A word after a word
after a word is power.
-- Margaret Atwood "Spelling" (1981)
Women's Studies. Race, Class, Gender. Feminist Theory. Gay and Lesbian Studies. Poststructuralism. Empowerment.
I teach in a world reshaped by those words. While exploring feminist theory in a senior-level course, selecting topics and texts for Children's Literature and Adolescent Literature syllabi, or reconstructing American Literature to focus on Meridel LeSueur, Charles Chesnutt, and other "new" writers, I draw on the vital and diversified set of understandings defining this era and my life as a teacher. Sometimes I move far afield, studying women's world-wide dialogue in a course we call Global Issues in Women's Studies. Outside of class the vocabulary of feminism and the elusive reality it evokes spark the conversations I have with students and colleagues. True, there are students who want to know why we can't just have an adolescent literature class without the contexts supplied by feminism. Who cares, for example, how gender and war are related or how women remember war or how they/we have worked in it or against it? Thus, why read Ella Leffland and Vera Brittain? And there are numerous colleagues who think knowledge is value-free, and others who see feminist work as one narrow intellectual tradition, rather than a diverse and transformative paradigm. Despite resistances and differences among ourselves, feminist English teachers aren't rare -- witness the scholarship, witness the conference sessions., witness the backlash.
Teaching English the way I transact the texts of our discipline demands that we learn from, participate in the intellectual live of our culture. Every year, I place lovingly in future teachers' hands Louise Rosenblatt's Literature as Exploration (1938, 1983). For there it is: the struggle for freedom, for community, for life informed by knowledge and by a visionary ideal expressed in an epistemology of private-public interconnectedness. Teaching English by such a method is an act of furthering the discourses of empowerment.
Women's Studies isn't, of course, neatly interchangeable with English as we have known it. It has a clearer requirement for action in what we in the academy call "the world." No matter how interesting it is to study the writings of women and the scholarship of feminists, more than words are needed on days like these:
1. I get a call from a friend. Teachers at a local high school are furious that an assembly program gave as a "prize" to a married male instructor the public kiss of the prom queen, accompanied by whistles and shouts from the student body.
The English teachers are afraid to say anything about the incident,even though they find it unacceptable.
2. A first-year teacher, our graduate, calls about another high school assembly. In a skit about teachers by students, she was depicted having intercourse with several male students. The principal says. "Boys will be boys."
3. A graduate tells me how much she needs to know Women's Studies materials. She is encountering resistance to curriculum change because "women haven't written much," or much that matters.
4. On my own campus, students organize a teach-in about racism following the Rodney King verdict. The only white invited to speak draws from Peggy Mclntosh's essay, "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies" (Working Paper No. 189, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women). Students request copies of the essay; but the local media omit all references to it or to the presence of a Women's Studies teacher on the panel.
What to do when a word after a word after a word isn't enough?
WlLLA -- named for Cather, who suppressed the records of her lesbian life but encoded her silences into powerful writing -- can move us toward the multiple dialogue and effective strategizing we need to do as English teachers in a democracy. A rich new vernacular invites us into a more representative and yet deeply rooted social vision and social practice.