Romance and Change: Teaching the Romance to Undergraduates

Publication year
Para.doxa: Studies in World Literary Genres

Teaching a college course called "Romance and Gender in the United States," I have been forced - almost against my will - to recognize ways that romance has changed in the last twenty years. I say romance in both the precise and the general sense: category romances have changed, as my students are quick to point out; and romance and courtship patterns among the students have changed, they argue, in somewhat related terms. More than any other course I have taught, this one elicits hostility and high-pitched responses from students. [...]

Before the students even get to the Harlequins in my course, they wade their way through three demanding books that I intend as frames for our discussion of the romances. By the time they read a romance - this is my third time through the course - I have either lost them for good or stirred them up so much they are not sure where they are going. In no other course have I lost so many students; no other course has actually cost me a full night's sleep from worry. [...]

My plan had been simple: show the students that 1) romance as we know it is a relatively recent and unusual phenomenon, dating back only a couple of centuries; 2) romance is not primarily biological, but cultural; 3) it is a cultural form of tremendous power, and one that is disadvantageous to women: it is, in the current jargon, an important site for the construction of gender differences. I assumed that the students, as I am, were susceptible to romance fantasies, and that many would be exhilarated when they obtained a critical purchase on those fantasies. [...] I was not prepared for a passive walk-out, a failure of communication, a semester of puzzlement and struggle. Even now, when I have come to expect it as I teach the course again, it takes me by surprise. (233)