more like 10-12 pages. In women’s history, one week I completely ditched secondary lit and we just read 15 things that all happened to be from 1970 and 1971! In my intro courses, intense readings of small amounts of material seems to work because there’s an assignment that goes alongside that forces close reading. In sexuality, I’d assign something like this Margaret Sanger speech ( , along with a few other pieces, and it would be clear in class that no one had read it deeply enough to engage with the ideas in it, despite having had to write out all of those historical questions. So. Frustrating.

      My one discomfort with doing in class source analysis has always been…it’s very clear to me that my students have really different reading abilities, and I don’t want students to feel left behind or discouraged. That being said, the students who are quick readers aren’t necessarily reading historically, so it should be something everyone can learn from. Knowing what I do now about how little exposure my students have had to historical thinking methods (I originally thought there *was* a pre-req for these classes), I think I really need to build in more explicit modeling of this stuff.

      1. Historiann Avatar

        Your History of Sexuality students need to learn that they must read and engage the stuff you assign, and that you are the one who decides what’s relevant to the class & what’s not! It’s not up to them what you’ll discuss, it’s up to you. They don’t know what the History of Sexuality is, which is why they’ve signed up for the class, right?

        A lot of this also sounds like the typical pushback that most first-year or new professors experience, esp. women (vs. men) and nonwhite faculty. When they know you’re young and green, they push harder against you asserting your authority & expertise. But don’t listen to them. Your colleagues hired you to be the expert and to make the decisions! Stick to your guns.

  2. Henry Avatar

    Expectations are important, I think. Even when I teach Western-Civ-style courses, I find that students have expectations about the chronology that are rather different from my own. When I teach “modern” western civ, I almost always begin those courses pre-Reformation, but probably half the students anticipate a starting point some time in the 18th or 19th century (and I have students who expect it to be about the Western United States, too). This is obviously a bit less extreme than your experience, but I think it’s kind of a general issue in courses that don’t have explicit dates in their title (and probably even some that do). Students tend to have a very narrow view of what history “is” – not just in terms of content, as you’ve identified elsewhere with respect to religion – but in terms of “how far back” it goes. This is a big obstacle, and I think it’s compounded by some of the other issues you identify above – as a white, male-bodied instructor, when I tell them “this is what history is,” I can leverage the authority the students invest me with to make them reconsider. When you’re a young woman, they don’t (always) invest you with that same authority, right? So you’re not just challenging their notion of what history is, you’re trying to do it while also asserting the right to make that challenge (which is not a novel point, but it seemed worth bringing up here).

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