Little Shop of Horrors: or trying to teach gender history to engineering students

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In a couple of weeks, I will be teaching US women’s history to a Study Abroad group.  They are all engineering students from a mid-west university in the US and they take their humanities requirement whilst they are here.  I’ve been involved with the scheme for a few years and it’s always an interesting experience.  It feels quite surreal to be telling people about their own country when they are in another country.  I’ve found that what they really want to know about is life in the UK and our perceptions of the US (answering ‘What do Brits think about George W Bush?’ challenged my skills of diplomacy!).

As this is an unusual scenario, I’m usually quite flexible around group discussion and allow it to meander and segue in a way that I probably wouldn’t in a more standard module.  My guiding principle  is to give them time, space and encouragement to think differently about issues they may never have considered before.  As well as national identity, gender features heavily.  Bearing in mind that these are engineering students who have never seriously studied history nor are likely to again, I try to select topics and source material that are easily relatable and hopefully entertaining as well as educative.  YouTube videos are helpful in this respect!  I particularly enjoy showing the ‘Somewhere that’s green‘ clip from the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors.  I always introduce it with lots of caveats about it being a film depiction of an earlier period, shouldn’t be read literally etc; having said that, I think it beautifully illustrates the appeal of suburban American Dream to many women (and men) in the post-war era – issues about escapism, safety and security, all factors that historians are still prone to overlook when considering this much maligned period.

Crucially, the students seem to *get* the clip, and many other similar sources that I use.  By selecting material that is already familiar in some way, they are not overwhelmed or intimidated, worrying about whether they understand it or not.  We can then push to the next level of analysis, discussion and deconstruction much more quickly than if they have to spend a chunk of time establishing what it is that they are considering.  I’m not suggesting that this should always be the case, or that we should never use materials that challenge our students.  In this particular situation, however, I try to be pragmatic and achieve the greatest gain possible in the limited time that we have.

For me, the greatest gain possible is that they finish the module with more awareness that the issues affecting them as men and women are not always simply individual experiences; these issues are structural.  Using familiar material that they can easily make connections with helps to do this.  I’m sure that it doesn’t work all the time, but occasionally I get reassurance.  Last year, one commented when submitting her essay that the course ‘had made me think differently about lots of things’ – the greatest feedback I’ve ever had from a student.  I hope that I/they/we can achieve the same this year.

 

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