Friday, June 15, 2018

Popular Romance in the Classroom: Guest Post by Jennifer Wofford

Please join me in welcoming to RNFF Dr. Jennifer Wofford, a professor as well as a romance author, as she describes her recent experience of teaching first year college students through the "Category Romance Project."

My name is Jennifer Wofford. I teach writing and popular romance at Ithaca College in Ithaca NY. I also write historical romance under the name Giulia Torre. Along with Catherine Roach, I self-identify as an Aca-Fan, an academic who is also a fan of what she studies. I study romance while wholly immersed in it—reading, writing, teaching, and advocating for its importance and complexity on all fronts.

In the fall of 2017, in my first-year college writing seminar Reading Popular Romance, I piloted the "Category Romance Project," a classroom-based, large-group student research project that explored "vintage" category romances (20 years or older) from a social science perspective.

I proposed Reading Popular Romance as a social science course with the sponsorship of IC's Writing Department. Ever since the publication of Janice Radway's Reading the Romance (1984), scholars have been using social science to analyze the genre. Social science was the most exciting thing to happen to my relationship to text since I read my first Bantam Loveswept romance in 1984.

I was introduced to social science methods by Brian Street through the field of New Literacy Studies. NLS takes an "ideological approach" to the study of literacy—to reading, to writing, and to text in all its forms and contexts. Through language we create, acknowledge, and most often presume mythologies and master narratives that in turn guide and make sense of our actions.

Community of Inquiry model
Because of what I learned from NLS, my approach to teaching is a theoretical framework called "Community of Inquiry," or CoI. Learning is social, and therefore relies on participation in a community. The CoI model turns the classroom into a site of literacy research. I've found that this approach gives students the skills for recognizing their own identity filters, for designing research questions that in turn create strong claims, for creating compelling arguments and finding something to say, and ultimately for developing their own authentic voices. Simply, students write better papers when they use the CoI approach.


My first step in creating a community of inquiry around a classroom research project is shaking out students' funds of knowledge, getting everyone's cards on the table. During sessions designed to focus on students' transition-to-college issues, we discussed issues related to race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Student panels and speakers trained in conducting such conversations came to the classroom to tell us their stories, so students had a way of talking about real world issues and their own identities without having to use themselves as examples.

Also during these sessions, I asked students to bring in examples of popular love songs as well as  their favorite romantic movies. Songs and movies are an easy way to get students talking about romance. They can also serve as good ice breakers: students feel a teacher is a bit more approachable after seeing her dance to Tina Turner during the first week of class.

These initial conversations about romance and about identity served as points of reference throughout the remainder of the course. For example, in one section of my course, 9 out of 16 students self-identified to the group as having been diagnosed with anxiety or depression or as having suicidal thoughts. Reading Alexis Hall's Glitterland in the context of these students' experiences was far different than in sections where students did not identify so closely with the mental health challenges of Ash Winters, Glitterland's protagonist.


While students recognized and shared their own knowledge about romance, I also introduced new concepts that weren't already a part of their own systems. Students learned the difference between romantic and popular romance and romanticism, as well as the definition of "trope" (and key examples from genre romance). Weekly lectures gave students the language of Romancelandia, as well as some of the tools by which they could analyze individual romances and the romance genre as a whole. In addition, we discussed theoretical concepts, such as Lyotard's notion of "master narrative," a story that explains society and cultural norms while at the same time legitimizing the status quo. Master narratives make it difficult to understand reality in any other way than the "dominant" narrative. Popular culture often uses counter-narratives to make make alternative narratives visible. One of the more well-known master narratives in the United States if the history of Columbus "discovering" America. The word "discovery—and the master narrative it implies—wasn't challenged until relatively recently. We discuss the ways that the HEA (Happily Ever After) of romance is a master narrative.


Quite simply, I tried to explain the category romance to this generation of students. My students had a hard time conceptualizing the category romance, even when faced with a large pile of examples. I explained that category lines represent subgenres in mainstream romance publishing, and that these sub-genres have rules about authors' use of tropes, archetypes, and plot lines, rules that readers come to expect and use to guide their reading choices.

There seemed to be nothing like the category romance in their world.

Showing students covers of books with the same trope helped.


As an entrance into the analysis of texts by way of social science methodology, we read Lily King's Euphoria (2014), a work of fiction inspired by the story of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Set in 1930s New Guinea, Euphoria tells of a love triangle between three anthropologists in the field, each of whom is struggling with varying degrees of failure to "see" beyond their own limited perspectives. The novel represents the social life of text in various forms. The female protagonist writes field ethnographies. All three scientists hunker down over a colleague's monologue draft mailed to them from back home. The antagonist searches for an artifact that will prove a primitive culture had a written language.

After students finished reading Euphoria, I learned that they originally thought the book was a romance. But this book has one of the most heartbreaking and haunting endings in my memory. As un unanticipated teaching moment, students got to experience the phenomenon of reader expectation (and the dashing of same) in commercial romance.

In addition to reading Euphoria, students read brief, introductory articles in the fields of New Literary Studies and social linguistics. Social science is a valuable process of alienation, or de-familiarization. One activity proved particularly effective in demonstrating this process of alienation. I asked students to draw a sentence from an NLS article, and we browsed the results, looking for patterns. They realized that we're ruled by rectangles—paper (everyone drew on lined paper), tablets, screens, desk tops, even the very room that we were in. Standardization is a master narrative. It's invisible, and we think it's valuable (cost-efficient, replicable, consistent) without even questioning what gets lost when we sit, write, and think inside boxes.

By reading about anthropologists at work, a fiction focused on a central love story, through the lens of social science, students become attuned to looking at rather than through the water in which we swim.


So what exactly was our data set? We started with three category lines:

• Harlequin Presents
• Harlequin Romance
• Bantam Loveswept

Perilous stack of vintage category romances
(buttressed with a Heyer and a Woodiwiss)
Why these lines? For me, they are my everyday. I own them in the hundreds. I'm familiar with the plot structure, archetypes, and authors. And I love the covers. Not only because cover illustration is a lost art, but because covers are a clear visual representation of how the mainstream West allowed love, intimacy, sex, and gender to be represented over time. Covers were indeed a favorite topic for students.

We restricted our reading to books at least 20 years or older.

Were there problems with this data set? You betcha.

Vintage category romances are white, there are no two ways about it. But the utter absence of characters of color is, in and of itself, a wake-up call. It's a way to understand the full scope and impact of whitewashing, as well as the privilege of reading while white.

This data set is also unarguably heternormative. These books tell the story of heterosexual romance. In the very first book in the Loveswept line—Heaven's Price by Sandra Brown—the heroine's first long-term romantic partner was gay, which provided the logical reason for her still being a virgin. But that's as queer as these books get.

After butting up against these limits, we decided to expand the data set. I assigned questions that charged students to research on diversity and diverse voices in popular romance. They returned with blog posts on the closure of the Kimani line and segregation in romance publishing, as well as information on Bold Strokes Publishing and women writing romance with queer male characters. This diversity research provided some of the most interesting discussions in the course, and many students ended up choosing final paper topics on issues related to their diversity explorations. Each student expanded their own data set, but the limitations of the larger set remained intact. To a significant degree, it was the limitations of the set that taught students the most, both about research and about master narratives in romance. That said, when I teach this class next year, the data set will at the very least include early books from Harlequin's Kimani and Arabesque lines, as well as a canon-busting assignment to expand the classroom library.


When presented with hundreds of gorgeous, but designed-to-be-ephemeral books, students were mesmerized and astounded, sometimes even shocked. They started reading the back covers and inside blurbs, and then began to reach them aloud to one another. It was a very natural process for them to start to ask questions about what they were reading.

All questions were shared among students and between sections. An important element of the course is to share questions so that students can also share findings. But it has the added benefit of giving students an understanding of what makes a good question.

Through the simple act of considering what they would have to do to answer their question, students learned an important lesson: some questions are unanswerable, given the constraints of both our data set and of the time allotted to the project.


In anthropology, coding is used to chunk and classify concepts in the social scientist's ethnography: the field notes and rich description of her subject. Coding feels a lot like textual analysis. When coding is applied to literary texts, it functions to highlight the text's cultural dimensions. I created a starter list of codes—single words or short phrases to signal a theme or topic or question—and shared them with the class. These codes directly represented their specific questions. As new questions emerged, students were charged with creating and sharing new codes.

Students were then assigned code cards. Each student had to produce 10 cards to satisfy the larger category romance project assignment. I gave them time in class to read and search for codes in our data set books, and they also were allowed to use my books outside of class. Students also drew on the massive online library at the Romancewiki, as well as other online sources, such as Goodreads, AbeBooks, Amazon, and publishers' web sites.

As students turned in completed code cards, I scanned them front and back, and uploaded them to our online course site, saving them with titles that reflected the codes. As more cards were submitted, I continued to scan and upload. Students then had access to all other students' research on the codes or associated codes that provided responses to their chosen research question.

#metoo was very much in the headlines during the time we were working on this project, so students were encouraged by world events and by events happening on college campuses to ask questions about rape culture and consent, and their connection to romance reading.


In their final projects, students wrote on virginity, consent, race and ethnicity, sexism, and cover art. Some of the essays were outstanding; others were standard first-year fare. But students all walked away having grappled with important and complicated issues. Old school category romances are an on-ramp to complicated discussions of power: segregation in publishing; what it means for readers of color to be forced to read only of white characters; the prevalence of rape culture and "forced seduction," and the ways that popular romance reflects and reproduces that culture.

Happily Ever After is a master narrative, and I see this as one of the grand takeaways of this course. What happens to our personal narratives if partnership at the end of a story is removed? If it's not a (or the only) desired ending at all?

One of my students said during class one day, "Sometimes I think you hate these books, and sometimes I think you love them." YES. Her comment raises an important question: how can we acknowledge the historical moment in which these stories were written and respect their authors, while at the same time use them as examples of what not to do today?

The romance plot forces us to navigate ambiguity and complexity, to articulate this feeling of bothatonce (or many things at once). One thing is not ambiguous: popular romance is definitely female and almost universally denigrated. By studying popular romance in the college classroom, both scholars and students have the opportunity to develop language that acknowledges criticism but allows for imperfection, for our own sometimes conflicted ideas about the genre and ourselves as readers of it. Such study unambiguously asserts the importance of genre romance both as a body of writing and as one example of a communal representation of the female imagination.

Readers, if you had the chance to take a class on popular romance, would you? What research questions would you want to explore?

Note: This post is based on a talk given by Dr. Wofford at Bowling Green State University's Browne Popular Culture Library, at the Researching the Romance conference.


  1. I would looove to take this class, or one like it. Terms like "rape culture" (and even "consent") weren't in my early Eighties lit class lexicon.
    I'd love to study all genre fiction with a gender/diversity perspective. I'm especially interested in the way many thrillers and mysteries written by men have the love interest wind up a) the villian, or b) dead, only to have the hero seem to shrug it off and end up with the "convenient" female who was (usually) there all along.
    *Runs to see if my University has any new class offerings*
    Thanks for this... It's cool see our undergrads coming to adulthood with an understanding that literature isn't just The Taming of the Shrew and The Scarlett Letter!

  2. What a fascinating class. Thanks for posting this. If I had the chance to take a class in popular romance, I would want it to explore romance novels from different genres: the most conservative to the most erotic. I would want to explore them for attitudes towards relationships, sexuality, class, subculture, race and religion.

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