Introduction to Women Writers

Ho hum. The course title doesn’t exactly wow them at registration. (And we’ll see how well it does as a blog posting title!)  In the past I’ve had sexy themes and posters to entice students (most of our students are not English majors), and I generally teach the course in the spring after I have a few terms to recruit. But with the massive influx of students lately, recruitment is no longer necessary: the class will have seats, and they will mostly fill.

What I do need to address is retention. How do I keep students in the class, students who generally do not read? A traditional anthology-focused survey course even makes me yawn. But 3-4 novels in 10 weeks generally leads to 10+ withdrawals by week 3. 

So, I’m thinking of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paired with Gilman’s Herland.

And I’m thinking of pairing Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Bridget Jones’ Diary.

And I’m thinking of pairing Alcott’s Little Women with Chopin’s The Awakening.

Am I crazy? Should I focus more on contemporary works (our course description is vague enough to allow for either breadth or depth)? Do you have other pairings that come to mind?

If anyone in the blogosphere is still even checking in on this “humble” (to quote a not so humble blogger) blog, post the works YOU would include in your own fantasy “Introduction to Women Writers” course, paired or not.

What I Know Now

pink_imnotdeadA colleague and friend invited me to see a play a few weeks ago: we had seen Menopause: The Musical together this summer, so we’re sort of play-going buddies (and kayaking buddies, though since I broke one of her bungee cords last summer she may reconsider that–don’t ask me HOW I broke such a thing): not to mention that once classes begin, we rarely get to see each other and this was one of those rare work-light weekends. 

We went to a community playhouse that was putting on a reading/performance to benefit our women’s resource center.  Five local actresses sat comfortably on cozy sofas, while taking turns reading, and performing, letters written by older women (aged 21-60+) to their younger (aged 4-40) selves. 

The reading/performance was based on Ellyn Spragins’ edited collection of letters, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, written by 40 famous women, including Maya Angelou, Ann Curry, Olympia Dukakis, Naomi Wolf, etc.  The local actresses read a few of the published essays beautifully, but the most emotionally powerful letters were those written by the actresses themselves and those by some of the audience members—women who participated in a letter writing workshop.

The theatre is cozy, and serves wine, so we, the audience, too, settled in as if in someone’s living room.  Of the 50 or so attendees, only 2 were men, and the women were generally in their 30s-60s.

As the director noted in her post-performance chat with us, she tried to select letters that covered a range of ages and subject, moving from light-hearted (don’t worry my dear 4-year old self: you will pass kindergarten and make friends), to the more serious (I’m sorry my 30 year old self: you will have to suffer from cancer again, but you survive it again, too).  There’s a wonderful song by Pink called “Conversations With My 13-Year-Old-Self”  that  provided, at least in my mind, the soundtrack for this powerful performance.

The letters are all by women, alas: I think it would be fascinating to hear what men would write to their younger selves. I’m curious to know what subjects men would focus on–anyone want to run with that?

Now, I’m not so sure I want to read the book: I suspect there is unevenness, maybe even schmaltziness, to the series of letters.  But, the reading/performance worked for me.

What would I say to my 13 year old self? 

 What comes to mind is just a series of nags:  “Just eat that cookie instead of agonizing over it, and write MORE in that diary with the fake key.”  But also some praise: “How COOL you were to study Latin, to learn to twirl a rifle, and to keep up pen pals from several different continents (obviously, my early blogging tendencies….), and try to write a novel.  You were so incredibly courageous and curious. You’ll lose some of that for a few years while you obsess over boys and sex, but courage and curiosity will come back to you with a vengeance, so be ready for it.”

Top 100 Women in History: Annie’s List

okeefe-cannaFeministe has a post asking for readers’ Top 100 Women in History.  I started to comment, then gave up realizing I’d take over the blog if I kept going—plus it’s too much trouble doing hyperlinks in comment fields. But here, I can go on and on and on……(and yes, it’s very literary-centered, but that’s my thing, and it’s not in any logical order):



·         Mary McCarthy (of the flying diaphragm scene in The Group, and one of the New York intellectuals)


·         Tillie Olsen (writer—“I Stand Here Ironing” and Silences— and activist)


·         Rebecca Harding Davis (working class writer of haunting “Life in the Iron Mills”)


·         Lucille Clifton (who loves her hips)


·         Margaret Fuller (author of Woman in the 19th Century)


·         Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (of course)


·         Judy Syfers (author of “Why I Want a Wife”)


·         Sojourner Truth (“Ain’t I A Woman?”)


·         Louisa May Alcott (not just of Little Women fame, she supported her entire family for decades)


·         Emma Goldman (I still think of Maureen Stapleton playing her in the film Reds)


·         Zitkala-Sa (author of The School Days of an Indian Girl)


·         Sui Sin Far (author of Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian)


·         Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women)


·         Leslie Marmon Silko (author of Ceremony)


·         Georgia O’Keefe (awesome artist)


·         Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein (literary and social couple of 1920s Paris)


·         Kate Chopin (her story “The Storm” was turn of the 20th century soft porn, and beautifully written; her novel The Awakening is a feminist masterpiece)


·         Alice Walker (for “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” especially)


·         Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Herland” are both feminist classics)


·         Adrienne Rich (“Diving into the Wreck” and her collection of essays “Of Lies, Secrets and Silences”)



I’ll continue another day….I’ve barely begun with this list!

Young Women Memoirs: Suggestions?

The other night, I held individual conferences with my advanced composition students to discuss their progress on drafting their researched essays.  Since this is a great group of students (I’ve written a little about them here) the 4 hours flew by with conversations ranging from “how do I cite a source that cites another source?”  to “how do I best juggle multiple sources?” to “should I begin by discussing Science Fiction or Dune itself?”

But my last student conference was with a young woman who, uncharacteristically, hadn’t handed in a rough draft to discuss, so I was curious and concerned about her all evening wondering if she would show up.  She did. Her essay is on how children of war are affected morally: a complex, intellectual topic for a first year student.  We briefly discussed her progress on the paper before getting to the real issue: she sheepishly admitted, at the same time dismissing its importance, that she had just broken up with her boyfriend of 5 years (they have been seeing each other since she was 15), and, as a result, she’d been couch surfing all week, thus the missing draft. 

I tried to assure her that it was, indeed, a big deal to break up with a boyfriend, especially one she was with for such a long period in her life, and that I understood completely.  She promised to get me a draft as soon as possible, recognizing that she was now ready to “bury” herself in her school work after a week (!) of mourning.

But here’s where the women’s memoirs come in: she is hiking this summer, alone, on the Appalachian Trail, and hoped to write a memoir about it.  Right now she is keeping a daily journal leading up to the big trip–but she was finding such daily notations unsatisfying.    Yet she didn’t quite get my suggestion that she approach her note taking more organically rather than impose such an artificial structure: I told her to think of the tag clouds in bogs, but she doesn’t read blogs. 

So what I’d like to do is recommend some memoirs for her to read before she heads off to her big hike.  Here are a few I’ve thought of, but I’d love suggestions, especially of works by younger writers that I’ve not included here:

  • Alice Koller/The Unknown Woman or The Stations of Solitude
  • Anne Lamott/Travelling Mercies
  • Annie Dillard/An American Childhood
  • Patricia Hampl/A Romantic Education
  • Dorothy Allison/Trash
  • Sallie Tisdale/Stepping Westward

Preaching the Gospel of Reading

Evan Agostini / Getty Images file
Evan Agostini / Getty Images file

I just finished doing a run through of my presentation on Oprah’s Book Club that I’ve titled “Preaching the Gospel of Reading” (not exactly an original title considering all the essays on OBC that use variations on that title), practicing for the Wednesday morning presentation.  I finally found a clear, and I hope, engaging focus, connecting my interest in Oprah’s Book Club with the question of Why Literature STILL Matters.  And while my significant other, who patiently listened to me practice, praised my delivery and gave me only a few excellent suggestions at tightening up some sections, I’m sure he is a little biased.  I’m nervous as hell: why is it that the thought of speaking to my colleagues (and remember it’s early in the morning, so my very under-caffeinated colleagues) makes me sweat tears?

Anyway, I need another day to focus on my presentation (and, at the same time, somehow grade final research papers) but I’m looking forward to distilling some of those ideas here for feedback. 
In the meantime, I’ve gotten several requests from students in my literature class (Books That Cook!) this term for reading lists so that they can continue reading fiction over winter break. First, let me say how much that pleases me, but second, I just love such requests. I’ve been mulling over what sort of list to create for this particular class: one that continues with the theme of food fiction and women writers, but also takes them further.   Don’t worry: I’ll be posting that list here, too, someday soon.

Books That Cook! My First Food Fiction Course

One of my favorite blogs, Bitch, Ph.D., posts recipes once in a while, and the most recent recipe posting included one for what looks to be a delicious pumpkin cookie: I can’t wait to try making them, though my baking/cooking skills are, not to be too humble, uneven.  Ms. Sybil noted in her posting that she should just start a food blog, and the cheers of support keep pouring in (for the most part).  That idea (a food blog, for those who cook, for those who eat, for those who like to read about food) got me reflecting (finally, in that time I allow for myself each morning when I go running–so that I can eat lots of pumpkin cookies) on the food fiction course I’m teaching this term for the first time.

Last spring I read an article in College English (70.4) titled “Books That Cook: Teaching Food and Food Literature in the English Classroom” by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite (the entire March 2008 issue is on food, fyi).   Since I was teaching a generically titled Introduction to Women Writers course this fall, I decided to try out some of their ideas by focusing on “food fiction” by women writers.  I ended up (after much anguish—I struggle with this choice whenever I teach a literature course) with the following reading list:

·         Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”

·         Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate

·         Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

·         Diana Abu Jaber’s Crescent

Other books I considered but couldn’t “fit in” to our quarter system include:

·         Joanne Harris’ Chocolat (much better than the film version)

·         Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes At the Whistle Stop Café

·         Chitra Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices

·         Diane Hammond’s Going to Bend

Several students chose one of the latter books as the focus of their final project, so I’m curious to read and hear about their responses to these selections. 

As it turns out, the novels worked well together, sharing many of the same themes (including elements of magical realism; fairy tale allusions; and, naturally, the use of food as a central metaphor).   And because we focused on contemporary women’s fiction–fiction that is not “canonical”–there were some engaging discussions of some of the issues (high vs. “middlebrow” literature and approaches to reading literature, for example) that I’m thinking/writing about for my Oprah’s Book Club talk next week.

I decided to focus on fiction, but I know there are many, many food memoirs out there, too.  And, of course, I limited the selection to women writers, but someday I can see a separate food memoir course where I could include one of my favorites, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.   

Please share any other ideas you have:  the course (now almost finished) was a joy to prepare and teach, and I’ll be asking students for feedback, too.  I’ll post more on the course after the term is over.