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WILLA v6 - Her Art and His Craft: Writing Across Gender and Genre at the High School Level

Volume 6
Fall 1997

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.