Sunday, October 28, 2012

Winter Popular Romance Syllabus (Draft)

My daughter was at a "con" today, and I got to play chauffeur.  Hanging out in the hotel lobby, I've been tinkering with my syllabus for ENG 232, the Popular Romance Fiction course I'll be teaching in the winter.  It's a Liberal Studies (AKA Gen Ed) class, the kind that gathers 35 students from all across the university (College of Commerce, College of Communications, College of Science and Health, etc.) and introduces them, among other things, to the basics of literary study.  

In the past I've organized the class in various ways, from historical surveys starting with The Sheik to thematic units.  Last Winter, when I had two courses on romance, I built the Liberal Studies class around a series of questions and topics, including "Romance and / as Religion" and "Romance and the Problem of Patriarchy," and the other, for English majors, around more purely literary topics:  "Introduction to Romance Criticism," "Romance Among the Genres," "Romance as Metafiction," "Romance as Didactic Fiction," etc.  They both worked well, which didn't surprise me. In my experience, roughly 25 classes now, it's hard for a course on popular romance fiction to go wrong.

One successful experiment in the second, more literary course last winter was my use of Laura's For Love and Money as a course text.  I ordered it from Lulu as a print edition, but emailed students in advance to let them know they could buy the e-book, which several did.  I then assigned chapters from the book in advance of particular novels to which they seemed relevant, "priming the pump," so to speak, of class discussion.  The experiment was successful enough that this winter I plan to try it with the Liberal Studies students, since For Love and Money can serve them as a model for close reading, as well as a source of ideas about the genre.

Here's the syllabus I cobbled together here in the lobby.  Most of the novels in it are the same books I taught last winter in ENG 232--I cut one book, Beverly Jenkins' Something Like Love, to make room for Laura's study, but I re-shuffled the order of novels so that we could follow the sequence of topics in For Love and Money, at least for the first half of the term.

Topic 1:  What is a “Romance”?  A “Romance Novel”?  A “Popular Romance Novel”?

M:  Introduction to the Class and to each other.  Introduction to “romance,” the “romance novel,” the “popular romance novel” and the “Harlequin Romance” as critical and historical categories.
W:    Vivanco, Introduction and Chapter 1 (“Mimetic Modes”) of For Love and Money

M:  Brockmann, Unsung Hero:  chapters 1-10 (feel free to read ahead)
W:  Unsung Hero:  the rest of it!

Topic 2:  Twice-Told Tales: Romance, Myth, Scripture, and Fairy Tale

M:  Vivanco, Chapter 2 (“Mythoi”)
W:   Rivers, Redeeming Love, chapters (TKTK)

M:  Redeeming Love (TKTK-end)

Topic 3:  My Metafictional / Metaphorical Romance
W:  Vivanco, Chapter 3 (“Metafiction”)

M:  Crusie, Welcome to Temptation (tktktk)
W:  Welcome to Temptation (tktktk)

M:  Vivanco, Chapter 4 (“Metaphors”) and Conclusion
W:  Chase, Lord of Scoundrels

M:  Lord of Scoundrels 

Topic 4:  Romance Fiction as “Problem Fiction”
W:  Thomas Roberts, An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, chapter 7 (“Thinking with Tired Brains”) and chapter 8 (“Reading in a System”); Catherine Roach, “Getting a Good Man to Love:  Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy” (JPRS)

M:  Stark, Homecoming
W:  Homecoming

Topic 5:  Isn’t it Just “Porn for Women”?
M:  Ann Barr Snitow, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” (D2L); James, Fifty Shades of Grey
W:  James, Fifty Shades Darker

M:  Dahl, Start Me Up
W:  Start Me Up

I haven't ordered the books yet, so there's still some time to play with (or simply second guess) this list.  For example, I can see using Crusie's Bet Me in the section on mythoi, and Phillips' Natural Born Charmer in the section on metafiction--but then I lose Redeeming Love, which has taught very well the last few times I've tried it, and which adds tonal variety to the opening weeks of term.  

(I've just noticed from her blog that Francine Rivers is pretty ardently opposed to Barack Obama's re-election.  I wonder how this will affect my decision to assign the novel, depending on what happens next week. I doubt I'd take it off, both because I love the novel and because  I have a steady cadre of students who agree with her, theologically and otherwise.  But it's something I might factor into my teaching--the question of how to read an author well whom you resist, as well as one you espouse.)  

Now, I don't pretend that this is a perfect course on the romance genre.  There's no paranormal romance in the mix, no sheikh romance, no medical romance, no category romance of any kind, and nothing by an author of color; there's no m/m romance, although I gather it outsells f/f; it's skewed to contemporary romances; it's overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) American, not just in the authors treated but also in the novels' settings.  As An Goris will quickly notice, it's missing the most popular novelist in the genre, Nora Roberts; it also leaves out anything written before the 1990s.

As a course that can teach students about how to read romance as part of their "Arts and Literature" requirement, though, I think it could work, and work well.  



  1. A couple of emails came in about this draft syllabus. One asked whether I'd thought about teaching Eloisa James's "The Duke is Mine" in the "Mythoi" unit, as I did last year in the upper division class. The other reminds me that I've blogged elsewhere about wanting to teach fewer texts, and asks whether I might want to stretch one novel across two topics, for example doing just one book for the "Metafiction" and "Metaphor" sections.


    I'll think about those. Certainly "The Duke is Mine" has one obvious mythos in it (The Princess and the Pea), and some nice "modal counterpoint" to talk about. And I always assign too much reading in my classes, and feel rushed, so the second suggestion makes sense. We could spread "Welcome to Temptation" out over an extra day or two, easily--it reads best when you take your time with it--or we could do "Natural Born Charmer" for those two topics, although the crucial metaphors in it aren't jumping out at me quite as immediately as those in WTT. (Anyone out there familiar with the novel, and want to suggest what they might be?)

  2. The other thought that occurs to me--and I hope you all don't mind my thinking out loud here!--is that this list is vastly over-familiar. I've taught most of the novels on this list many, many times, and reading their titles over again, I find myself wondering why I don't branch out more. Perhaps for my next post I'll write a quick list of the novels that I've either taught only once or twice, but not in a while, that I could do again, or have never taught at all, but have always wanted to give a go in the classroom. Perhaps something will jump out at me, or at one of you reading, from that.

  3. Sigh. I am so jealous. After a few years teaching First Year Writing at the University of West GA, I packed my bags and headed to Taiwan to teach in a private high school. What a fun class to teach! What a fun class to take! jealous. jealous. jealous. :)

  4. Thanks, JW! Kind of you to say. It is fun, I won't deny it.

    I've made some changes to the syllabus, so I'll post those later today, along with thoughts about the other class.

  5. Just rereading a bit of "50 Shades"--I don't know if I can stand it, even for teaching the cultural moment. I think my inner goddess just twisted her ankle, and needs to be escorted off the dance floor for a while.