Crime, gender, and reading lists

There has recently been an important conversation where I work about reading lists for undergraduate courses.

What am I actually setting my students to read? Do the things I set them represent a fair cross-section of research and primary sources in this area?

I think that the students at UCL who first asked ‘Why is my curriculum white?‘ are right to ask the question. I also think there are grounds to be suspicious of history courses where most of the readings are written by men. I’ve written about this before, when trying to design a course on ‘Napoleon’ that decenters the man himself, to focus on his times, and think about what gets left out of histories that concentrate on Great Men.

What about my other courses?

I know there are some where I’ve put more effort into thinking about what kinds of people authored the readings I set, but there are others where I have felt like I had less choice (a feeling that requires interrogation).

Take a course I teach on crime and punishment in France in the long nineteenth century.

There are only 24 required readings for this course, three of which are book length primary sources, and 21 of which are required secondary readings.

When it comes to primary sources this is a tiny sample, but sadly of the five authors of these three readings, just one is a woman: Gina Lombroso-Ferrero co-authored the English edition of Criminal Man, According to the Classification of Cesare Lombroso with her father, Cesare Lombroso. Another primary source – the novel The Widow Lerouge – was sole-authored by Émile Gaboriau, while the final primary source, On the Penitentiary System in the United States was written by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.

When it comes to required secondary readings, it doesn’t get much better. Just six of 21 are written by women, or roughly a quarter. This includes some of the greatest names in (long!) 19th-century French criminal justice history, such as Michelle Perrot, Ruth Harris, and Sarah Maza, but I have to say I’m disappointed the imbalance is this profound.

Gender generally presents a straightforward question for many of these authors, as all of them are listed on university webpages with titles and preferred pronouns that allow me to call them men or women. It is harder, on the other hand, to be sure how many of the authors on my reading lists are people of colour, and there are obvious risks to trying to guess based on names and wikipedia biographies. I do have an entire week of the course on crime and colonialism, where we discuss Aaron Freundschuh’s recent book about the Italian-Egyptian murderer Pranzini.

But I have to recognise that none of the primary sources, and certainly very few of the secondary readings are written by PoC.

I don’t have an up-beat conclusion. Writing undergraduate history courses is hard, and especially hard when you cannot expect students to have any foreign language skills whatsoever. The kinds of primary source extract I often give them, for instance, are completely dependent on what has been translated into English.

There’s still a long way for me to go, and for university curricula in general.




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