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.”