By Sabrina Schoch and Reba Ouimet
Dr. Elyssa Warkentin’s article “An Unexpected Resonance: Teaching Florence Nightingale in Qatar” describes her journey to the Middle East shortly after the University of Calgary opened a nursing campus in Doha, Qatar, in 2007. I
n 2009, Dr. Warkentin arrived ready to teach Muslim nursing students about Victorian and gender studies, genres with which she was concerned the students would struggle, considering the distance between Victorian literature and the students’ own cultural experiences and chosen career path. Although Dr. Warkentin worried that the nursing students would not relate to the Victorian literature, she found that when she taught a unit about Florence Nightingale, her students immediately gravitated towards the character, as their cultural and career struggles were often reflected within Nightingale’s writings. While the nursing students were separated by geographical location, a century, and cultural norms, the students empathized with Florence Nightingale, the “undisputed mother of modern nursing,” through her persistent struggle for cultural acceptance and against societal norms.
In the nineteenth century, the Victorians placed greater emphasis on women as mothers and homemakers than as working professionals, and Warkentin’s nursing students face a similar stigma in
Qatar. In the Middle East, nursing remains one of the few professions available to women. The Muslim nursing students in Warkentin’s forum piece in The Victorian Review (38.1) struggle with expectations of respectability, a patriarchal culture, and familial objections to the nursing uniform, which is considered immodest by many of the students’ families. Dr. Warkentin’s teaching about Victorian nurses in the Middle East allowed the Muslim nursing students to form parallels between their own cultural experience and Victorian literature, particularly in regards to Florence Nightingale’s struggle to make nursing a respectable profession for women.
Warkentin’s “An Unexpected Resonance: Teaching Florence Nightingale in Qatar” depicts the striking similarities in the cultural attitudes, particularly concerning women in the nursing profession, of Victorian society and current Middle Eastern society. Dr. Warkentin acknowledges the success of the Nightingale writings with the students and states that the class “showed [the] students the potential for self-discovery in literature” and allowed her to experience the literature in ways she never had before. Dr. Warkentin’s article presents an interesting case for the comparison of Victorian culture to the lives and cultures of those interested in Victorian literature, as well as demonstrating the relevance of Victorian literature today.
Dr. Elyssa Warkentin attended the University of Manitoba and holds a PhD in English and film studies from the University of Alberta. She has taught in multiple fields at several international campuses, including the University of Calgary’s Qatar campus in Doha and Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.