Making Meaning: Angry writing, relatable writing

As a teacher committed to feminist pedagogy, my primary goal is to engage students in creating a classroom community that fosters two interrelated ideals: critical inquiry and collaborative exploration. Whether I am teaching a course in theater history, performance theory or women’s literature, I encourage students to think of our classroom as a malleable microcosm subject to many of the same dynamic social forces that exist in the larger world. Just as Augusto Boal conceived of theater as a forum to imagine and rehearse social change, the classroom, too, should be a space where students are empowered to rehearse new ways of understanding arguments, texts, and the world in which they live.

In order to make these larger questions more accessible to undergraduates, I try to scaffold our discussions with knowledge-bridging exercises. Since feminist pedagogy  always reminds us to attend to the learner’s point of view, I try to use real world examples in order to introduce theoretical concepts and critical arguments. In my course on Twentieth Century Feminism(s) and the Drama, I usually begin our first week by passing out an excerpt from the Declaration of Sentiments with the document’s date and title hidden from view. Without being told the circumstances of the text’s origins, I ask students to work in small groups to consider the ways that the passage makes meaning: Who speaks in the text and who is silent or silenced? Who is represented and who is absent? Whom does the text address as its audience? What prior texts does it draw upon and what is the effect of that referentiality? This exercise helps to reveal students’ assumptions not only about the historical period in which our work is about to begin, but also about the heuristics they can use to articulate their own interpretations of a text.

At my previous institution in Birmingham, AL, this exercise tended to be successful in accomplishing at least two goals. First, it gave students a sense of what modes of textual interpretation I would be expecting from them throughout the term. Second, the reveal of the text’s origins allowed us to dive into first wave feminist history and its social context. For many students the Declaration of Sentiments was a new text, and it became a way to situate our reading of turn-of-the-century plays like Glaspell’s Trifles. At my new institution in Northern California, however, this exercise and its big reveal produced a different response, not only because this population turned out to be more familiar with the Declaration of Sentiments as an early feminist text, but also because some of them saw the document’s “angry tone” as outdated and off-putting. In fact, in a few of my classes this year (particularly in classes where we read female authors outside the context of a women’s studies framework) our discussions about women writers often turned to their expressions of anger. As I tried to guide discussions toward questions about anger’s dynamic rhetorical valences, its political strengths and weakness, and its justifications, “relatability” was a concept that often emerged in students’ critiques. I’m guessing that many of us are increasingly seeing texts’ “relatbility” as a new way that undergrad students index their merit, and I’m curious about how other people use feminist pedagogy to respond to students’ affection for the ‘relatable’ as well as their disdain for texts that they may dismiss as merely “angry.”

5 thoughts on “Making Meaning: Angry writing, relatable writing

  1. Emily, I’m fascinated by the politics of emotions. How did your students define “relatability”? Put another way, who found whom relatable and why? I’m also on a Sara Ahmed high, and I’m reminded of this passage from The Promise of Happiness:

    “To speak out of anger as a woman of color is to confirm your position as the cause of tension; your anger is what threatens the social bond. As Audre Lorde describes: ‘When women of color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action” (1984: 131). The exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on.

    The figure of the angry black woman is also a fantasy figure that produces its own effects. Reasonable thoughtful arguments are dismissed as anger (which of course empties anger of its own reason), which makes you angry, such that your response becomes read as the confirmation of evidence that you are not only angry but also unreasonable! To make this point in another way, the anger of feminists of color is attributed. So you might be angry about how racism and sexism diminish life choices for women of color. Your anger is a judgment that something is wrong. But in being heard as angry, your speech is read as motivated by anger. Your anger is read as unattributed, as if you are against x because you are angry rather than being angry because you are against x. You become angry at the injustice of being heard as motivated by anger, which makes it harder to separate yourself from the object of your anger. You become entangled with what you are angry about because you are angry about how they have entangled you in your anger. In becoming angry about that entanglement, you confirm their commitment to your anger as the truth ‘behind’ your speech, which is what blocks your anger, stops it from getting through. You are blocked by not getting through.” (67-68)

  2. Emily, I share your frustration with the affinity for the relate-able (we won’t discuss the frustration for the fact that there’s no such thing as relatability!) — especially when students don’t find anger to be an emotion they can relate to! I’m wondering if you could address the economic and/or racial positions of your California students? Is it markedly different than your Alabama students? I’ve been reading Shelly Tochluk’s Witnessing Whiteness, and I can’t help but wonder whether the affinity for the relate-able is a sign of white privilege. Tochluk suggests that when asked what the markers of whiteness are for people of color, the response often points out an inability to deal with conflict and a need to remain emotionally distant from others. I’m wondering what you think about examining privilege in relation to the affinity for relatability?

  3. Emily, your post has spurred great discussion! It has prompted me to think about how the concept of “relatability” operates in the theatre classroom specifically. That is, does the fact that the theatre asks us to take on other personae make “relatability” primary in students’ minds when reading texts in theatre courses? I appreciate Amy and Donatella’s comments, in which they point out that students’ insistence on “relatability” as a marker of a text’s worth presents an opportunity to prompt them to investigate whiteness and privilege. I wonder if there might be ways to use theatre exercises to do so. Are there any TO games that would work well to demonstrate this? Similarly, can we undo students’ distain for “angry” texts by having them relate to the texts bodily? If students perform “The Declaration of Sentiments,” for example, can they access new ways of understanding its “anger” and perhaps see its value?

  4. Emily – thank you for sharing this experience. It has generated a wonderful conversation thus far. To add a few thoughts – I mentioned in response to another post my frustration with students and colleagues all too quickly looking for “universals” and “timelessness” in texts. Perhaps this stems from an innate need to find a text “relatable” and to thereby not be open to understanding and embracing its “unrelatableness” – the cite where a deeper understanding begins, I think.

    This whole issue of anger and how students/audiences and artists/activists process and exchange anger is fascinating. My current area of research is British suffrage drama coincidentally so I was fascinated to learn of your unique approach to using the Declaration of Sentiments. One of the aspects of British suffrage drama that fascinates me is how they veil suffrage/activist anger. In order to speak their truth, in order to encourage understanding and prompt political conversion they must artistically negotiate whilst simultaneously validating their anger. Many of these suffrage dramas are cleverly, bitingly, mercilessly sarcastic and ironic YET incredibly entertaining, embracing the best of theatrical techniques to compel their audiences’ attention to their veiled political message. It now strikes me, thanks to your post and comments above, that activist drama presents a way to engage students in the creative process of communicating anger productively (yes, of course, Boal).

    As for students’ response to anger they sense in texts – I have experienced this as well in the classroom and have also found it to present at times a barrier to understanding the voice of the text. I have also experienced students anger AT a text because they felt it did not speak to them. Last semester a female student of mine expressed total annoyance and anger at a play by Plautus, declaring that it was simply “too male” for her. Her learning in that moment was at risk. While I certainly shared her disdain (and inwardly applauded her angry dismissiveness) I tried to use her anger as a point of engagement with the issue of staging so-called canonical texts/authors for today’s audience.

    Thanks for listening – great conversation thus far – panel on anger in women’s texts next year?!

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