Leading students on literary adventures, Margaret Homans asks them to delve deep
Margaret Homans, honored with the 2014 Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize, is known for being a gentle guide in the classroom, but in her English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) courses, students become enmeshed in a rigorous analysis of texts, enlarging their views as they ponder the details. When students talk excitedly in her classroom, Homans feels she has done her job well.
Courses: “Feminist and Queer Theory,” “Virginia Woolf,” “Tragedy in the European Literary Tradition,” and “Fiction and Sexual Politics”
In his inaugural address, President Peter Salovey described students as one of the “treasures” of Yale. What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
I think the students of Yale University are far more than treasures of Yale University: They are Yale University. I haven’t taught anywhere else, so I can’t compare them to another group of students, but Yale students — the ones I’ve taught —are just extraordinary for their ability to read closely and critically, and to keep asking questions even after it seems we’ve exhausted all our thoughts. They are such great readers of literary texts and of details in other kinds of texts, like pictures or photographs. They just don’t stop with their inquiry. What pleases me most in a classroom is when they start talking to each other. And they can do it. You are there, I feel, as a faculty member just to get them talking to each other. If they take over the conversation, that’s the best thing, and they are amazing at doing that.
When I come into a classroom and they are already there and the room is noisy with conversation before the class starts, that’s when I know that the class is going well. That’s what Yale students can do: They talk to each other; they use the class as a space to start their own conversations; they go on with those conversations before and after class. I don’t know if Yale students are unusual in this regard but they are certainly extraordinary.
Do you learn anything from your students?
I learn so much every day from my students. They surprise me all the time. I set them puzzles to solve that I think that they can’t solve, and they can always solve them. For example, one day in the “Tragedy” class that I teach — this was a group of freshmen — we started by reading “The Iliad,” which is the first tragedy in Western literature. I wanted them to understand a similarity, that I thought they wouldn’t get, between the moments when Homer writes a simile comparing the battle scene to someplace far away from the battle — a pasture, or a forest, or the ocean. I wanted the students to see the connection between those moments and moments when the poem itself — the narrative — moves away from the scene of the battle and visits one of those remote locations and tells a story about something that happens there. It’s an important connection to make but I didn’t think they could do it. One student put up her hand and said, “Oh, I understand: These are all pull-back moments.” She put it together, and her term became the term that we used — “the pull-back.” She provided a working term that helped us all. Students are always surprising me by coming up with ideas that I hadn’t thought of.
What drew you to teaching, and what do you find rewarding about it?
I began teaching at Yale in 1978, and in 1979 the Women’s Studies Program began. In 1978, I was a very happy teacher of literature, but my career was galvanized by the coming-into-existence of the Women’s Studies Program. Helping to start it and helping it to grow and flourish and transform into something that is unrecognizable compared to where it started has been my mission, my cause, at Yale. It’s been tremendously exciting.
In my first year of teaching I was invited to submit a proposal for the first course on feminist approaches to reading literature, and I realized, “Oh that’s what I do; that’s what I want to do!” So I taught the first course. It was called “Women’s Perspectives on Literature,” and the project that I launched with that course was to show women’s studies majors (as they were then called) the importance of using literature to think about gender, and to show the literature students the importance of using gender to think about literature. Those twin goals have motivated my teaching since then.
Is there a teacher who particularly inspired you?
Some of my most inspiring teachers have been colleagues of mine here. One of my most valuable teachers was a woman named Linda Anderson who ran the office in the early days of Women’s Studies as a program. She was a community activist and a very strong advocate for feminism and lesbian and gay rights, and she was constantly pushing me to be more of an activist. I was an academic. I loved writing books and articles; I loved teaching, but I was very cautious about going out there on the barricades. I never did make it out to the barricades, but she pushed me to do that, and she pushed me to see the connections between teaching and the larger world.
My first teacher when I came to Yale as an undergraduate was an English professor named Thomas Weiskel. He taught me and 10 other freshpeople something called “Early Concentration English.” It was for people who knew that they were going to major in English and wanted to get started in a big way. It was a double-credit course, and it was very intense. This was in the very early days of co-education. There were very few women. I think there were three women in the class out of 11. The course was dominated by the very aggressive young men who ran the discussion. But Thomas Weiskel was such a sensitive and caring teacher that he made sure the women in the class had a place. One of the other women in the class and I wrote a term paper together at the end of the year on Gertrude Stein, in which we began to explore some ideas about feminism and literature and women and literature. It was he who showed me the first journalistic article I had ever seen that proposed there could be such a thing as a feminist study of literature. So I am very grateful to him for putting a bit of a mute on the voices of those loud, aggressive, brilliant boys and making sure that us 18-year-old girls had a chance to speak.
If there’s one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
I think the thing I most want students to learn from me is to look more closely, always to read further, to dig deeper into the details of the text. I think that they are very good at doing this, but it’s my job to push them, to get them to ask the next question.
Here’s an example: In my “Feminist and Queer Theory” class, we start out by reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” They often find it a somewhat alienating text, but it was written more than 200 years ago. Wollstonecraft is trying to pursue a rational line of argument in which she explains why women should be considered to have as much reason and virtue as men, and therefore, why women should have equal rights. But in the middle of all of this, she interrupts herself, and she says, “A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head … I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society.” And then she goes back to trying to make a rational argument. Now, if we were reading as historians, we would disregard the “wild wish” and try to make sense of the rational argument that she’s attempting to make. But as a student of literature, teaching students who are both WGSS students and literature students, I want them to take that strange detail really seriously. And, in fact, it’s the moment that unpacks the whole book. She has a vision there that she can’t fit in to her plan for the book, but it’s the future of feminism. So by looking deeper at a detail that you could easily overlook, I feel I can get students to get to the heart of the matter.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I would advise Yale students who come here to go very slowly through shopping period, visiting as many classes as they can and exposing themselves to as much as they can. There are many students who come here who think they know what their major is going to be. Or they’re certain they’re going to be pre-med. But I would urge those students to look around very widely and take as many different courses as they can, expose themselves to as many different ideas as they can.
Is there a memorable classroom experience as a teacher you’d like to share?
I’d like to describe a moment that occurred in my classroom last fall in a class called “Tragedy and the European Literary Tradition.” This is a course for well-prepared freshmen, and they’re very eager but very naïve. We begin with “The Iliad,” then proceed to some Greek tragedy — “Oedipus,” “The Oresteia,” — and then the course winds up with modern drama with a brief stop for Shakespeare along the way. I try to get students to see that many of these “great books” we are reading are founded on ideas about gender that they would find surprising. So when we read “The Oresteia,” they come to it believing that it’s a story about the foundation of the legal system, the law courts in Athens, and that it’s about the triumph of reason over irrationality, or light over dark.
I watch them turning into feminists in front of my eyes! They were just astonished by what the play actually says. The way the legal struggle is settled in the play is by Athena and Apollo announcing to the audience of Athenian citizens that mothers are not related biologically to their children, that the only parent is the father, and for this reason for the son to murder his mother (the play is about the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes) is not really a crime. The only real crime that’s been committed is the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra, and therefore, the crime against the mother doesn’t count. When I got them to read this play carefully, they were just appalled, and it was a wonderful moment to see them open their minds to see something they would not have seen before.