Reflections on the McDaniel Popular Romance Conference Part 1

I’ve just returned from the conference, Popular Romance in the New Millennium, hosted at McDaniel College and coordinated by Pamela Regis, professor of English and author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. I traveled with my friend and copresenter, a member of the English faculty at my uni, which was a first for me. She works on romantic era novels, especially Minerva Press novels, which were written by and read by women. She wasn’t sure what to expect from a popular romance conference, but I’m pleased to report she had, as I did, an amazing time, and plans to incorporate several suggestions into her own teaching.

This post is not a thorough report, but a collection of subjective and impressionistic notes. For more information about the conference, check Teach Me Tonight, and have a look at the #mcdrom hastag on twitter, to which Sarah Frantz, Sarah Wendell, and several others contributed throughout the event.

The conference began on Thursday morning when Amy Burge, a PhD candidate at York University in Women’s Studies (the setting of the 2012 IASPR conference), presented a Harlequin workshop to Pam Regis’s students and several conference attendees. I wasn’t there, but click here to see a short video. Amy took pages from Harlequin books (such as Kindred Spirits, by Cindy Victor (1986), and An Ideal Match by Sandra Field (1987)) and cut them up into words, magnetic poetry style. Students received the intact page and a collection of words, and were asked to rearrange them.

The next day, Amy presented on her experience running these workshops. Her analysis was detailed and coherent, but I’ll just mention a couple of random points. She described feminist, queer, and sadomasochistic reworkings of the texts. Many participants reacted against the perceived misogyny in the text, one of them creating a gender reversal in which the hero was vulnerable and needy. Yet, despite shifting around pronouns, the student kept a reference to the male character’s “long fingers”, so the text retains a nonreversed, gender conforming element.

One student turned a scene into an angsty lesbian love poem. And yet another managed to rewrite the text to have one female character fisting another. Although there was a sense that a lesbian BDSM scene is as far from romance as it is possible to get, Amy pointed out that the themes of dominance and submission are very salient to the genre, so that this was not as radical a formulation as it might at first appear.

Amy noted that sometimes students, expecting misogyny in a Harlequin romance novel, actually read misogyny into the text when it was absent.

For Amy, the most significant finding of the workshops was the potential they have to encourage students to think of themselves as engaged readers and critics of romance.

The next speaker on the panel was Glinda Hall of Arkansas State. I had met Glinda once before at the 2009 PCA conference, and Elizabeth and I spent a lot of time with her over the conference, talking pedagogy and romance. In 2010, Glinda taught a course, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: Women’s Popular Romance Fiction, at University of Arkansas. Glinda learned quickly that the issue of sex was the elephant in the room, and that they could not do a good job of talking about the books until she had equipped herself with some tools to address the sexual issues in the books. She emphasized that sex is everywhere in literature, not just in romance fiction, and that learning how to teach about sex in a literature classroom is vital.

In the Q and A, the question of discomfort was raised (Glinda teaches a wide range of romance fiction in the course, including erotic BDSM romance The Velvet Glove, by Emma Holly), and most participants agreed that some discomfort is appropriate in the learning environment.

Perhaps it is because my students in Ethics and Fiction and I just worked through the article by Peter J. Rabinowitz, “On Teaching The Story of O. Lateral Ethics and the Conditions of Reading”, but I was thinking mostly about the fact that the classrooms themselves are a minisociety, into which we bring all of the oppressions that exist in our society. I hardly think teachers should shy away from difficult or sexually explicit material, but we live in a society in which male on female rape is a constant threat and common occurrence, where women’s sexuality is constructed to repress and repel rather than free, and in which disability and sex, to take just one example, is erased. My point is that oppressive dynamics can very easily be — and usually are —  replicated in the classroom, such that each student may not be similarly situated with respect to sexual politics.  This is not much different from teaching racial issues in Huckleberry Finn, of course, and no more an excuse to avoid sexually explicit material in the classroom than it is to avoid racially explicit material. Anyway, many of my own thoughts along these lines  were summed up by author Kathleen Gilles Seidel, who reminded us that there is a difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe, and we must always create a safe classroom.

Glinda reported that several of her students began to recognize unexplored sexual themes in literary texts in their other classes, and asked their professors why they weren’t discussed. So the reverberations were significant throughout the curriculum.

Ok, this is a long enough post. I hope some readers find this interesting. Of course, any omissions or errors are mine, and I am happy to be corrected if I got any of this wrong. Just comment below or, if you prefer, email me at

More later!


11 responses

  1. Were any resources brought up to help one develop a tool set for discussing sexuality in the classroom? I’d be very interested in taking a look!


  2. Enviously reading the tweets/blog posts from this conference–and thanks so much for your part in sharing it–and talking to my husband, who was at a graphic narrative conference this week, I was struck by the benefits of working in a new academic field. Sure, there are downsides, like struggling for recognition, respect, and money. But there are so many upsides: the interaction between creators and scholars (I will never get to mix with Dickens and Eliot at a conference!), the fact that so much of the work you do is by definition groundbreaking and has a chance to help shape the field, the openness and generosity–cross-disciplinary work, digital dissemination of ideas, etc. Maybe I’m idealizing from the outside, but it seems like there’s more community, less competition, than in many more established fields. Which is nice for a change.


  3. I have been wondering if in a truly 21st century way because of the internet, the field is based in an ongoing conversation between readers, authors and academics. Can you work on romance academically without engaging with readers?


  4. @azteclady: You’re welcome. So nice to have you commenting and blogging again.

    @Emily: Yes. The conference papers should all end up in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, but if you are impatient, you could try emailing Glinda directly.

    @Liz Mc2:

    Maybe I’m idealizing from the outside, but it seems like there’s more community, less competition, than in many more established fields. Which is nice for a change.

    I think this is really true. Most of the scholars in the romance world are not in PhD granting departments, so that aspect of the pecking order is almost completely removed. But I think it is more than that. All of the scholars, from what I can tell, really enjoy reading romance, and do it in their spare time, which I think is not true in most other fields, even in other fields of literature (my Minerva Press researcher colleague doesn’t enjoy those novels). So there is a level of connection — “hey, we enjoy the same things!” — that makes for a nice icebreaker and sense of shared commitment, even before we hear each other’s papers. And of course, there is the bunker mentality.

    The perils and promise of interacting with living writers were brought home very pointedly by the presence of, in particular, Mary Bly/Eloisa James at the conference. I will have more to say about that in my next post.

    @Merrian: I think yes, you can work on romance without engaging with readers, just like you can work on Shakespeare of Tolstoy without engaging with readers. You might just be working on the text.

    But I agree the connections of writers, readers, and texts open up some very interesting possibilities for research.


  5. I was thinking of the recent long threads on DA and SBTB about disability and whether any academic looking at disability in modern romance novels could now do so withiout referring to the expectations and views of the readers as expressed?


  6. Pingback: » Blog Archive » More Romance in the New Millennium

  7. Pingback: McDaniel Conference Linkage :: Victoria Janssen

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