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Why are we Reading Ovid’s Handbook on Rape?
Teaching and Learning at a Women’s College
ISBN 1594511020
By Madeleine Kahn
Review by: Michelle Humphrey


The scene: a women’s college, mid-1990s. In a literature class the students are reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses when one student lividly asks, “Why are we reading a handbook on rape?” That is, why are we reading a text where female characters are being literally raped (like Philomela in Ovid’s “Story of Tereus, Procne and Philomela”) or metaphorically stripped of their personhood (Echo withers into a voice that can only repeat Narcissus; Daphne, to escape Apollo, mutates into a tree). Madeleine Kahn attempts to answer her student’s question in this striking examination, as readers eavesdrop on classroom discussions of various texts, including the memoir of Charlotte Charke (a woman who refused to live within the eighteenth-century confines of her gender) and Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal.

Kahn starts from the point of view of the conventional teacher whose objective is to gear her students toward effective analytic thinking – namely, how to frame a logical argument and communicate it clearly – concepts that these students describe as the hallmarks of a patriarchal education that oppresses them. When they read books, they are looking for narratives with strong-minded, determined heroines who are counterparts to themselves, characters that will offer them role models for how to live their lives. This need for personal lessons takes precedence over literary context. When the students read Charlotte Charke, they interpret her as a twentieth-century woman. When they examine Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote and meet Arabella who thoroughly creates an alternate world for herself, they champion her, and go as far as assert that the power of their beliefs can overtake reality. As Maria, one of the more outspoken personalities in the class, puts it: “That wall isn’t real unless I say so.”

While the students disregard scholarly frameworks, they increasingly turn the classroom topics to the deeply personal events of their lives. The discussion of Charlotte Charke leads a woman to confess her unresolved conflicts with her mother; in the dialogue about Ovid, a student reveals she’s been raped; in examining Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal, another student admits to working as a prostitute. With such candid exchanges, these undergraduates alter the energy of the classroom, along with Kahn’s perceptions. We watch her step back from a central authoritarian role as students talk their way from initially explosive reactions to the beginnings of literary theses. They forge sustaining connections with each other while they deconstruct old notions about gender roles and the functions of narrative. In the chapter on Linda Lovelace and her violent sexual experiences, the discussions take students from a whelm of conflicted emotions about pornography to an intelligently argued, expanded definition of feminism.

The author initiates a deft conversation on the “proper” versus “improper” reading of literature as she guides her students to a shrewd scrutiny of texts and the questions those texts raise about misogyny, history and popular culture. Since John Dewey there have been educators who embrace this kind of creative, student-centered learning, teachers who guide the raw rants of students into an intellectual query – less common are books such as Kahn’s that intimately demonstrate the transformation.

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