Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2019


Like every professor of eighteenth-century British literature I know, I find it challenging to fill undergraduate courses in my field. The English majors who have satisfied the prerequisites for 300-level period-based courses tend to gravitate to classes they assume will straightforwardly address their concerns and reflect their experiences. Consequently, courses on eighteenth-century authors such as Daniel Defoe often get cancelled while surveys of post-modernism thrive. I have tried obvious tactics, such as revising the title of a typical eighteenth-century literature course to “Hellions and Harlots in Eighteenth-Century Novels” or teaching episodes of Survivor alongside Robinson Crusoe, to increase enrollment in my courses. “Look!” such courses implicitly scream, “I can be postmodern, too!” While sexier course titles may encourage students to window shop, it is more difficult to keep them around once they see the bewigged and beribboned men and women on the covers of the assigned books. Despite the wigs, eighteenth-century literature is unquestionably relevant to today’s political, social, and economic concerns. For example, last fall I taught an attempted rape scene in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela that was eerily prescient of Senate testimony given the same week about Brett Kavanagh’s attempt to rape a classmate in prep school. As this example shows, the past doesn’t just inform the present; in eighteenth-century terms, it is its direct descendent. But how do we overcome the misalignment between students’ assumptions about the period and the content of the literature we teach in order to keep them enrolled in our courses so that they can see it, too?

Copyright Statement

This document was originally published in Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe and His Contemporaries by Digital Defoe. This work is provided under a Creative Commons-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International license.