WILLA v2 - The House That Jack and Jane Rebuilt: Why Patching the Foundation Won't Support the Structure

Volume 2
Fall 1993

The House That Jack and Jane Rebuilt: Why Patching the Foundation Won't Support the Structure

by Judith Stitzel

In the fall 1992, I was asked by Alden Waitt, Acting Director of Women's Studies at Ohio University, to give the keynote speech at a luncheon to welcome new faculty to the women's studies community in Athens and to offer reflections on the curriculum transformation movement in women's studies.

I had only recently begun a long thought-about and yearned-for year's leave of absence, during which I wanted, more than anything else, to make decisions about how to use my time in response to internal, not external, stimuli.

Yet, although I had been practicing saying "no" since my leave had begun three months earlier, when I thought about Alden's invitation, I realized I had been presented with an ideal opportunity to address some totally unexpected transformations in my own personal "curriculum." Responses on the day of the presentation and afterwards have assured me that because I took a personal, narrative approach, a wider range of people than might have been expected heard what I was saying and were able to connect it to how they go about integrating new material in their own lives and work. That pleased me and made me want to share the narrative with others. What follows is a slightly revised version of that presentation.

I began teaching at a university in 1962, i.e., 30 years ago, a year before the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique , on the eve of the current phase of the American women's movement. I have realized frequently since then that my undergraduate education at a woman's high school and a woman's college had given me important advantages from which I am still benefitting, particularly the experience of learning and working with other women, the opportunity of seeing strong women in a wide variety of roles, and the pleasure and exhilaration of the company of smart women.

But in the 50's and 60's, at Hunter College High School and Barnard College, the curriculum was as male-centered and as Euro-centered, as any other and prepared me to succeed in similarly configured graduate programs in English literature at the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota. My doctoral dissertation "Henry Fielding and the Serious Moralist: The Sexual Ethic in Tom Jones," despite its title, showed little promise of the feminist critiques which I would soon come to admire.

And it is important for me to remember that when I did begin to get involved in women's studies in 1968, it was more in response to my students' challenges -- sometimes very angry -- to what I was and was not teaching them than in response to my own needs, either intellectual or emotional. I was, as I look back on those times -- and probably still am today as I look at myself honestly -- a moderate rather than a radical person, both temperamentally and politically. That self description might surprise some of those I have worked with, especially within the university; and as you would expect of someone who has led a women's studies program in a patriarchal institution, I have often rocked, sometimes even tipped, the boat.

Yet, in those early years, since I was being asked to question the worth of what I had so recently and painstakingly learned in graduate school even before I had had a chance to use it, I think my own relative privilege might have insulated me from the emerging feminist critiques of my discipline, had it not been for my respect for my students' passion, my joy in teaching, my fascination with the process of learning, and my faith in the capacity of people to participate in and take responsibility for their own education.

That faith included the eagerness to learn from students and colleagues alike. And learn I did, from the students not much younger than I who were struggling with decisions about the Vietnam War and who were losing friends to that war, and from women -- younger, my age, and older -- at my university and around the country who were beginning to hear themselves and one another and to hold the academy accountable as an institution which could either perpetuate blatant social and political inequities or forge the tools to dismantle the interlocking blocks of oppression.

By 1973, in large part because of my students and the increasingly articulate and organized women's movement, I became involved in creating the earliest women's studies courses at West Virginia University; in 1980, after years of energetic lobbying and organizing on the campus, the first women's studies program began with me as its half-time coordinator; and, in 1984, I became the first director of the West Virginia University Center for Women's Studies which I helped to create.

Since 1980, I have shared struggles and triumphs with the thousands of others involved in women's studies around the country. Currently, I am on a year's leave from the Center for Women's Studies, having learned from my feminist work to pay attention to my own voice -- which in this case started saying over two years ago, in several verbal and nonverbal languages-- you need a chance to relax and to reflect.

And as I have been doing so, I realize how abiding, intense, and overarching has been my interest in what we now call feminist pedagogy, including the unsettling and challenging nudges which women's studies feminist scholarship has given to our earlier paradigms, not only of knowledge, but of knowing, teaching, and learning. Like the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Einsteinian revolutions which preceded it, feminism is a philosophical revolution, and more specifically a revolution in epistemology; and at the end of the century, perhaps even more than in the 1960's, we ignore at great peril the opportunity to rethink the place of the knower in relationship to what she or he knows. Whether the field is literature or psychology or political science or sociology or public administration or history or the arts or the sciences -- we are frequently being asked and asking others to question how long and whether the foundation upon which we stand can continue to support us. Was the Renaissance such a good time for women? Are there only two sexes? What if Freud's patients were telling the truth about the incest they experienced and he presented as fantasy?

Some of us find these questions exhilarating, some find them frightening. Some find them both. I want to think about them by telling you a story, a "true" story, as they say, and telling it in enough detail for you to be able to enjoy it for itself and to see where it connects (and doesn't connect) with your own experiences in the academy and personally. Like any story, it may take you to places and interpretations that the author didn't intend.

Once upon a time, my husband and I lived in a house we assumed would last us, more or less as it was, for our lifetime. There would be the usual repairs, of course. But we would be spared anything extensive. As the expression now goes, "Not." In fact, for the past month -- it feels like years -- we have been dealing with invasive, major reconstruction. I mean major, whether measured by how many people and pieces of equipment are in and around our house and yard, by how much noise we have to cope with (from jackhammers and back hoes), by how much money we will have to part with, or by how much anxiety we are feeling, expressing, and repressing.

Even now, we don't understand exactly what happened or what we might have done to have prevented it; although friends, neighbors, contractors, and insurance agents are generous with their insights and hindsight. What we had thought was an annoying inconvenience -- an occasional rivulet of water across the floor of an unfinished basement, and only when it rained very hard -- was apparently only the visible manifestation of much more basic problems, both below and above ground.

We would not have discovered the seriousness of the situation even when we did had we not had a much less serious and unrelated problem, an occasional leak from a shower into the family room below it. Since whenever we had a worker in the house for any reason I would take the opportunity of asking that he (and they were all he's) take a look in the basement to see if he had any idea what we might do about the water that occasionally came in, I did so this time as well.

Because this particular worker, Virgil, who was to become my guide through the underworld in the next few weeks, was a mason and a carpenter as well as a plumber -- an interdisciplinary person, if you will -- because it was raining very hard this particular day, because when he reached up, his hand went through a beam, allowing him to see water gushing into the house; I thought that maybe this time we had hit pay dirt. And when, after going outside and checking, Virgil predicted that if we reshingled the roof with special attention to the flashing, we would have our problem licked, this seemed to be a very timely solution, since the roof was almost twenty years old. I was grateful to Virgil.

But sadly, the mislaid flashing and aging roof were only the beginning. Removing a trial piece of aluminum siding revealed rotted wood; removing a concrete patio revealed a bowed cinder block wall. Gravel had never been placed around the footers; drains had never been laid. The earth had been pressing and the water had been seeping against our house, the water freezing and thawing and freezing, cracking the block. In fact, the very foundation of our home had been severely damaged. And gratitude threatened to change to resentment. And wanting to disbelieve, our desire to blame the messenger became very strong indeed. Who were these people telling us that the foundation would not hold? What was the source of their authority? Or, in one of the less polite voices singing in our heads, "What the hell did they know?"

Oh, you can be sure that as evidence of the extent of our problem accumulated we got a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth. But even as we pushed forward with what we were beginning to sense was inevitable, we continued to put up considerable resistance to each new diagnosis, creatively embellishing the various mechanisms of denial.

From the beginning, the saving grace for me was that I was curious. Because taking an academic approach provided the comfort of the familiar during a very disorienting time and because pedagogy and processes of learning fascinate me, I found I could bring some order into my life by taking what was happening as a model for understanding how, personally and professionally, we resist other incontrovertible evidence that the center will not hold, such as the evidence that women's studies scholarship so often offers the traditional disciplines. I began to analyze how my husband and I, intelligent and responsible people both, had been able for so long to deny the obvious. What had made that possible?

I have to admit that before this time, I had neither known nor cared much about how my house was put together. My husband knew more, but it wasn't a subject we talked much about. We both adored the house which had some lovely features, including wide-paneled knotty pine wood throughout the downstairs, a spiral staircase, two skylights and, when we bought it in May 1970 for $37,000, an apple tree in full bloom with a tree house for our son. Our in-laws who loaned us the money which allowed us to assume the mortgage did ask us about something as unromantic as electrical wiring, and we begrudgingly checked it out. But we went very little beyond that and accepted the seller's forthright admission that there was always some water in the unfinished basement when it rained very hard as a necessary flaw in an otherwise perfect universe. We did not ask about gravel or about drains.

Even when, five years ago, our next door neighbor had the cinder block replaced on the front of her house, we commiserated without making any connection to our own situation. And if her sons who did the work said anything to us about what had happened to their house, which was built around the same time as ours, I don't remember. The fact is that we only began to be curious about and to appreciate the deep structure of our house when its integrity was threatened. Before that, even when all wasn't completely well, we were able to find explanations of, if not solutions for, our problems which did not involve a major reorientation of our thinking. We could let tell-tale signs go with out analyzing their causes; we could cover and recover peeling blocks with new waterproofing paint -- because we didn't care enough about the room to begin with. After all, it was just an unfinished basement.

In some embarrassingly primitive way, what wasn't happening directly to us, didn't interest us. Clearly, it was easy to conceptualize a problem as superficial rather than as systemic when we thought we were basically on top of things and when we were too busy to take the time to think beyond stopgap solutions. When I think about how we avoided our connection to our neighbor's problem, I can better understand how colleagues might easily see how a feminist critique can reveal the flawed methods and theories of someone else's discipline without seeing (or acknowledging) what such a critique might reveal in their own.

Clearly, the temptations and tricks of denial are legion.

One day Virgil called me outside to show me that now that he had taken the aluminum siding off to assess the damage to the wood -- it was considerable where the water, unable to drain through the clay soil, had backed up through the cinder block -- there was a hole through which he could see directly into my husband's study. When I told Bob, assuming he would be appalled, he told me that he had, in fact, known about it for a number of years and was pretty sure he had mentioned it to me. Didn't I remember that he thought a fieldmouse had eased in somehow and chomped away on the wood? I couldn't say that I did. But he reminded me that he had put some poison outside the house, had checked the hole periodically, and when it had gotten no bigger, had assumed he had found and stopped the problem.

I was amazed at first that someone as methodical as Bob could have ignored something so blatantly wrong as a hole in the wall of the study that he loved. Only hours later did it occur to me that, until the siding was off, Bob would not have had the opportunity, no, the shock, of coming into his study, moving away the record cabinet, and seeing light pour in. Things simply hadn't gotten bad enough for him to change his paradigm. It takes the pressure of that one-fact-too-many before things fall into place or before the whole edifice begins to collapse, depending on your point of view.

Even though the reorientation, once accepted, makes sense of a myriad of individual anomalies, we resist. And the longer we resisted, the more reason there was to resist even longer. Like a scholar who had already put a lot of time and energy into a paradigm fundamentally flawed because of its ignorance of women and gender, or race, or class, we had already invested an enormous amount of ourselves in this house and its surroundings. We were especially proud of our perennial garden and our stone walks and paths, which we had put in at great expense only a few years previously. Nonetheless, most of it had to go. I will not lie to you. It broke our hearts. And even though our landscaper, trying to be kind, reminded us that we would now have the opportunity to start from scratch and to replace some dying trees that we hadn't had the heart to say good-bye to before, the heartbreak lasts. In fact, the emotional assault has been considerable.

There is the disruption to one's daily life. The dependence on other people's timetables. On the weather. The incremental assault on one's sense of confidence and security. The need to become quickly knowledgeable in areas in which one feels uncomfortable. All those people intruding on one's property. Talk about boundaries! First we couldn't use our front door, then our side door was off limits. Then we could no longer go through the garage, which had served for a while. "I really miss the garage," my sister-in-law who was staying with us said plaintively one morning, causing us to burst out in laughter at how humble our desires had become.

Moods followed each other quickly and unpredictably. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. Giddiness. Curiosity. Hope. I alternated between annoyance and satisfaction as I was told about and shown the mistakes that had been made by builders of old, either because they didn't know better or had been too much in a hurry; mistakes of which, we were to assume, the present builders would never be guilty. How could the earlier builders have done something so stupid? so careless? so sloppy? so irresponsible? It was, in fact, important to resist the temptations of either/or thinking which proved to be no more valuable or viable here than they are in other areas of thought. There is a very strong temptation to explain what is going wrong in the present in terms of what someone else could have done differently in the past, and blame is certainly understandable as an emotional outlet; but as a form of meaning making, it mires us in the past.

And while we never fully overcame our emotional resistance to what was happening, the tendency to deny was finally counterbalanced by the desire to know and to do the best we could to guarantee the future integrity of our house. For the backward-looking question, "How did we/could we let it get so bad?" we substituted the forward-looking one, "What can we do now?" We learned that before the workmen could take out the crumbling cinder block, they had to support the house with temporary pillars and beams. Otherwise, it would collapse before it could be repaired. Realizing this need for temporary support, I thought hard about our responsibility to each other to offer at least the same support as we struggle honestly with the stresses and challenges that curricular transformations such as women's studies can bring.

Sometimes we even have to offer this support to ourselves, as we follow where our new thoughts will take us. Let me give you an example. I was enjoying thinking about how well I was getting along with all the workmen who had become part of my world, Virgil, Ronnie, Lee, Mike and Mike, Monty, Louis, Brian. It was getting so that I could ask and tell them things with ease. I looked forward to seeing them in the morning. I thought about them when they weren't there. I liked them and liked being liked by them. My husband, who was happy to rely on my having the major dealings with them, was appreciative of my skills.

One day, my pleasure was complicated by my asking myself whether I might feel differently if all or some of these workpeople were women? Was there any thing in my behavior toward them which was structured in terms of our gender difference, of our expectations about interactions between men and women, especially as these interactions were further shaped by expectations governed by class? Was I, for instance, counting on their being surprised at how knowledgeable this "little woman" was making herself about a field she wasn't supposed to worry her "little head" about? Was I flirting with them? Would I have trusted women even more? Or less? Would I have spent more or less time with them? Felt more or less involved in the process? For a short while, a slight embarrassment kept me from sharing these concerns with anyone, but I was rewarded for doing so, as we almost always are.

According to a good friend Maggie, two of her friends, Lynn and John, who had recently finished building a house on the Oregon coast, had taken the same gendered approaches as Bob and I had. In fact, Maggie said that Lynn had been doing quite a bit of thinking, reading, and writing about the whole issue. She had discovered that there seems to be a heterosexual imperative in getting help in major repairs, i.e., there should be a man around, at least in the background; and also that within that structure, a woman would have better luck getting information to and from the workmen. A man asking the same basic level questions as a woman might be considered stupid; if he asked more technical ques ions, he might be thought to be interfering.

As if sensing the latter, Lynn's husband, like mine, seemed much more willing than she to assume that if something looked peculiar, it was probably because it wasn't yet finished rather than because some thing was the matter, and he was much less willing than she was to check this assumption out. Lynn and I felt that it was better to ask the questions than have some thing done or ignored which would be difficult to remedy later. Not so our husbands, who did not necessarily trust the workmen more than we, but couldn't find a way to question them which would not simultaneously seem to question their authority.

During some periods in history, I suppose it must have felt safe and responsible not to question authority and to build on intellectual foundations which others have built. But this is not one of them. Most of us here know this. And many of you may not even feel the kinds of resistances to change that I have been alluding to through my tale. You may have recognized quite early in your lives and careers that the foundation was rotten and easily embraced the changed perspectives provided by women's studies, grateful for how much they can reveal. But others -- administrators, faculty, and students alike -- resist the shift in focus, both consciously and unconsciously. And many of us both embrace and resist. It is to this latter group in particular that I hope this tale and commentary have been suggestive.

My husband and I discovered that moving from the unthought-about to the unthinkable to the inevitable, while it can take a toll in self confidence, doesn't need to. I am not naive. I am well aware that I am privileged, that very special conditions made it possible for me to learn from my otherwise difficult situation. I had money. I had the time. I had the cooperation of my partner. I had access to information. Many people in a similar predicament would not have had the similar privileges.

To return to our analogy, I believe that, thanks to women's studies, comparable privileges are available to us in the academy, i.e., time, the opportunity to focus our attention; the permission, even the mandate, to ask questions, including rude questions; and access to a wide range of information. When accurate information really matters, when your house, or your life, or the life of our planet depend upon it, a narrow definition of experts and expertise can be dangerous. Many of our neighbors, we discovered, had information which might have been useful to us earlier, had not subtle rules of privacy kept them from sharing it. Such rules can divide us in the academy as well. But they don't have to.

And whether it's the major reconstruction of a discipline or of a home, reaching out beyond sanctioned boundaries is often the best way to go. I admit that it can feel risky. Suddenly reminded of what they might be neglecting in their own homes, some friends we talked to wondered whether we really needed to be taking such drastic measures in ours. Mightn't we have overreacted? Was the extraordinary expense worth it? Did the repairs need to be so expensive?

And, of course, those of us in women's studies know the answer is yes; the repairs did/do have to be this extensive to guarantee the future integrity of our shared home.

JUDITH GOLD STITZEL is a Professor of English and Women's Studies at West Virginia University, where, until last year, she was the director of the Center for Women's Studies (1980-1993). She has published short fiction, as well as articles on Doris Lessing, feminist pedagogy and women's studies administration in Colorado Quarterly; College English; Frontiers, A Journal of Women Studies, Feminist Teacher, and Women's Studies International Forum.

Copyright 1993, 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 : Stitzel, Judith Gold. (1993). The house that Jack and Jane rebuilt: Why patching the foundation won't support the structure. WILLA , Volume II, 5-9.