Class feature: Sagal teaches Queering the Restoration
Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Katie Sagal takes her class on an exploration of gender expression in her course Queering the Restoration.
The class is an English and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies course that looks specifically at stage performances, traditions, and texts from Restoration England, a period between 1660 and 1714.
“The Restoration is a time in England with a great deal of political and social upheaval, and some dramatic divisions among society with respect to ideas about love, sex, race, and gender, not unlike our own time,” Sagal said. “Although the class was created by a predecessor of mine in the department, the first time I taught it in Spring 2020 I approached it with the intention to be more explicitly queer about the texts and projects. I also used some of my own research into women’s writing and domestic work in the period to provide a new perspective on what might count as a radical performance of gender in the period.”
Sagal says queerness, as a concept, has varied throughout history and can be studied in the context of different time periods and different types of literature. The class studies plays featuring same-sex attraction, depictions of individuals who are recognized today as trans or gender-fluid, and poetry that explicitly details sexual desire and sexual acts.
Sagal also includes a unit on radical domesticity where students examine women’s recipe books from the period and ways of sharing feminine knowledge across generations. Then, the class creates some of the recipes from the texts at the Van Etten Lacey House (VEL).
“The use of the VEL as a space that lets us replicate recipes from the past is a unique aspect of Cornell, and something that we couldn’t do without this special building and the Center for the Literary Arts,” Sagal said. “Likewise, the immersive nature of the block plan allows students to undertake more involved creative projects like this without worrying about disrupted continuity–it’s also a lot easier to schedule additional things like our field trip to the Special Collections at the University of Iowa to look at period texts, recipe books, and journals.”
Sagal says she hopes students learn how today’s understanding of sexuality in the past is skewed because people in Restoration England were far less conservative than many believe. She also wants students to embrace the idea that literature has long been a tool of expressing gender, claiming sexual identity, and presenting otherwise unacceptable desires to the public in a covert way. Throughout the course, students connect the past to the present in a variety of literature and texts.
“It’s encouraging to see students come to understand queerness, queer identity, or queer acts as far from ‘new’ or ‘modern,’ and while people in the past had different ways of discussing the body and desire, it was something that mattered a lot to individuals and society as a whole.”
The course is offered again during Block 2 in the fall of 2021.