Sex and gender: what makes for a successful final project?

Posted on May 13, 2010


Ideally, a student final project proposal would show a degree of understanding of concepts presented in the class, but would extend them in some way.

For my project, I would like to learn more about the galli of ancient Rome, whom I read about in my article for Project Benchmark I. They are interesting because in order to become part of this third category, most went beyond cross-dressing or adopting “female” characteristics, and actually physically modified their own bodies. What purpose does their practice of self-castration serve? How does this act affect their sexual/gender identity? Can sex, like gender, be culturally constructed?

Overall, I want to take a closer look at how alternative genders are socially/culturally constructed. Although we did cover this topic in class and in the readings, it was mostly in relation to Native American societies in North America. I think it would be interesting to look at this issue from a different cultural perspective, and also to see how the galli fit into the one sex model of the Greeks and Romans.

In this example, the student links two concepts presented in the course: alternative genders and the one-sex model that Thomas Laqueuer discusses in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud.

Laqueuer shows that the ancient Greeks viewed male and female genitalia as two different versions of a single biological sex. This student makes an inference that we did not explicitly consider during the course: that such a model should affect how people understood trans-gender statuses. As this student noted, our discussion of alternative (third or fourth) genders was primarily grounded in the Native American literature. What is implicit in this proposal is that the student understands that there was not a “one sex model” applicable in the Native American case. This student has been able to understand that we are simultaneously learning about specific times and places (and should not generalize from them), but that the the questions we are asking– about broader variability in sex/gender– are universal.

Among the advantages for this student in pursuing this question are the large amount of reading assigned in the course, and thus discussed, about Classical antiquity. It is worth noting that the student did not confuse the question of the galli with discussions of male same sex desire and relations in ancient Greece, which might have been a temptation. This is the kind of proposal that can be expected to lead to a final project that links back to the course materials, reinforcing them, while also extending the course content.

Over the course of this semester (via the course readings, discussions, assignments, and presentations), I have become increasingly interested in the role of sexuality and gender in medieval England. I find myself wondering how our American past was shaped and cultured throughout history, and by reflexively looking back to the British Empire, as it existed before and up to 1776, it seems we can unlock many questions. The question that I am putting forth is, specifically, what impact has the English viewpoint, perspective, and historiography of gender and sexuality had on our modern ideology? I am interested in the etiology of the sex and gender system and how it originated in England and was subsequently transplanted to the New World. For example, for Project Benchmark 1, I read about prostitution in the later Middle English period and what affect it had on the population and subculture of London, and England as a whole.

Up until that point, I hadn’t read any specific articles about prostitution or anything related to upper Western Europe. It came to my attention when we examined Greece and ancient Egypt, but skipped out on most of the European culture (perhaps because it is too closely related to our own belief system); however, this particular geographic region fascinated me because of the impact it has had on the rest of the world in terms of ideology, culture, and language. I now want to explore its gender and sex attributes and influences.

This proposal is somewhat less developed than the preceding one, since it is from a student who wants to take on a time and place about which they feel we read nothing. Actually, two readings from the week on sex work and celibacy do deal with the British historical trajectory, which means this student (who handed in the proposal in week 9), would be reading related material in week 12, in addition to the independently found article the student read and reported on by week 8.

The first of the three relevant course-assigned articles deals with early modern London:

  • Karras, R. M. and D. L. Boyd 2002: “‘Ut cum muliere’: A male transvestite prostitute in fourteenth-century London”. Pp. 90-104 in Sexualities in History, Kim Phillips and Barry Reay, eds. New York: Routledge

The focus on prostitution is one that could be linked to comparative reading on Spanish colonial representations of institutionalized female sex work in Tenochtitlan, the Mexica or Aztec capital city:

  • Arvey, Margaret 1988: Women of ill-Repute in the Florentine Codex. In The Role of Gender in Precolumbian Art and Architecture, edited by Virginia Miller, pp. 179-204. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

The topic of sex work was presented in the course in conjunction with discussion of celibacy, as a means to push students beyond a kind of surface consideration of practice into an understanding of concepts of sexuality. This student would have been able to draw on this discussion as well, which is the one common reading dealing specifically with medieval England:

  • Gilchrist, R. 2000: Unsexing the body: the interior sexuality of medieval religious women, in Archaeologies of Sexuality, pp. 89-103.

Comparing this proposal to the previous one, less integration of course concepts is evident; no specific vocabulary from the course is used (for example, using the word “prostitution”).  The contrast between the two proposals is typical of two different ways students approach these materials: the first adopted an analytic comparative approach; the second, a more straight-forward historicist approach.

In both cases, the final project required that they negotiate with a group of students whose proposals were loosely related and arrive at a final presentation that was integrated, that went beyond the course readings while reinforcing the broader messages of the course about discipline-specific methodologies, and the variability of sex/gender historically. In some years, these two students would have been grouped with others topically (a group on alternative genders, and a group on sex work, for example). In fact, the year they took the course (2009), they were grouped with others interested in the same societies (Classical Greece and Rome) or time periods (Medieval England). The next post will consider how their specific interests played out in negotiation with their groups.