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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 4
Fall 1995


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Lost and Found in Space: Using Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" to Encourage Resistance and Identification in the Introductory Literature Classroom

by Linda Cullum

"Dead, but still with us, still with us, but dead."
The Dead Father
by Donald Barthelme

The opening words of Barthelme's The Dead Father describe the great paternal figure of Modernism as he is dragged to his grave. They describe also the apprehensive and passive attitudes that students, weighed down by a conventional pedagogy that has denied them access to their own unique and valid responses to literature and the world around them, drag into introductory literature classrooms. In this essay, I discuss my efforts to invigorate my introductory literature students and to draw them into a more active relationship with texts and with one another by using the feminist teaching and learning strategies of resistance and identification. Specifically, I focus on the methods and results of one such activity in which students read Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" resistively, in search of what seems missing from the story, and then participated in the construction of new meaning by contributing their own "additions" to the text.

My challenge in my introductory literature classes is to counter years of exposure to the conventional pedagogy that privileges the authority of the text and teacher by creating a classroom environment in which the text is only one among many potential sites of meaning and my voice as teacher is softened so that it is only one possible response. I do this to encourage students to shift their own reading stance from that of passive acceptance to active production of meaning and to respect both their own constructions and those of the other class members.

To do so, I draw upon the interdependent concepts of what feminist teachers often refer to as resistance and identification. Simply put, students are invited to resist the rigid attitudes that so many have brought to class with them--attitudes that often manifest themselves in a belief in a dominant, patriarchal, perspective that precludes other viewpoints and other voices. I encourage students to replace this monologic position with an appreciation of the validity of individual response--not just their own responses, which is always a temptation, but the inevitably unique interpretations of other class members.

I often facilitate this new appreciation through the pro cess of encouraging students to identify both with the other perspectives found in the texts and the other voices heard in the classroom. As Dale Bauer expresses it, "feminist -- or identificatory -- rhetoric is [a strategy] by which we teach students "how to belong, how to identify, as well as how to resist" (390). Such identification enables class members begin to understand the variability and ambiguity of individual response. Students learn to trust themselves to think creative and to trust one another, to be receptive to one another's rich and varied surfaces, as they come, as Carolyn Shrewsbury has observed, "to respect each other's differences rather than fear them" (6).

Simply to propound these new goals serves only to replace one externally validated structure with another, albeit more au courant, one. Instead, early in the semester, I actively involve students in the interpretative process. For example, in reading and discussing a short story, I encourage students to think of any problem areas as kinds of "white spaces" in which their own imaginations can engage with text in the construction of meaning.

Last semester, Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" was the subject of this pedagogical approach. In this story, a phone, call from a social worker expressing concern for Emily prompts the mother/narrator to embark on an interior monologue in which she reviews, often with stark honesty and harsh judgments, her life with her 19 year old daughter. The mother/narrator seeks, through language and memory, to "construct her past, to make meaning from and come to terms with her life in an effort to "total it all" (12), and to gain a better understanding of her own actions and their effects on Emily.

We began our exploration of "I Stand Here Ironing" with an extensive classroom conversation in which we considered, for example, what keeps the mother passive and what her options might have been as a young, single mother in the 1930's. We also discussed Emily's future and the role that her gift for comedy--her one empowering and creative "ability,--might play. Little conversation centered on either the mother's two husbands--the first, because he abandoned the family when Emily was only eight months old; the second, because he is mentioned only fleetingly as a non-presence to whom she writes 'IV-mail."'

As "resisting readers" and as a community of interpreters, the students turned their attention to the gaps in this story in an effort to identify what they considered to be the most problematic missing piece. In class discussions together and in their response journals alone, students wondered what, in this candid revelation of weakness and loss, has not been so frank? Why is the mother taking such care to scrutinize her behavior and motives? What responsibility is being taken? What is not acknowledged? Almost as one, students agreed that, for them, the most problematical spot was the one in which, in the context of wondering about the source of Emily's humor, the mother casually mentions that she has remarried while Emily was away from home:

Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she carne back to me that second time, after I had had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time (4).

By reading the story against the grain in this way, in search of the inevitable space or spaces where information has been omitted or suppressed, students resist the authority of the narrator of the text. In doing so, they learn to suspect the voice of any authority figure and to develop an ability to question and judge and thereby participate in critical and creative thought.

Resistance to authority is a necessary first step; how ever, it is, as Teresa de Laurentis has noted, "power, not resistance or negativity, that is the positive condition of knowledge" (qtd in Murphy 174). From this collaborative resistance, students go on to write outside papers in which they formulate and articulate their own creative responses, locating the power within themselves to participate in the construction of meaning. In these papers, which reflect each student's unique understanding of the characters and the story as a whole, students venture into the problematized space to construct their own personal "envisionments"--as Judith Langer calls any interaction between reader and text (39} of what might have happened while Emily was away that led to her getting a "new daddy."

Sometimes, as can be imagined, students respond to this request for an "envisionment" with a return to resistance, for they are reluctant to attempt such "tampering." As one student phrased it in her response journal, "I don't like to 'mess' with Olsen's words, as if I don't appreciate her." But it is precisely this intrusion--this move from what is "in" the text to what is glaringly absent--that allows students to appreciate their own imaginative power, an appreciation that, for many, has long since been invalidated by an educational system that does not encourage questions and evaluation. One male student, sensing the legitimacy of interpretations apart from the teacher's or the professional critic's, described his previous frustration in this way: "In high school, if you said what you thought the poem or story meant, my teacher would tell you 'no' and then tell you what he thought, which, of course, was the correct meaning."

Encouraging students to create their own meanings by exploring the "white space" in a text is personally empowering, thus fulfilling a primary goal in my classroom. But equally beneficial is the way in which this particular creative act demands an identification with The Other, in the form of the characters' perspectives, leading to an awareness of, and respect for, new voices and different viewpoints. Indeed, Olsen's story about two complex women--each oppressed and needy yet resilient in her own way--provides an excel lent opportunity for students to explore and articulate their identification with a female consciousness. It is an identification I would contend that most students, regardless of whether they see themselves as having "majority" or "minority" status in the larger culture, have already--quite unknowingly--begun when they stepped into the literature classroom. For, in this context at least, they are the voiceless, the submissive victims of the "word" as formulated for them in the text and interpreted by the teacher. Already intimidated, cowed by their awe of the printed material, and fearful that they will never get "it,"--whatever that mysterious and elusive "it" is--they are already well-positioned to do what Nina Auerbach describes as learning to "read...with all the skeptical purity of an outcast from culture" (156).

And, indeed, the envisionments that resulted from students' considering the circumstances of the mother/narrator's second marriage show that the majority of them, regardless of gender or ethnicity, do clearly identify with one of these "outcasts." When reviewing the results of the 45 essays of one section of my introductory literature class, I was surprised to note just how few writers invested much identificatory energy in the second husband; even though conjecturing about his and the mother's courtship would have provided ample opportunity to do so, only a handful of students, primarily males, focused their attention almost exclusively on the new husband.

Most others described him more in passing, as he relates to the mother or Emily. In these envisionments, he is, interestingly enough, often portrayed as a rather feminized representative of the patriarchy--kind, gentle, and supportive (one wish-fulfilling student even created him as a teacher who "makes the rules, but is fair at all times"). And although he generally holds a position of power (e.g., the night manager in the diner where the mother works; foreman in her factory; policeman; bank teller, military man; even a fellow worker who drives her home), he is attenuated by descriptions that make him "shy and vulnerable like my Emily"; a mirror-image of the mother ("both of us knew we wouldn't be able to make it on our own... we were best friends"); or inconsequential ("he works all the time, and falls asleep after reading the paper").

However, the real focus of student identification was on one or both of the women. While in previous discussion many class members were highly critical of the mother for her passivity and weakness--and even of Emily for not managing to rise above her oppressed upbringing more thoroughly--very little of that criticism is in evidence in these new envisionments. Instead, students were willing to acknowledge rather than condemn the condition of those in the margins of a majority-minded world. A quotation from a male student sums up this appreciation: "we [Emily and her mother] were puppets in a show controlled by someone else with wire and strings."

Not surprisingly, in the identifactory process, male class members were more inclined to forgive the mother for her erratic treatment of her firstborn and pictured a happy, stable future for her, while the females focused more relentlessly on Mother's shame and guilt for being too self-absorbed ("she looked at me with those lost eyes, but I guess I didn't care enough to notice"; "I will never forgive myself") or not self reliant enough ("I was convinced by my husband... I should have trusted my instincts about a lot more things").

Clearly, this project enabled most students to achieve some degree of identification with a feminine consciousness, an accomplishment that is captured nicely in this male student's journal entry (note the telling pronoun shift):

I feel more sympathy for the mother now. Before, I felt that she did not do enough for Emily.... I now see that the mother was making an honest, hard effort to do her best. We all do things that we regret; it's how we choose to learn from our experiences that makes us unique.

In addition to strong identifications, I can also see in these envisionments a burgeoning awareness of the difficulties inherent in making and negotiating meaning, as well as a willingness to confront the condition of the other--two necessary conditions for positive change in the classroom. Aside from a very few students who staunchly resisted any ambiguity in the story or in their reactions to it, picturing, in the words of one female, "a romance straight from the fairy tales," --most writers were more than willing to confront the uncertainty and ambiguity of this "dark and confusing time." This awareness is often reflected in the puzzled and querulous tone of many of the stories (In reference to her new step-father, one "Emily" asks, "who the heck is this guy... how does anyone 'learn to love?").

The writers grapple with their sense of life's ambiguities in various ways--with one student even composing that different possible scenarios. Some were not entirely comfortable with this awareness of uncertainty and created stories that could only hint at some trouble under the surface, where, for reasons the writer can't quite fathom, things just don't "work out." This sense of the problematical causes one male writer, in the voice of the mother, to express envy of "a man's life, his security, and the simplicity of it."

Other scenarios headed in the direction of the mother's hope for a "better time," but then take a sharp turn. Over and over, the mother's expectations of harmony for the new triad are disrupted, and she must cope with either her new husband or, more commonly, Emily ("unwanted and alone") being shoved outside the family circle: in either event, someone assumes the position of Other.

A large number of writers displayed their ''skeptical purity" and their awareness of ambiguity by choosing to suspect the mother's motives for remarriage. Financial need is the primary factor, with the mother making observations such as "I knew I needed someone, not necessarily him, but someone" and "love was not a priority, security was." This scenario may show a desire to empower the mother in some way, since she is doing something to help herself--to secure her future--using the only means available to her.

Through these envisionments surface the beginnings of resistance and identification that will lead to the production of deeper understandings in the classroom: of texts, of themselves, and of one another. Students are also getting a necessary taste of what it means to grasp ambiguity--to see that, as one student phrased it, "joy [can be] mixed with pain, surprise, sadness." Most importantly, student confidence is being engendered, for even the most silenced student gets chance to, as one of my female students commented, experience a new-found sense of power, to "be the puppet master and pull the strings of these interesting characters."

These new experiences and voices are brought together when students share with pride their highly varied and imaginative interpretations. Each unique sensibility is validated; students demonstrate to themselves and one another what Norman Holland has termed "the mysterious openness and receptivity of literature" ( 118), which paves the road for many rich, varied, and exciting conversations in the semester to come.

"I Stand Here Ironing" concludes with the mother's final prayer for her daughter to "know that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron" (12). Ironically, this story, so centered on empowerment issue enables students to sense their own power as writers and thinkers. Using co-creative strategies such as this can help introductory literature students to feel a little less helpless before the "irons" of the text, the teacher, and any monolithic structure, and perhaps, by the end of the semester, a little more free of the "dead father" of conventional pedagogy.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Engorging the Patriarchy. In Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship, edited by Shari Benstock. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1987.

Barthelme, Donald. The Dead Father. New York: Pocket Books, 1975.

Bauer, Dale M. "The Other 'F' Word: The Feminist in the Classroom." College English 52 (1990): 385-396.

Holland, Norman N. "Unity Identity Text Self." In Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, edited by Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980.

Langer, Judith L. Literature Instruction: A Focus on Student Response. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992.

Murphy, Patrick. "Coyote Midwife in the Classroom: Introducing Literature with Feminist Dialogics." In Practicing Theory in Introductory College Literature Courses, edited by James M. Cahalan and David B. Downing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1991.

Olsen, Tillie. "I Stand Here Ironing." In Tell Me a Riddle. New York: Delta, 1956.

Shrewsbury, Carolyn. "What is Feminist Pedagogy?" Women's Studies Quarterly 15 (1987), 6-14.


LINDA CULLUM is an instructor in the English Department of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches composition and introductory literature classes.

Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Cullum, Linda. (1995). Lost and found in space: Using Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" to encourage resistance and identification in the introductory literature classroom. WILLA, Volume IV, 10-12.


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