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Musings on teaching (modernist) women’s literature broadly: what has worked for me

This post has been authored by one of our hopeful contributors, Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick.  Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Office of Student Research at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC). Her research and teaching interests include twentieth-century American literature, transatlantic modernism, women and literature, American ethnic literature, women’s studies and identity politics, and trauma studies. She is the author of Modernist Women Writers and War: Trauma and the Female Body in Djuna Barnes, H.D. and Gertrude Stein (Louisiana State UP, 2011). Since 2012, she has published five peer-reviewed articles and one peer-reviewed book chapter about teaching and teaching-related concerns in Syllabus, The Journal of Journal of Literature and Trauma Studies, College Literature, Teaching American Literature, The CEA Critic, and Teaching Hemingway and Modernism. Three additional book chapters are going through the MLA review process for the following volumes: Approaches to Teaching Gertrude Stein; Approaches to Teaching Flannery O’Connor, and Teaching Modernist Women Writers in English. She is the recipient of the 2014 Indiana University Trustees Teaching Award, which is a prestigious teaching award IU offers at the system-wide level. In 2014, she was inducted into the Indiana University Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching.  You can read a previous post by Julie here.


Teaching women writers doesn’t mean one has to teach from a feminist perspective or that one’s pedagogy must be informed by feminist theory, feminist pedagogical praxis, or women’s studies concerns. However, we are indebted to feminist scholar-teachers for uncovering or recovering significant women writers—and for proving their importance and establishing places for them in the canon (or on the periphery, as it turns out, for many women writers). We owe these feminist scholar-teachers to a great extent; for some of us, we owe them our livelihood, if we were hired as women and literature teacher-scholars. This is a debt that we can repay by teaching and writing about these same canonical/on-the-fringe-of-canonicity/newly recovered women writers to honor the legacy of the feminists in our profession who came before us. (My proposed chapter in Teaching Modernist Women Writers in English will address this scenario to some degree and will present examples of feminist pedagogical theory in practice.)

I’ve been thinking about this legacy of late and how it manifests in my own classroom and scholarship. My institutional contexts (with a nod to Paul Guillory) are as follows: I was hired as a literature professor with a specialization in gender studies; my teaching and research interests are in transatlantic modernism, women’s literature, and women’s studies specifically, and we offer a Women’s Studies minor on our campus. What may strike you as unusual is that I am the only tenured literature professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus (IUPUC), and most of what I teach counts as diversity courses; my courses are taken by English majors, English minors, Women’s Studies minors, Education majors, Liberal Arts students who need a course outside of their major area, and non-Liberal Arts students. One of the big boons in my situation is that I teach two courses in women and literature and feminist theory at the 200-level and at the 300-level, in addition to the fact that all of my courses but two currently are coded as literature and women’s studies courses that count toward the Women’s Studies minor. Another big advantage is that these two women and literature courses count for general education credit, and so those classes are typically full and populated by students who would not have elected to enroll in a women and literature course if it did not count for a gen ed requirement. The majority of the students in the women and lit courses are not (yet) English majors or minors. This situation as a whole has led me to analyze what I do and why: what is it that a women and modernism/contemporary literature course should offer in the twenty-first century to students who are not majoring in literature and who are not as invested as you and I were when we were undergraduate students? And, just as importantly from my perspective (which may be unique in terms of institutional structures but is likely not unique in terms of our profession and its values) is this question: how am I teaching the material that I am invested in and passionate about to students who are neither of these things? And more to the point, how do I avoid what some, such as Audre Lorde or Elizabeth Bishop, see as the ghettoization, and subsequent stigmatization, of women’s literature in a course dedicated to women writers solely? (My proposed chapter for Teaching Modernist Women Writers in English focuses on a different course I teach in modernism.)

Of course, I do not have the answers to all of these questions for you or even for myself, regardless of institutional differences. But these are useful questions to consider for all of us, I think, who teach literature by women because we will invariably have to explain or justify why we do what we do. For my part, I take the position that it is a privilege to dedicate an entire course to women writers (a privilege because women writers are just as important as their male counterparts), but it is a necessity also (i.e., where else will the students encounter these writers?). I take my mostly first-generation college students through an ambitious reading schedule, but I have learned how to make that work through research in feminist theory and pedagogy: in other words, how I teach, I realize, is as important as what I am teaching. (Note: If anyone is interested, my syllabus for a transatlantic twentieth-century literature by women and feminist theory course, as well as an explanation of it, can be located in the journal Syllabus 1.2 [2012] online here).  

What I’ll do now is offer a few of the highlights—some of the gems—I’ve incorporated successfully in my own classroom. (For what it’s worth, I’m putting together a promotion dossier now and had to tabulate the global scores on my student course evaluations for every course I’ve taught: my average is 4.93/5.0 of all items. From this, I see that my students believe they are benefitting from my instructional practices. As for my peers, they presented the IU Trustees Teaching Award to me in 2014.) What success I’ve experienced in teaching at my institution isn’t because of what I’m teaching (I teach a considerable amount of material, especially theory, that my students consider “dry”): instead, it’s a result of how I’ve learned to approach the content of my courses. My approach is indebted to feminist thinkers and pedagogical theorists. I’ll list just a few of them and provide a cursory take of their positions here—a different set (more grounded in women’s studies and literary studies) will be presented (more artfully) in my proposed Teaching Modernist Women Writers in English chapter, which will offer examples of how one can incorporate theory into practice in teaching modernist women writers.

For the sake of space, here’s a short list of the pedagogical thinkers who, to my mind, tend to endorse feminist positions and whose scholarship has been extraordinarily useful in allowing me to figure out how I can teach modernist and contemporary women writers effectively:

*Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003) reminds us that there is not one right way to teach. But she offers important pointers: the first day is critical to set the tone and expectations of a course, for instance. Lecture can be used to remarkable effects, and it can be combined with more student-centered practices: Showalter dubs this the eclectic approach. Full of helpful advice and suggestions, this book allowed me to reflect deeply on my own teaching: what was working and what wasn’t.

*Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2003) and bell hooks’s Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End P, 1989) shaped my thinking about the importance of discussion and student ownership of learning. These two espouse a feminist pedagogical ideology. Freire emphasizes the importance of education and insists on the significance of students as subjects in the classroom. He rejects what he calls the banking model of education: students should not be treated as objects or repositories for information dumps. hooks endorses a participatory model of education, one in which every student is expected to take part. Students in her classroom are expected to participate when called upon, even if it means reading a paragraph. Both Freire and hooks advocate the empowerment of students (a feminist goal!), and their work on pedagogy provides conceptual frameworks to reach this goal.

*Gerald Graff’s Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: Norton, 1992) explores how discussions can be used as a springboard for conversations among students and professors. Graff proposes teaching the conflicts, forwarding opposing points of view to what has been presented in the classroom. A balanced discussion can be achieved in this way. It appears to me that discussions provide a space for students to try on and examine their ideas and those of their peers, and discussions promote active learning.

*Jay R. Howard’s Discussion in the College Classroom: Getting Your Students Engaged and Participating in Person and Online (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015) encourages us to approach discussion in the classroom as an important, even critical, learning tool for students. Discussion can allow everyone a stake in the conversation. In this impressively researched book, Howard provides insight into the mechanics and dynamics of discussion, and he offers pedagogical advice that spans disciplines. He shows us that discussion is particularly successful in engaging students and fostering their learning.

So my answer to why I do what I do, in part: I use discussion as a technique to track what my students know but also to make them active collaborators in the making of meaning and knowledge, specifically in connection with literary interpretation. I strive to establish and maintain an engaged community of learners who feel empowered and safe to contribute to each class discussion. Because literature represents worldviews, I maintain that it is necessary to equip students with the abilities and skills required to interpret and discuss texts in order to successfully navigate in the real world. Perhaps it’s even more important to read texts by (modernist) women when those are the texts that our students would be less likely to encounter or study in the classroom (or outside of it) without us prioritizing and privileging women writers and their work.

Resource: Communal Modernisms

It is with pleasure that I bring to the attention of the #teachingmodwomen audience a recent edited collection on—what else?—teaching modernist women’s writing.  Although the title of the 2013 Communal Modernisms:  Teaching Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture in the Twenty-First Century Classroom does not explicitly mention women writers, nor does it foreground the authors’ and editors’ explicitly feminist take, the introduction and essays make that stance, and its stakes, abundantly clear.  The editors Laurel Harris, Emily M. Hinnov, and Lauren Rosenblum make urgent claims for a 51AH4lH2PYL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_feminist pedagogy put into practice via the teaching of modernist women’s writing in terms of community.  By focusing on the ways modernist women engage the idea of community in their texts, we in the classroom can ourselves create a community of teachers and learners, one that might offer the potential for constructive intervention into a higher education climate hostile to the goals of humanities education and characterized by racism, sexism, classism, and prejudice.

Geneviève Brassard, herself a #teachingmodwomen contributor, has reviewed Communal Modernisms for the journal of intermodernist studies The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914–1945; you can read that review here.  What I’d like to highlight here about this collection are two points.  The first is the clearly discernible influence of the late Jane Marcus.  (I wrote about the 2015 MSA seminar dedicated to Marcus’s work here.)  One of the contributors, Robin Hackett, is a former student of Marcus’s, and one of the editors, Emily Hinnov, is herself a student of Hackett’s.  (Hinnov will also, happily, be contributing to #teachingmodwomen.)  Marcus contributed the afterword to Communal Modernisms, in which she lays out the implications for teachers and scholars working in feminist modernist studies.  This work is essential because it speaks truth to power, it is a form of much-needed resistance, and its politicization of the pedagogical enterprise is what is required to combat patriarchal and economic repression.  For Marcus, the emphasis on community in Hinnov’s, Harris’s, and Rosenblum’s modernisms is a turn the field needs to take in order to respond to pressing public problems.

The second point I’d like to make is:  I would love to know how students responded to the texts and teaching strategies described throughout the collection.  Each essay concludes with a sample lesson plan, including goals, sequencing of content, and suggested assignments.  It describes what the author/instructor has the students do.  What seems to be missing is the student voice.  (This is a point Brassard makes in her review as well.)  What got said during class discussion?  What got written about?  How were the students themselves part of that community of teaching and learning?  One of the suggestions made to several #teachingmodwomen contributors over the course of revising proposals for the prospectus was:  give me a window into your classroom.  I’m pleased to note that several proposals even include undergraduate co-authors.  If a feminist pedagogy involves a decentering of power in the classroom, then maybe that decentering can make more room for the presence of the student, and that can inform how we write about creating communities of teaching and learning.

Resource: Feminist inter/Modernist Association and Feminist Modernist Studies

Great news for those of us interested in teaching modernist women’s writing:  the founding of a new professional organization and journal devoted to feminist modernist studies.fima_flyer1

We announced this back in July, and in the months since there has been a lot of movement by those involved:  Anne Fernald and Cassandra Laity, who will serve as the editors of Feminist Modernist Studies, as well as Sarah Cornish and Julie Vandivere, who have been integral to the organizing of the new society. There’s a new website, a listserv, and a flyer calling for members and contributors.

Visit the FiMA site, and join the listserv to keep current on this exciting development.


Resource: The Future of Women in Modernism

This special issue of Literature Compass, edited by Tory Young and Jeff Wallace, offers a critique of the continuing marginalization of women writers in modernist studies.  Of particular interest to potential TMWW contributors might be the attention paid to the institutionalization of modernist studies and what this has meant for feminism and the teaching of women’s writing.

View the table of contents here.

Resource: The Space Between

The Space Between is a scholarly society devoted to the interdisciplinary study of literature and culture between the two world wars.  The society hosts an annual conference, and publishes an open-access scholarly journal, The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945.  The study of modernist women writers is a major category of interest for members of The Space Between.