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Using Literature in a Women's Studies Course

The following discussion offers suggestions for using literature in a
Women's Studies course.  Some of the suggestions come from and are
directed to faculty whose background is not in literature.  The
discussion appeared on WMST-L in September 2004.  For additional WMST-L
discussions now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 10:57:40 -0700
From: Blaise Astra Parker <blaiseparkerphd AT YAHOO.COM>
Subject: using literature in WMST
Hi all,

This is probably more applicable for those of you who have a
background in humanities (my own is in psychology). I know that it is
a common practice for some WMST instructors to use fictional
literature (The Handmaids' Tale, etc.) in intro level courses. I have
considered doing so in my own intro level courses (especially after I
read My Year of Meats, which I really enjoyed). However, I am hesitant
to do so because I have no experience with teaching literature, which
strikes me as somehow different than my own areas of expertise. Would
anyone care to give me a basic idea of what they do when they teach
fiction? What sorts of things do you hope to gain from the practice?
How do you respond to students who say, "But this is FICTION. What
does it have to do with real life?" I just don't know how I would deal
with that! :) Thanks!


Dr. Blaise Astra Parker
Assistant Director of Women's Studies
101 Benson Building
University of Georgia
Athens, GA, 30602
Email: blaiseparkerphd  AT  yahoo.com
Phone: 706-542-2846
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 14:53:34 -0400
From: Laurie Finke <finkel AT KENYON.EDU>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
I'm delighted to see an opportunity for a pedagogical discussion on the
list.  I think this question is fascinating.

Rather than tell you what I do when I teach literature in WMST classes
(which I rarely do and my field is literature, though I do teach a lot of
film these days), let me tell you how I would approach your question.

Don't be afraid to foreground issues of disciplinarity.  Why not ask the
class to comment on what the relation is between a fictional narrative and
"real life"?  How and why is it similar and how and why different?  Then ask
them the same kinds of questions about a psychology experiment.  In what
ways is an experiment like a narrative?  Is it ever fictional?  How does it
relate to real life?

It strikes me that one of the purpose of interdisciplinary studies is to
begin to see how disciplines approach the same questions in different ways
and how when we begin to put them together we can see larger patterns than
we can in any single discipline.

I think an approach like the above might lead to some really interesting
discussions about the ways in which we represent in various ways our worlds.
Some times asking the questions of one discipline about the subjects of
another discipline can have revealing results.  Certainly they can teach us
something about the commitments we have to our own disciplines.

Laurie A. Finke
Women's and Gender Studies
Kenyon College
Gambier OH 43022
finkel  AT  kenyon.edu
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 14:30:07 -0400
From: wmsdir <wmsdir AT ETAL.URI.EDU>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST

As a Prof. of English and Women's Studies, I support using fiction. History
deals with what has happened; fiction deals with what may happen. Authors
imagine "what-if" scenarios and explore the ramifications.

For example, if one wanted to teach about sexual abuse and dysfunctional
families, one could discuss the theories, cite statistics and studies. And one
could also teach Dorothy Allison's __Bastard Out of Carolina__ or Jane
Smiley's ___ A Thousand Acres___which portray such  families. People learn in
different ways, and some students might respond better to the voice of an
individual as re-presented in fiction.

Karen Stein

Karen F. Stein
Director, Women's Studies Program
University of Rhode Island
Kingston, RI 02881

wmsdir  AT  etal.uri.edu
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 15:18:00 -0500
From: Hannah Miyamoto <hsmiyamoto AT MSN.COM>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
   A teacher might also consider encouraging creative writing by students in
a Women's/Gender/LGBTQ Studies class.  I have begun using creative writing
(live stage) in my scholarship along with my more customary work in feminist
theory, for several reasons:  First, fiction allows me to describe and
discuss people of whom very little is known, particularly their personal
life.  Second, fiction offers access to larger audiences, and certainly more
general audiences (including an Intro to WoSt class) than submitting papers
to academic conferences.  Third, I can express what I have observed
personally as subtly and discreetly as I choose--certainly, what I wrote
about a girl who pretends to be a boy in one of Shakespeare's comedies was
informed immensely by my personal experience.  This latter might be helpful
for students who are not comfortable with or simply do not feel safe
discussing their personal feelings about sex, gender identity, or even
   That said, I do not think one needs to discuss "literature" as
"literature," or needs a "literature background" to discuss fiction in a
social science class.  If the character is written well, they, their
environment and motivations will be sufficiently described that they can be
studied as though they were a real person.  Indeed, whatever is written
about a "real" person, even autobiography, is also a representation of
"reality" (as opposed to "truth"), even if autobiographical.  Consequently,
I wonder if "fiction" is not a more "honest" way to discuss the intimate
details of people--at least the "fiction" writer admits that conjecture and
imagination has supplied details that biographers generally credit to
"inference" and "deduction."

Hannah Miyamoto
Graduate Student in Women's Studies
Minn. State Univ., Mankato
hsmiyamoto  AT  msn.com
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 16:23:16 -0400
From: Susan Clark-Cook <SCLARK AT BENTLEY.EDU>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
While I teach Psychology of Women which some don't consider a woman's
studies course, I always use the book, The Yellow Wallpaper, when I am
teaching class about women and mental health, although of course it also
folds in other issues as well...most times I get good reactions, but often
the class comments on how disturbing it was, or how, since it was written
in a different era it doesn't apply really, to now.  A great teaching
opportunity of course, and I think it's a good relief for the class from
just text books...art imitating life, or vice versa and that sort of
I like the idea and wish I could do more of it.

 "For if the mind can imagine it, the mind can make it so..."

 Dr. Susan Clark-Cook
 Clinical Psychologist
 Counseling and Student Development
 Adjunct Assistant Professor, Behavioral and Political Science
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 18:14:06 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
Hi all,
Like many others, I strongly support using literature in WS courses.
In my intro course this term, students are reading three novels, two
plays, and one text that gives a grounding in theories of gender.
Although I do have a background in literature, I don't teach novels
and plays as "literature" in my Intro WS courses; rather, I teach
them as artistic expressions that are intended to comment on our
culture, and I ask the students to determine what kinds of commentary
the artwork is making.

*My Year of Meats* is a great novel for this (it's one that I'm
teaching this term) in part because Ozeki gives us some insight into
her research. When I teach that novel in intro WS, we do a unit on
identity politics (Jane's self-perceptions regarding her biraciality
and her positioning between the Japanese company and the American
wives); a unit on domestic violence; a unit on the politics of food
production and health; and a unit on the power of the media in U.S.
culture. Rather than focus on the novel's structure, writing, and
characterizations, I use the story as a starting point for these
issues. The students read sociological sources for each unit (these
sources kind of interrupt our reading of the novel) and apply the
info in the studies to the events and ideas in the novel.

One of my favorite assignments is to have small groups construct a TV
magazine show segment (in the style of *60 Minutes*) on the issue at
hand. So, for example, in the unit on food production and health, the
students read information from the U.S.D.A. homepage, a couple of
critiques of the beef industry, and a political commentary on changes
in food regulations in recent years. Then, they construct a short
segment in which the reporter might interview Jane (a character in
the novel), Bunny (another character in the novel), a USDA rep (using
the webpage info), and the pundit who wrote the political commentary.
They work together in-class for one hour constructing these
interviews, and in the next class session, they read/perform them for
the class (and turn in a written copy for evaluation). This
assignment helps students build synthesis skills as well as critical
thinking skills.

I've never had a student say that a novel wasn't relevant because it
was "just fiction" and I think that's because they read data-based
sources in conjunction with each novel. I have had students critique
novels in class for "going too far" with some particular issue (i.e.,
*The Handmaid's Tale* is "over the top" in its critique of organized
religion), but this isn't a problematic observation at all--it opens
the door for students to explore their own ideas about and critiques
of our culture and relate them to the novel's ideas.

I know this is not the way to teach a novel as literature--I do some
of that, too, in literature courses. But in an interdisciplinary
women's studies course, this is what I do.

Best of luck, Blaise!
jludlow  AT  bgnet.bgsu.edu
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 16:01:02 -0700
From: Joan Starker <jstarker AT TELEPORT.COM>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST

When I used to teach Adult Development, I extensively used fiction.  Part
of the reason was that I took a psychology course in college that utilized
fiction. - and this was in the early 1960's.  Our first assignment was to
see Genet's The Blacks and our second assignment was to read Henry James'
What Maisie Knew!!.. I was thrilled. So I had the first hand experience of
the power of understanding human behavior through literature.  (This was
after taking a boring college course while in high school that utilized
your standard psychology text!)

For every developmental issue, I used both a fictional piece i.e. short
story and a psychological/academic article. In fact, one of my written
assignments involved reading assigned biographies/biographical novels such
as Jamaica Kincaid's Autobiography of My Mother.  The students were then
divided into discussion groups based on the selected novel.  I used fiction
as a way of critiquing classic developmental theories i.e. how well do the
theories we've discussed apply to the central character in the novel. (I
gave them specific questions for discussion).  And then the students had to
write an individual paper based on the discussion/reading.

Joan Starker, Ph.D.
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 2004 19:48:44 -0400
From: Clare Holzman <clare.holzman AT VERIZON.NET>
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
  When I was in college, I took a course in Personality Theory in which we
all read Camus's _The Stranger_ and each of us chose a theory of
personality from our textbook and used the theory to account for the
protagonist's behavior. What was fascinating about it was how so many
mutually contradictory theories sounded convincing when viewed in
isolation. It was a valuable lesson in the nature of theories and the
nature of "explanation."

Clare Holzman
330 West 58th Street, 404
New York, NY 10019
phone 212 245 7282
fax 718 721 9313
clare.holzman  AT  verizon.net

"We ought to distrust anyone who cautions us to 'let the facts speak for
themselves.' If you find a speaking fact, look right away for the
Laura Sabatini and Faye Crosby (2003) Problematizing problems. _Feminism
and Psychology, 13,_265
Date: Thu, 16 Sep 2004 09:08:59 -0700
From: diana blaine <dblaine AT USC.EDU>
Subject: using lit
Hey Blaise.  I have 3 degrees in English and use lit in Women's
Studies, so I thought I would respond.  Basically I discuss the way in
which all of our lives are narratives--the stories that we
tell--including metanarratives, those huge ones like Christianity and
capitalism, etc.  Of course our disciplines are narratives (yours
starts out as the "talking cure" for crying out loud!), even those
that purport to be objective science.  We still need to communicate
them via language.  Can't escape that. And with language comes
metaphor, which is where fiction fits in.

In WMST I don't try to teach the lit as lit so much as I do use it to
show imaginary worlds that resonate so clearly with our "real" ones.
I am using Woman on the Edge of Time this term, a utopian novel
imagining a non-oppressive future, because it imagines exactly that,
and presents it vividly.  If nothing else, it remains a sociological
document representing the values and politics of a particular place
and time.  But it is more than that, like all fiction: both a no-place
and somewhere we recognize as familiar.  The Handmaid's Tale, a
dystopia, offers the same opportunity for identification and vision.



Diana York Blaine, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer
The Writing Program and Gender Studies
University of Southern California
dblaine  AT  usc.edu

"Serving the Moon Goddess since 1961"
Date: Thu, 16 Sep 2004 12:32:33 -0400
Subject: Re: using literature in WMST
I always use at least one novel in my WMST classes even though my
background is in Sociology. If you pick books that are obviously
related to Women's Studies, I doubt any student will question the
relevance of fiction. I've never had that problem. I've been using The
Women of Brewster Place and The Awakening in my classes. I've been
doing it long enough that I would feel comfortable leading the classes
on my own at this point, but I still usually bring in a friend from the
English department to be a guest speaker. Why not let someone with
expertise in literature lead the class discussion? Students enjoy guest
speakers, and working with other instructors across campus fosters
collegiality. AND it gives me a break! You just need to make friends
with English professors. And also be willing to return the favor.
Bribery works too. :)

Shereen Siddiqui
siddiqui  AT  fau.edu

Shereen Siddiqui
Instructor--Women's Studies Center
Florida Atlantic University
siddiqui  AT  fau.edu
"Learning is a place where paradise can
be created." --bell hooks
Date: Fri, 17 Sep 2004 15:42:23 -0400
From: Jen McWeeny <jmcweeny AT jcu.edu>
Subject: Using literature in WMST
Dear Blaise and Others,
I have included a feminist fiction project when I teach 101
and the students seem to really enjoy the project.  On the
first week I let the students choose between 6-8 different
novels/sets of novels (each novel group totals around 400
pages). Thus, in a class of 60, there will be 6 different
reading groups.  The students read the novels on their own
time and then write a paper arguing for whether they think
the novels are feminist or not (which entails that they come
up with a working definition of feminism.  I meet with the
reading groups outside of class time (I cancel class that
week) to discuss the novels.

I structure the class around the theme of the interplay
between one's concepts (in the philosophical sense,
e.g. "race", "class" "normal", "woman" "mother" etc.), one's
practices, and the social/political institutions within which
one is embedded.  As a class we usually come to the
conclusion that representations (images, words, gestures,
performances) influence our concepts, which in turn influence
our behaviors and political institutions.   I then stress
that reading feminist fiction is a way to expose ourselves to
representations that differ from the ones we are normally
exposed to and thus, it could be a way to liberate our
concepts/behaviors/and institutions.

I have pasted the book list I use and basic hints for
analyzing literature at the bottom of this message (I do have
some training in literature but am not an expert (my field is
philosophy) so the list is informed mostly but what has
helped the students to be creative).  If you are not
interested in these documents, do not read on.

Jen McWeeny
jmcweeny  AT  jcu.edu

Groups and Novels for the Feminist Fiction Project:

Group 1:        Fear of Flying (1973), Erica Jong

Group 2:        The Princess de Cleves (1678), Marie-
Madeleine de Lafayette
Don Quixote: which was a dream (1986), Kathy Acker

Group 3:        The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker
The Yellow Wall Paper (1896), Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Ourika (1823), Claire de Duras

Group 4:        The Woman Warrior (1975), Maxine Hong Kingston
The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath

Group 5:        The Awakening (1899), Kate Chopin
Do Drums Beat There? (2000), Doe Tabor

Group 6:        Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Marge Piercy

Group 7:        Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747),
Francoise de Graffigny
Surfacing (1972), Margaret Atwood

Group 8:        Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Zora
Neale Hurston
Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Rita Mae Brown

Helpful hints for constructing a literary analysis:

1.      At the end of each chapter, or at the end of every 20
pages or so, write two or three sentences that summarize the
plot of that chapter.  This will make it very easy to
remember the plot of the novel at a later date.

2.      Make a list of key themes in the novel and circle any
words or ideas that repeatedly occur in the text.  For
example, if on every page someone is sitting down to dinner
or if a character always says a certain phrase, then it is a
good bet that these repeated activities relate to the main
idea of the novel in some way.

3.      Identify the genre of the novel (e.g. science-
fiction, detective, romance, epistolary, postmodern,
autobiographical, etc.).  Ask yourself what the genre allows
the author to do.  For example, in a science-fiction novel an
author can create a whole world that does not have to be very
realistic.  If women and men are not equal in reality, then
the author can create a universe where they are equal.

4.      Identify the narrator of the novel.  Who is telling
the story and what does it mean for that person to "give
voice" to the story?  In other words, what might the author
be accomplishing by claiming that that type of person is
creating the representation that is the novel?

5.      Analyze the title of the novel.  How does the title
support the main themes of the text, if at all?

6.      Try to identify certain symbols that operate
throughout the text.  For example, if the only times when the
characters are happy are when they are outside in nature,
then it is likely that nature is a symbol for "the good"
or "happiness."

7.      Identify any scenes or actions in the text that
are "out of the ordinary" or whose meaning is heavily context-
dependent.  For example, when a woman in the 19th Century is
wearing a suit and tie and a fake moustache, this has a
different social meaning than when a man does.  How do these
scenes support the themes of the text?

8.      Identify the time that the novel was written and the
time of narration.  These may be two different dates as in
the case when a contemporary author is writing a story that
takes place in the 1800's.  How does the time period affect
your interpretation?

9.      Remember that all of these novels are fiction.  Are
there any times when you feel that they are true stories,
i.e. that the stories really took place?  How does the author
get you to feel this way?

10.  Analyze the ending.

Ms. Jen McWeeny
Department of Philosophy
John Carroll University
20700 North Park Blvd.
University Heights, OH 44118

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