Too many women showed up for the first meeting of Annabel Patterson’s English seminar, “Doomed Love in the Western World.”
“The only reason I was accepted into the seminar was because I am a guy,” said Tony Wong ’04, a molecular biophysics and biochemistry major, in an e-mail. “Professor Patterson immediately admitted the males — and then told the throng of remaining girls that only those who had read ‘Anna Karenina’ — which I hadn’t — could stay.”
Patterson had advised students interested in enrolling in “Doomed Love” to read Tolstoy’s novel over the summer.
There are often more women than men in Yale’s upper-level English courses. Due to the frenzy of the first few weeks of the semester, however, the director of undergraduate studies and registrar of the English Department were unable to provide statistics for how many men and women at Yale are declared English majors.
But at least one seminar — on John Updike and Philip Roth — approaches gender parity, with 12 women and 10 men. And “Defenses of Poetry,” taught by Paul Fry, has a reverse gender imbalance, with three women and eight men.
Patterson said she cannot account for the gender imbalance in her seminar.
“Women always outnumber men in any English department course,” she said in an e-mail. “Try changing society.”
Margaret Homans did not share Fry’s problem last term. Her seminar on Virginia Woolf had only four male students. She speculated that some male students avoided the class because of its subject matter. Woolf is considered a feminist, she noted, and “anything associated with feminism is repellent to a lot of young men.”
Still, Homans pointed out that even her course on George Eliot — who is less obviously associated with feminism than Woolf — tends to draw more women than men. She suspected that her efforts to place Woolf and Eliot in the history of feminist thought have turned away some students who are still interested in both writers.
Lucas Hanft ’04, an English major, said in an e-mail, “I love Woolf. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t.” But he is wary of feminist approaches to Woolf’s work.
“Man, woman, child, whoever wrote the book — you judge it on its own merits,” he said. “The author remains a God, a creator of the world you’re exploring — surely, the gender might affect the way that world is composed, but it’s not as important as the morals of the author, [and his or her] ideas, [which are] genderless.”
Stefanie Markovits, who is currently on leave, taught a seminar last semester on Jane Austen, and faced a gender imbalance even greater than Homans’. “The Austen seminar had 17 women and [one] man,” she wrote. “I had hoped for more men, and had even solicited some former students to recruit them, but to no avail.”
Markovits suspected Austen’s reputation discouraged some men from enrolling. “If [Austen’s books] are taught as romance novels rather than as the epistemological quests they are, boys can be put off. They get lumped in with other ‘girly books’ — few of which actually deserve the name.”
For Markovits, the one man in the class was “absolutely wonderful.”
“He provided a much-needed male presence on those few occasions when the women would start using the word ‘cute’ too often,” she said. “But what impressed me about him most was how completely unaware he seemed to be of the whole gender issue: he wasn’t self-conscious about his position as the only man in the room; he was just himself.”
Students in the Austen, Woolf, and “Doomed Love” seminars said gender imbalance doesn’t make a seminar better or worse — just different. Max Pitman ’04, an English major in “Doomed Love,” speculated that the presence of men in the class makes the discussions a bit spicier, especially when the topic is whether or not a pair of characters in a poem or novel really love each other. But Pitman stressed that because of the quality of the teaching, “Doomed Love” would be great with or without input from both sexes. Wong agreed.
Markovits, on the other hand, would like to see more men interested in English seminars, regardless of the subject matter. She advises male students who have cracked the spines of “Paradise Lost” or “Pride and Prejudice” to take English seminars at Yale.
“Please do keep on taking classes that are oversubscribed by women,” she said.
As for the men who have avoided these classes, she’s hoping they’ll come around.