Men, Women, and Money

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / January / February 1999
November 19th, 2007
Xochitl Gonzalez '99 started job hunting recently, and as she goes on interviews, she keeps thinking about Moll Flanders and Madame Bovary. "I see employed women being very docile and silent, and I think, 'Do I have to be like that?' "

Relating female characters in European literature to a modern-day job search may seem incongruous to some, but not to Gonzalez, who's taking Professor Ed Ahearn's comparative literature course Ideal, Myths, and Themes: Desire and the Marketplace. Twice a week she and thirty-seven other students assemble in a cavernous Barus and Holly lecture hall to discuss books that mix three combustible ingredients: men, women, and money.

Some of the texts, such as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, are familiar. Others are more exotic, ranging from Life of an Amorous Woman by seventeenth-century Japanese writer Saikaku Ihara to Senegalese novelist Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter, a narrative of polygamy. All these books are about women, but only So Long a Letter and Nigerian expatriate Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood are written by women, Ahearn points out. "That's on purpose," he says. "We wanted the students to think about the extent to which a male writer can create a woman character."

Ahearn also asks his students to read economics texts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; to watch the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern; and to view slide presentations on seventeenth-century Japanese woodcuts, African arts, nineteenth-century French painting, and Hogarth sketches. The result of this mix is a class that is truly comparative, drawing on a variety of artistic media as well as widely differing cultures - yet it still manages to remind a Brown senior of her own job hunt.

That has as much to do with Ed Ahearn as with the course content. Even in a lecture hall so big that he needs a microphone to be heard, Ahearn appears friendly, laid-back, and even nurturing. "He really listens to what students are saying, and then takes those points and builds off them and links them together," says Jessica Resnick-Ault '02. Ahearn also links the class reading assignments to real life. During a discussion of The Joys of Motherhood, in which the eldest son of an extended African family goes to America to study and comes back a misfit in his own culture, students quickly lose sympathy for the son until Ahearn tells them of his similar alienation when he went off to graduate school at Yale.

"I'm from a working-class, Irish-American family," he says, "and all of a sudden I was different from everybody else in the family because I had this Ph.D. It took a long time for my parents and me to feel comfortable together again." Around the classroom, students nod. Some of them, it turns out, are also the first members of working-class or immigrant families to make it to the Ivy League.

In class, Ahearn comes across like a hip, unbelievably literate dad, albeit one who refuses to let anybody off the hook. Students sneaking into the lecture hall late are addressed immediately, by name, in mid-creep. When nobody asks questions, he announces to the class that "either you understand everything or you didn't do the reading."

"He's blatantly hon- est," says Bill Gilbane '99, a political science concentrator who has taken other classes with Ahearn. "He's brilliant, but he speaks in everyday language. I've never felt afraid to speak up." And he's funny, says Resnick-Ault, but not too funny. "He makes jokes, but he's not one of those professors for whom class is a comedy session."

There's something a little mysterious about Ahearn, too; Resnick-Ault wonders how he can be so knowledgeable about such far-flung arts, literatures, cultures, and theories. The answer: he collaborates. Desire and the Marketplace, or CO 81, is a collaboration with three other Brown faculty members: Professor of Comparative Literature Arnold Weinstein, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Meera Viswanathan, and Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies Anani Dzidzienyo. The first time CO 81 was presented, in 1988, it was team taught, with each professor leading three lectures and all four doing discussion sessions with the 200 students who enrolled.

The collaborative efforts of Desire reach beyond Brown, though. It is one of seven courses developed by Ahearn and Weinstein for the University's Texts and Teachers program, which, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, brings together teachers and students from high schools and colleges. "Higher education has a public responsibility that it's not realizing," Ahearn says. "There's a lot of knowledge being confined to seminar rooms for Ph.D. students, while at the same time the public schools are in a low state."

As a result, Ahearn and Weinstein teach an intensive, two-week version of Desire and the Marketplace every summer for high school teachers, who then adapt the class for their own students. In recent years, the program has gone national, Ahearn says, with professors at Boston College, Dartmouth, the University of Maryland, Ohio State, St. Louis University, and other colleges using it as a template for their own collaborations with public high schools.

Ahearn frequently visits high schools to teach classes on such books as Moll Flanders, occasionally bringing a Brown student along to help lead discussions. And teachers at six Rhode Island and Massachusetts high schools have taken the exchange even further by bringing their students to attend Ahearn's lectures on campus. Pat Armstrong, a teacher at East Providence High School, brought her advanced-placement English class to Brown four times this semester. "This is a fabulous experience for my students," she says. "It gives them great confidence just when they're feeling nervous about going to college. They're saying, 'Hey, I can do this.'"

It would be difficult to imagine a course more inclusive and universal than CO 81. Not only does it combine literature from such seemingly disparate cultures as seventeenth-century Japan and 1940s Africa, the course and its teachers also join the distant worlds of high school, college, and post-college. Xochitl Gonzalez, on the lookout for a job, is impressed that a literature class can feel so helpful. "I'm really able to connect with what we're studying right now," she says. "I like that it deals with women and women's economy."

Still, the combination of Desire and the Marketplace and her job interviews often leaves Gonzalez feeling "silenced as a woman." It also keeps her interested during the class discussion of The Joys of Motherhood, when Ahearn's students examine the decision of a second wife in a polygamous marriage to leave the family compound and become a prostitute. The move is the only way she can get out of the polygamous system and make sure her daughters get an education. "It's just like in Madame Bovary," Bill Gilbane offers. "Whenever women try to break barriers and do things usually reserved for men, they end up miserable."

Perhaps all those disparate literatures and cultures aren't so disparate after all.

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January / February 1999