Gender and Reviews Assignment

A use of Women Writers in Review tags to explore the Question of Reviews and Attitudes to Gender

Developed by Paschalina Minou

Description: This assignment makes use of thematic and evaluative tagging in the Women Writers in Review database in order to explore attitudes to authorship and gender. It could be conducted as an in-class exercise or an out-of-class assignment. Due to the number of points to be considered, and their extent, it would also be fruitful to assign this as a group exercise with an in-class presentation component.

Pedagogical goals:

  • Acquire familiarity with the structure of a research tool
  • Make use of the features of a research tool in order to investigate a research question
  • Appreciate how the form and language of the text can serve its function and purpose
  • Become aware of, and attentive to, the impact of language in questions of gender
  • Gain sensitivity toward the historicity of the material and of the language
  • Learn how to appreciate limitations in answering a research question according to data availability and database design

Ask students to pay attention to how WWiR presents and categorises information. Ask them to think about what kinds of research questions the various ‘tags’ of the database allows us to formulate. Allow time for some ideas to be articulated.

Then, direct students to the task itself. Explain that they are going to be using tags in the database in order to identify texts that will help them to examine the question of negativity in reviews and attitudes to gender.

Next, explain that the database allows us to easily identify negative reviews through the ‘reception’ tag. Ask students to identify the reviews that are tagged as ‘very negative.’ Allow some time for results. Then, ask them to isolate the reviews that are ‘very negative’ and also contain comments on women as authors and readers (they can begin by filtering with the ‘gender’ and ‘women as writers and readers’ tags). Once students have identified some specific texts, ask them to consider the following points, preferably in groups:

  • Read the reviews carefully and think about their overall effect.
  • Consider the ways these reviews construct negativity about the works they discuss. Think about: what kind of arguments do they offer; what aspects of the reviewed texts do they criticize the most; what do they single out as faults with them?
  • Consider balance in the commentary. Does the reviewer spend more time on certain aspects of the work? If yes, is this imbalance meaningful in any way? For instance, do you find that reviewers attack the morals of a work, or do they find a lack in the form of the reviewed work; its plot, use of language, theme etc.
  • Consider whether you have evidence within the text of the review which suggest that a weakness in the reviewed work is attributed to the gender of the author. On this point you need to be very attentive to the language* used in the text.
  • Finally, consider whether you have enough evidence here to offer an answer to the question of negativity and gender in reviews of works by women. Here the tutor or lecturer directs the students towards appreciating the limitations of this assignment. The key term is the word ‘enough.’ Students are encouraged to consider: How representative is the sample of texts we have studied here? How definitive are the results and outcomes of this process? Can we ascribe negativity in the review to gender attitudes? What other factors do we have to take into consideration in our answer (e.g. be mindful of the very process of reviewing which by definition can be caustic).

*To the instructor: Here you need to alert students to the historicity of language. Explain, for instance, the cultural significance that words can acquire in certain periods. Provide some examples, such as: The words ‘decorum,’ ‘sentimental,’ ‘manners,’ ‘feminine’ etc. have particular resonance in certain periods with regard to the perception and construction of female virtue and behaviour. Ask students whether they find such key words in the reviews and to notice their use. Ask them also to notice the overall effect of language. In addition to the presence of certain key words, do they find the overall language used in the review belittling in a way that relates to the gender of the author? What other terms would they use to describe it? Sarcastic? Ironic? Harsh? Direct their attention to epithets used to describe both the work itself and its author.

Expand on this Assignment

You may wish to extend this assignment by asking the students to think about how they might construct a broader research question on this topic. They will need to think about what kind of supplementary material is required, what kind of bibliography is already available on the topic, and how we might go about expanding our pool of data.

You may also wish to expand on this assignment by introducing reviews under the ‘negative’ reception tag as well. You can also use the tag options in the database to explore the other side of this question: In what manner is positivity constructed in reviews and its relation to gender? For instance, do students find that female authors are praised above their gender: i.e., they are praised for performing well despite their gender?

These materials are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license; copyright for all materials remains with their author.