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Freshman Seminars

Debating differences between genders in literature, film and life

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

freshman seminar

Professor of English Deborah Nord (center) designed her seminar to help students think critically about gender identity and relationships between men and women.

Princeton NJ -- Fifteen freshmen sat around a seminar table in Blair Hall debating the nature of love in one of the most enduring novels of the 19th century, ''Wuthering Heights.''

''The first generation -- Catherine and Heathcliff and Edgar Linton -- that love triangle irrevocably alters the lives of each of the characters,'' said Dan Pall. ''In the next generation there is another love triangle -- Hareton, Linton and Catherine -- but their love is not nearly as intense. It's almost a watered-down version -- built from the same kind of blueprints, but not with the same structure.''

Yvon Wang disagreed with his conclusion, suggesting that in the second generation ''there was an absorption of the lessons of the first generation.''

''So,'' interjected Professor of English Deborah Nord, ''you're proposing that it's not a watering down but what? An improvement?'' Yes, Wang said. ''What do you think?'' she asked, addressing the rest of the class.

The students are enrolled in a freshman seminar, ''Men and Women,'' that examines how gender relationships are represented in literature, film and the Bible, as well as how the differences between men and women define our lives and our ways of looking at the world.

''Wuthering Heights'' and the other texts the students are reading ''demonstrate that questions about gender difference and the nature of love have preoccupied thinkers, philosophers, novelists, playwrights and scientists throughout history,'' Nord said. ''One of the goals of the class is to make the students more skeptical and critical in their thinking about all kinds of assumptions about gender identity and relations between men and women.''

Other readings for the class, which is sponsored by the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, include excerpts from Genesis and Plato's Symposium as well as D.H. Lawrence's ''Sons and Lovers,'' Edward Albee's ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' and Jeffrey Eugenides' ''Middlesex.'' The students also view several films, including ''Adam's Rib'' and ''Tootsie.''

''I like this class because I get frustrated when I come here,'' said Natalia Naman. ''People have such strong opinions that it really makes you re-think what you thought in the first place.''

''What makes the class so good is that it's a really interesting mix of people,'' said Bradford Stevens. ''Everyone has a different perspective on what makes a man and a woman.''

Nord is delighted with the debates that have ensued in the classroom.

''These students are great talkers and readers, making connections between works that surprise me and keep our discussions moving along, sometimes at an intense pace,'' she said. ''I have been struck by their enthusiastic responses to Milton's 'Paradise Lost' and to John Ruskin's 'Sesame and Lilies,' a Victorian peroration on the natures of men and women. Freshmen are a joy to teach, and this group in particular is spectacular.''