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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 6
Fall 1997


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Her Art and His Craft: Writing Across Gender and Genre at the High School Level

Tilia Klebenov, WS

In order to teach writing effectively, we must know as much as possible about how people write; in order to know how people write, we must observe them writing under a variety of conditions and describe what we observe them doing. (Pemberton 41)

The only way to learn how to write is by writing; and part of our job as English teachers is to provide students with a wide variety of styles and approaches to the process. Accordingly, I developed writing exercises when I was studying for my certification at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I wanted to see what would happen when male and female students, having been made aware of gender-based communication styles, undertook to express themselves in the typically female form of a journal, then in a more structured, male style based on the joumal. My project had a twofold purpose: to explore issues of gender and genre at the high school level, and to immerse the students in nonexpository writing. The results were outstanding and included a number of unforeseen benefits. The project helped students who were uncomfortable with the traditional essay format. Those who had navigated expository writing with ease were now forced into less well-charted waters. The project was also a fascinating and somewhat unorthodox exploration of Romantic writing as well as an illuminating glimpse into the oft-ignored process of composition.

I conducted this project at a small, coed, college preparatory school outside Boston. The school has about three hundred students, split more or less evenly between boys and girls. It was an all-girls' school until the 1970s, and has always focused a great deal of attention on female education. Nearly half of the students are boarders; half are day students. The sixteen-student class was composed exclusively of juniors and seniors. Twelve were girls and four were boys. The exercise took about three weeks from start to finish.

My lesson plan exposes students to a variety of writing styles and gives them a chance to go beyond the kinds of composition assignments usually expected of them. My students of both sexes very easily saw the value of studying typically marginalized female genres such as journals, if not as literature, then as tools for understanding a writer's personality and his or her craft. These exercises also showed that both sexes can benefit from keeping journals as part of a writing-to-learn approach to English instruction. Although it may be a bit of an exaggeration to say that "writing for the self is the matrix out of which all forms of writing develop" (Flynn 424), I can affirm that such writing is at least as important as the expository genre, because some students who feel confined by expository writing are suddenly liberated when called upon to write a journal or an autobiographical piece. What began as an experiment in gender-based communication styles became for me an easy and rewarding classroom exercise. Even more importantly, it offered some students ways to express themselves in writing as they never had before.

Here is my lesson plan. It can easily be adapted to suit a variety of classrooms and topics, including Romantic and other literature, creative writing, writing to learn, and women's writing.

I. Introduce yourself and say a little about the project: a study on the different ways boys and girls communicate.

II. Read aloud transcript of boys' and girls' conversations. Ask what some of the differences are.

Probable answers:

Women/girls tend to hedge more; to seek common ground/consensus in conversation; to focus on relationships and feelings; conversations tend to be circular rather than linear.

Men/boys tend to be more linear; to use conversation to establish or reinforce dominance and social hierarchy; to focus more on solutions/results than feelings.

Important note: this does not mean females dislike solutions or males don't have feelings! But they often take different approaches.

III. With these differences in mind, what written genres do you think would be associated with which gender? I.e., what do men write and what do women write?

The students may at first give examples of published works, such as novels, poetry, etc., for both sexes. Explain that traditionally these genres were for the most part a male domain. In Western society it was seen as immodest for women to publish; many early women novelists therefore used male pseudonyms, such as Currer Bell.

Probable answers: "women's writing" comprises journals, diaries, letters, and perhaps some private family histories, such as those written in the family Bible. "Men's writing" comprises poems, especially epics and ballads; plays; novels; et cetera.

Writing these two groups of genres on the board will probably be helpful.

IV. What's the difference between the two groups of genres? Who are the intended audiences for each form of writing?

Male genres are often more plot/character driven; they are more formal; they are less intimate, more for public consumption; and -- critical point -- they are usually designed for publication.

Female genres are private; they are very relational, and often less formal than the male styles. (A diary need not have full sentences, for example.) Usually intended for an audience of one, they are generally not designed for publication.

V. Pass out samples of William Wordsworth's poetry and Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. Explain: William Wordsworth was Poet Laureate and is often cited as one of the top five poets in the English language. His sister Dorothy kept journals for him, and he used them for his poems. This was one of the great intrafamilial collaborations in the history of English literature.

Selections to use: Dorothy's January 25, 1798, journal entry and William's "A Night-Piece"; Dorothy's April 15, 1802 entry and William's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." (Except for the earlier journal entry, these can be found in Perkins. See bibliography.)

Discuss similarities and dissimilarities.

VI. Assignment: keep a journal for one week. Then use the journal for a more formal writing assignment.

Suggested guidelines: write for at least fifteen minutes every day. Any subject matter, any style; don't worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that stuff., full sentences are not necessary; there is no need to rewrite.

VII. One week later.

Discuss journals. Did people enjoy them? Hate them? Why? Who has kept one before now? Was it for a class, or was it entirely voluntary? What did people write about?

VIII. Assignment: write a more formal piece based on the journal; then turn it in, along with the relevant journal entries.

IX. Several days/a week later.

Discuss: What did people write? How? Did it give anyone new insights into different genres/ approaches to writing? [Are there noticeable thematic or other differences in boys' and girls' works?]

The class delved into these exercises eagerly, for sex roles and relations perennialIv fascinate people of all ages. The students quickly seized on the fact that the traditionally male genres tend to be designed for publication, but the female forms are not. This is significant, because publication is often seen as the ultimate and sole legitimizer of writing. Even the most talented and prolific writers, if not published, tend to be viewed as self-deluded dilettantes, not real writers. This sparked a lively discussion about publication. Does it validate a piece? Is writing for an audience of one significant and worthwhile? What are the differences between private and public writing?

Students then read aloud the two journal entries and the corresponding poems, and we discussed them. Seeing Dorothy Wordsworth's journals alongside William Wordsworth's resulting poems was something of a shocker to most of the class, who had viewed writing as an entirely solitary activity.

By keeping journals for a week then writing a more formal piece based on one or more entries, the class did exactly what the Wordsworth siblings had done, creating first an intimate, unstructured journal (a female genre), then, from that, a more public, presumably more structured piece -- a more male form of writing. At the end of the week, I collected their creative writing samples together with the journal entries on which they were based.

Students and Conversations:

Who’s Saying What, and How?

The students had some excellent insights into the questions this exercise raised. Regarding the conversations, some seemed dissatisfied with the girls' circular, consensus-seeking style:

[The boys] both cut to the chase right away, whereas the girls are more lolly-gagging around. [female student]

The derogatory expression "lollygagging" suggests a lack of respect for this discourse style; "cut to the chase" implies a crisp, pragmatic, and admirable approach. These observations are fairly typical, according to current research. Women's oral communication tends to be devalued automatically as "handicapped, maladaptive, and needing remediation" (Henley and Kramarae 20). The same prejudice often applies to writing. If a woman's writing is good, then all kinds of excuses are tendered to qualify it or explain it as an aberration. Joanna Russ makes this vividly clear on the cover her book, How to Suppress Women's Writing:

She didn't write it. But if it's clear she did the deed... She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever. . . ') She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. It's scifi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte. Her own "masculine side.") She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help ... ) She wrote it BUT….

Thus, women's writings are belittled, with entire genres consigned to insignificance simply because women wrote them. For example, novels, originally a female-dominated genre, were for centuries looked upon as literary trash (Russ 100).

As women's highly relational style of conversation might suggest, traditionally female genres such as journals, diaries, and letters are usually of a very personal nature (Moonilal-Masur, et al., 35, 36). Being seldom published, they are almost universally less valued than male genres, which are written for publication and are therefore aimed at an audience of more than one.

My classroom exercise is a stab at examining and in a small way rectifying the inequality of claiming an inherent difference between a diary and a poem simply because one genre is written predominantly by one sex or the other.

Interestingly, the students in my class were by no means entirely enthralled with the male discourse style, either. Many noted the limitations of the boys' conversational mode. One male student criticized, " [The boys talk] like ... lawyer[s].... More like a standardized debate .... They make it into a debate. If it's not a debate, it's not worth talking about."

In defense of the girls' conversational approach, one female student observed, "The girls were much more polite."

Demystifying Composition

The exercise was particularly helpful in giving my students some insight into the nature of the writing process, something that is seldom done in English classes. As a general rule, classes consider only an author's finished, polished text, which gives little or no indication of the angst, sweat, and tears which may have gone into it. My exercise confirms Elizabeth Flynn's observation in "Composing as a Woman," where she states seeing some of the creative process can be quite profitable for students.

Rather than enshrining the text in its final form, [composition specialists] demonstrate that the works produced by established authors are often the result of an extended, frequently enormously frustrating process and that creativity is an activity that results from experience and hard work rather than a mysterious gift reserved for a select few. (423)

My classroom exercise offered just such a glimpse into the creative process behind the finished product. At the same time, the students had a sincere appreciation for Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entries in and of themselves. As one male student stated, I think it's her art and his craft, sort of. That's the way I think about it. ... She has all the ideas, and he just has the mechanical knowledge.... But basically she has the ideas, and he basically has the position in society and maybe the education to go about producing a poem out of these ideas."

Here is a male student who had no trouble seeing the point of journal writing. He respected the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth for their enunciation of ideas and emotions which subsequently appeared in her brother's poems.

Several students in their comments on the transition from journal to poem identified concisely and clearly some of the chief differences between formal and informal genres, such as the immediacy of the journal and the deliberateness of much poetry.

I would say hers was more of a rough draft. ... She didn't use pronouns, she just wanted to write down her feelings, the things she saw. Obviously, [he] took more time and wrote out a full poem and made it more formal and presentable to the public, whereas she just wrote it down. [female student]

Some of the students seemed to be slightly disparaging of William Wordsworth's work once they knew he was, in effect, not its sole author. At the same time, they viewed the processes behind poetry and writing differently, perhaps for the first time ever. This is significant, since in teaching students to write we are almost inevitably challenging their assumptions and teaching them to think in ways which differ from those they already know and value (Peterson 18 1).

Student Writing:

Gently Gendered Genres

What, specifically, are the hallmarks of "gendered writing"? Studies of autobiographical writing indicate that women students tend overwhelmingly to focus on relational topics when writing autobiographically. That is, they usually focus on the relationship of the writer with some other person or group. The event that forms the nucleus of the woman writer's narrative is almost always a crisis in the relationship: an argument with a boyfriend, for example, or with parents. Male writers, by contrast, frequently choose topics that focus on the self as distinct from others, stressing individuation rather than connection. Common topics include physical challenges in nature or episodes in building self-confidence. These narratives tend to emphasize separation rather than integration or reintegration into a community (Flynn 428, 429; Peterson 173, 174). Neither approach is inherently superior to the other. The danger lies in assuming that these tendencies are absolutes, that women and men are, by virtue of their chromosomes, locked into gender-defined methods of self-expression, with all the attending limitations.

I hoped that my lesson plan would provide students with this view across two gendered genres and into the creative process of writing, and that they would gain new insights into the ways they themselves write. The exploration and appreciation of gender-specific genres could help students become bidialectical, that is, able to respect and create the traditional writing styles of both genders. This is, in fact, what happened, though it was more evident in the creative writing than the journals.

My results were rewarding. Although the journals themselves tended to be fairly heavily "gendered" (girls emoting and discussing family and friends., boys wisecracking), the resulting creative writing pieces did not fit as neatly into gender slots. For example, not a single boy described a personal triumph or individualized episode in his creative writing. Instead, they philosophized. Here is one boy's journal entry followed by the poem he wrote based upon it.

If I'm gonna go down in flames this week, I guarantee that it's gonna be a very stylish flaming trajectory, indeed! Although dinner tonight was a bitter disappointment, I can hope to eat with her tomorrow, before I have to go to the history review. My dad isn't arriving until Saturday! I love it! I can now play Emperor Magic, have dinner with her, and have a great time with X on Friday! Of course, it probably won't come out that way, but heck, if I wanted to dwell on the bad things, I could think about the hole that I've blown into my stomach. But if I stay off sugar for a while (hah!) maybe, just maybe, it will fix itself. NO WORRIES! I WILL BE HAPPY! Just look forward to Friday, and the furtherment of my life as an Airborne Ranger, living a life of sex and danger!

Note how his private observations were transformed into poetry:

Can we dance in the face of destruction?
A spiraling waltz before certain doom?
Or should we explode in a giant eruption
And scream out emotion, all through the room?

If we can laugh before our demise
The world a much cheerier place will be.
We could let destiny wear a cheery disguise,
And our fate will not be as bad to see.

Can we laugh in the face of destruction?
Anyone care to venture a guess?
You think we can laugh in the face of destruction?
As near as I can figure, yes.

Essentially genderless, this poem avoids any gender-based cliches, demonstrating Peterson's observation that 1he best writers either ignore gender boundaries or call them into question" (176).

Here is an example of a girl's journal entry and the essay that grew from it. Note that she very clearly expresses emotions and relational concerns, yet manages to avoid cliches. First, the journal:

I go home to share my great news with my family-and they aren't home. They went out for dinner without me. Why is it that whenever I have good news, there is no one home to share it with. Maybe my parents will be happy, now they have three jocks in the family. Telling my dad he replies "Good, don't forget to tell X to put it on your college transcript." If this is the reply I get when I'm excited and happy is it any wonder I choose not to show my excitement at home! Shit, he brings me down to slug-slime level.

Here is an excerpt from the essay the journal entry inspired:

Stress weighs down upon me like an elephant on my shoulders.... People keep telling me college isn't that important. I can still survive and live a full life anywhere I end up. But when people tell me that after going to Brown, Columbia, and Harvard, I feel as though they are being hypocritical. While I know that college isn't the most important thing in my future, it still is important. I want to get a good education, make something of myself, and make my parents proud. I have always tried to make everyone proud of me, because of that, I tend not to be proud of myself. When I come home with an A-, the response isn't "Way to go" it's "What did you do wrong." I'm not perfect, yet I strive for perfection. Until I honestly realize that the most important thing is my own happiness and not the approval of others, then the elephant will remain upon my back.

The essay does not succumb to hackneyed banalities. Its clear and inventive writing -- beginning and ending with the elephant simile, for example -- neatly bypasses such pitfalls.

Journal writing, both for its own sake and as a prelude to more formal or structured writing, can be enormously beneficial to students of both sexes. Indeed, the journal or diary is art in its own way, just as poetry or the formal essay is. Traditionally marginalized, in this exercise the diary can at last come into its own. Part of what made this classroom project so rewarding was watching Dorothy and her writing get their due, rather than being confined to the status of finger exercises for the unpublished and therefore unimportant writer. Students immediately recognized the beauty and energy of her prose; and the transformation of her ideas into her brother's poetry altered but by no means diminished them. Seeing the transition of journal entries into powerful and justly famous poetry gripped the class's collective imagination. Finally, this kind of informal writing, perhaps due precisely to its casual, unstructured nature, helps some of our students write more freely and effectively, assisting them in creating dynamic and original works.

WORKS CITED

Flynn, Elizabeth. "Composing as a Woman.' College Composition and Communication. 39(1988) 423-435.

Henley, Nancy M., and Kramarae, Cheris. "Gender, Power, and Miscommunication. " In Coupland, N., Giles, H., and Wiemann, J., eds. Miscommunication and Problematic Talk. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991, pp. 18-43.

Moonilal-Masur, Patricia, Cincick, Elena, and Mitchell, Claudia. "Dear Diary: Exploring Gender and Genre in the 'Writing-to-Learn' Classroorn." English Quarterly 24 (1992): 30-37.

Pemberton, Michael A. "Modeling Theory and Composing Process Models." College Composition and Communication 44 (1993): 40-58.

Perkins, David, ed. English Romantic Writers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1967.

Peterson, Linda H. "Gender and the Autobiographical Essay: Research Perspectives, Pedagogical Practices." College Composition and Communication 42 (1991): 170-183.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women's Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983.


Tilia Klebenov is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School, where she earned a Master's in Theological Studies and a secondary school teaching certification. She teaches English and Social Studies at South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

 

© 1997, 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: Klebenov, Tilia. (1997). "Her Art and His Craft: Writing Across Gender and Genre at the High School Level." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 19-24.


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