"For me, a truly successful class is one in which the professor and the students have developed between them a rich and complicated dialogue about the subject under debate."

Ghislaine McDayter suspects that her love affair with the British Romantics began when she traveled through Greece and Italy as a teenager while reading poetry by John Keats, George Gordon, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. "I loved their revolutionary fervor, their energy, their refusal to succumb to social norms or complacency," she says.

Her admiration of these writers led McDayter to explore two themes that are prevalent in their works and other literature of the 18th and 19th centuries: flirtation and seduction. Using literary psychoanalytic criticism, McDayter is sorting through the ways in which sexuality and women's flirtatious behavior has been depicted and perceived in political tracts and literature, as well as in "conduct manuals," which are books that educated readers about acceptable behaviors within the British culture.

McDayter also seeks to understand why people in modern times continue to fantasize about desire - and the deferral of desire - in the same manner they did more than a century ago. "One of my central interests has been the exploration of fantasy and desire, not only in terms of narrative content, but also in terms of the ways in which we read and are seduced into phantasmatic desires through the readerly process," she says.

She incorporates her research into her literary studies courses. For McDayter's students, learning requires physical engagement with the material in addition to reading and critiquing. Students have performed short skits from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park to experience the difficulty of understanding flirtation as a form of body language, and they have written a Pamela-style letter by hand and sealed with wax to try out 18th-century voices.

McDayter herself learns more about the material through exercises like these. "Teaching is far more of a conversation than students sometimes realize," she says. "For me, a truly successful class is one in which the professor and the students have developed between them a rich and complicated dialogue about the subject under debate. When learning exercises stretch beyond typical literary studies, we discover new ideas and perspectives that none of us has considered before."

McDayter does, however, have one note of caution about the subject matter. "I would never encourage my students to truly live like many of the writers they read in my class. Many of them were more than a little mad."

Posted Sept. 13, 2011

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