We’re pleased to share some details in advance of our roundtable on teaching modernist women’s writing at MLA next week.
EDITED TO ADD: Did you miss our roundtable at MLA? Check out the notes here!
Thursday, 5 January
56. Feminism, Pedagogy, and the New Modernist Studies
1:45–3:00 p.m., 106B, Pennsylvania Convention Center
Presiding: Julie Elaine Goodspeed-Chadwick, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ., Columbus
Speakers: Steven Ambrose, Michigan State Univ.; Melissa Dinsman, Univ. of Notre Dame; J. Ashley Foster, Haverford Coll.; Amanda Golden, New York Inst. of Tech., Old Westbury; Kristina Quynn, Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins; Tamara L. Slankard, Baker Univ.; Vicki Tromanhauser, State Univ. of New York, New Paltz
This session considers women’s writing and modernist studies from a pedagogical perspective. Speakers, talented teacher-scholars in modernist studies and twentieth-century women’s writing, cross boundaries between disciplinary concerns and teaching practice, theorizing teaching modernist women’s writing and sharing opportunities, challenges, strategies, and praxis.
Prompts to consider:
+ how have the shifts in modernist studies affected the ways in which you teach in the discipline?
+ how, as a teacher, do you conceptualize the role of women’s writing in the teaching of modernism?
+ how do you see the work of those invested in feminist modernist studies informing your teaching?
+ is there a role for feminist pedagogy in the modernist studies classroom and what might it be?
+ what practical strategies have you developed for the teaching of modernist women’s writing?
+ what challenges and opportunities does the teaching of modernist women’s writing present?
+ how do you engage students in your work as a scholar of modernist studies, and what directions in that work do you envision as being important in the coming years?
Potential session outcomes: The outcomes of this discussion may include collaborating on a deeper conceptualization of the intersections among pedagogy, feminism, and modernism, as well as a sharing of specific teaching strategies. Audience members who may find this roundtable of interest might include emergent as well as seasoned teachers of modernist and 20th-century studies especially those looking to expand their repertoire; those interested in the relationships among gender and sexuality and the teaching of literature; and those interested in the theory and practice of feminist pedagogy.
My contribution to the roundtable focuses largely on “practical strategies for teaching modernist women’s writing” and the “challenges and opportunities” such instruction presents; and more specifically, on ways I use methods of performative criticism to help students engage critically (and often creatively) with the oft difficult texts of modernist women writers. I teach an upper-division Modern Women Writers course that brings together work from such modernists as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Nella Larsen with work from such innovative contemporary (postmodernist/poststructuralist) writers as Anne Carson, Hélène Cixous, Carol Maso, and Shelley Jackson so that students might explore representations of woman, various expressions of feminine, and feminist/women’s self-representation and storytelling. Performative criticism (a critical practice that aligns the critical text with the characteristic aesthetic elements of a literary text) is a practice that allows students to approach the ways these writers use modernist innovation, avant-garde techniques, and other experimentations with literary forms to represent woman and feminine experiences anew or otherwise. In speaking to New Modernist Studies approaches, my talk brings forward Susan Stanford Friedman’s interest in “cultural parataxis” as a productive mode of pairing texts and Brian Richardson’s work on transperiod aesthetics so that we can see how modernist stylings can inform a feminist pedagogy in the literature classroom.
Modernist studies is global and digital. And within these frameworks, where we want students to go is to language. As we teach students to engage new modes and forms of media, we also teach them to grapple with the precision of words, adapting the form and content of their arguments in response to the changing parameters of global modernism. The digital tasks and projects in my classes invite students to interpret texts and draw conclusions addressing gender in historical and global contexts while redefining what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz refer to as “the media of modernism” in “[t]he New Modernist Studies.” My presentation will address the role of a feminist digital pedagogy in teaching global modernism, focusing on my Global Digital Modernisms course, which took Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013) as a framework.The goal of this course was to develop a more nuanced understanding of global modernism that allows us to interpret texts’ and cultures’ untranslatable elements. In doing so, the students used digital mapping to create multilayered arguments that engage the particularlity of characters’ journeys. The students mapped sections of Nella Larsen’s Passing and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight in groups, annotating their maps after investigating the past and present significance of locations. Street scenes also became an anchor throughout the course, and a constant from which to examine the range of perspectives as we shifted from Larsen’s Harlem and Chicago and Rhys’s Paris to Claude McKay’s “Tropics in New York” to Mulk Raj Anand and Sarojini Naidu’s Colonial India in Untouchable (1935) and “Street Cries” (1905).
New modernist studies provides us with an excellent opportunity to extend the kinds of cultural material we introduce in the classroom and thus to model for students the interdisciplinary practices of reading that inform our scholarship. My lesson places the highly challenging experimental prose of modernist women writers like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen alongside popular forms of cultural discourse that explicitly address female audiences, such as early twentieth-century food writing. Through a comparison of the overt rhetorical strategies and implicit modes of representation we observe in different kinds of cookbooks, we can help students make better sense of the ways that women writers navigate the shifting categories of class, gender, ethnicity, and species. I’ve found that this is a playful and productive form of feminist pedagogy that can help students to appreciate how the values recipes suggest (economic, social, aesthetic, and so on) at times align with and at others subvert the representation of food in women’s interwar novels.
Teaching noir fiction as modernism helps students to better understand the connection between form and function and therefore to recognize the expression of traditional modernist concerns such as mid-century disillusionment, the plight of the individual amongst the masses and the machines, and the breakdown of gendered and socio-economic boundaries. Women writers not only break the typical genre gender rules, they change the game altogether—by creating strong female protagonists, by drawing attention to the performativity necessary to maintain traditional gender roles, or by refusing to write from their own limited embodied perspectives. Engaging with environmental psychology is a means by which teachers might model the interdisciplinary nature of modernism and also a way to clarify the place of genre fiction within literary modernism because this approach highlights the relationship between literary subjects and urban space. Rather than depicting the individual as constructed by place, American women’s genre fiction often suggests a more symbiotic relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit. Protagonists may be formed by the modern metropolis, but they learn to adapt and use—rather than allow themselves to be used by—the cities they navigate.
When Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas calls for the destruction of the universities and a reformation of the college system upon the lines of a “an experimental college, an adventurous college,” she challenges those in the classroom everywhere to consider the way in which the models of pedagogy we employ help to shape social and cultural practices and institutions. One of the major reasons to teach modernist women writers is to share in and continue their radical theories on peace, equality, and social justice and to explore how they contribute to activist discourses that sought more sustainable, egalitarian, and progressive models for society. I discuss how my “Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art” Writing Seminar puts women writers Virginia Woolf and Muriel Rukeyser in the context of conversations surrounding war and peace of their time and helps students discover the way in which women were active and interactive contributors to modernist society through the techniques of co-writing and collaboration. I share the way in which I have employed these techniques in my classroom in the creation of a class pop-up exhibition The World That Cried Woolf: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War that led to a standing digital humanities and Special Collections exhibition, Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War.
This paper will focus on my experiences this past semester teaching a critical theory course focused on the theme female authorship and creation. When I created my syllabus for critical theory this past summer, I had imagined the 2016 election going very differently. In my hopefulness, I chose novels that focused on females finding their voices and thought these shared reading experiences would emphasize the significance of a shattered glass ceiling. And then November 8th happened. The final book we read for the semester was JM Coetzee’s Foe, which, while not modernist, allowed us to reflect of what female modernists had accomplished that Foe seemed to take away in a stunning alignment with what the 2016 election took away. This paper will focus on how I taught female modernists and then Foe in light of American politics today. It will also include the conclusions that my students came to at the end of the semester, in which they came to think about the need for a “new feminism” in ways that I could have never imagined at the beginning of the course. This feminism was steeped in the teachings of the modernist women writers we had read (particularly Woolf’s Lily Briscoe and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie Crawford), but it also included finding a continued place for Foe‘s Susan Barton, not in the center nor as savior, but for her pragmatism and drive that a new feminism will continue to need.