New course debates Jane Austen fandom

"Please let her think I'm the quirky kind of Janeite and not the freakazoid kind,” thought ASU professor Devoney Looser as she began presenting her lesson plan in front of well-known author Deborah Yaffe.

It’s a common fear for those of us who share a love for all things nerdy. However, Looser isn’t your average nerd. She and husband George Justice (fellow professor) are Jane Austen specialists who spend their days enlightening students in the Department of English. This spring, the pair will offer an introductory Jane Austen course (ENG 364) that will examine whether Austen is really one of the greatest novelists, or if she simply struck gold with popular “chick lit” stories.

“We want students to come away with a greater understanding of why Austen's fiction has endured over the course of centuries – to grasp her artistry, irony and humor – but also to appreciate the early 19th-century contexts in which she wrote,” said Looser.  

The hybrid format will allow students to gain perspectives from both professors. The friendly bickering is an added bonus. Just ask about their favorite Austen novels.

“[My favorite is] Mansfield Park," says Justice, who is also the dean of Humanities in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, "... which I regard as one of her greatest artistic achievements, but a novel that Devoney regards as puzzling and misguided. I love the main character, Fanny Price. Devoney thinks Fanny Price is boring."

To which Looser responds, “I don't think the novel is misguided or puzzling! I do think that Fanny Price is Austen's least interesting heroine. I have in the past called her 'boring,' so George is entirely accurate there. I look forward to debating Fanny's appeal (or lack of it) with ASU students.”

But fear not, the “debating” is all done in good fun for educational purposes.

“We jokingly call this course, 'Married couple argues about Austen and tries to teach you something in the process.'”

The class comes at the height of recent interest with Austen’s novels in popular culture. In 2005, Focus Features released an updated version of "Pride and Prejudice" featuring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen. Recently author Deborah Yaffe released “Among the Janeities: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom,” in which Justice and Looser were quoted. And to top it off, bookstore shelves are now covered with Austen fan-fiction like Seth Grahame-Smith’s extremely popular “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”

“It almost seems as if Jane Austen is everywhere, and students are interested in knowing more about her. We want to use that popularity as a place to begin our discussions,” said Looser.

To learn more about the course, please visit the Department of English website.