“Hope and Keep Busy”: Teaching American Women Writers as Models of Moral Courage in Dark Political Times

SAMPLER

After the election of 2016, like many educators, I had to challenge my previous assumptions about teaching and students. As a progressive educator, I had always believed in the human capacity to change and grow through knowledge, empathy, and education. But a presidential campaign based on anti-woman, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric had culminated in the victory of Donald Trump. In the face of the election’s outcomes and the subsequent attacks on vulnerable American populations that followed it, my previous pedagogical assumptions seemed naïve and ill-informed. Yet even as I grappled to find my pedagogical way in this new world, the words that kept running through my mind were from my favorite childhood novel—one that I teach often— Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

“Hope and keep busy.”

In the novel, Marmee comforts her four daughters with these words when she must rush to her dangerously ill husband, a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The 1869 novel’s “little women” were based on Alcott and her three sisters. Although the novel doesn’t mention it, Alcott’s parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott were social reformers and abolitionists; their home in Concord, Massachusetts was part of the Underground Railroad. Alcott herself was involved with the Women’s suffrage movement and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

As a professor at a small college in Texas, this past year I often encountered students who are worried about the loss of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and Civil Rights in general. Some students feel lost and let down by the Republican Party, the political party they were raised in. In the aftermath of the election and to this day, I don’t know what to tell students when they come to me with these concerns or bring them up in class discussion. But in the spirit of Alcott, I tell all of my students to be strong and brave, to “hope and keep busy.”

Before the election of 2016, I had cynically taught Marmee’s words in the context of the “cult of true womanhood” and separate spheres ideology. “Hope and keep busy,” I would tell my students, was a platitude to satisfy nineteenth-century women and children with little political power and influence. But over the past year, I have come to see Marmee’s instructions as wisdom for those of us who feel disconsolate by our current political moment. To “hope and keep busy” is to believe in a better future and to fearlessly endeavor toward it, even if you are not sure of the outcome.

In response to my students’ worries, over the past year I have been intentionally teaching nineteenth-century American women writers like Alcott as models of moral courage and political empowerment in the face of political and social injustice. Many women writers from this time period were active in abolitionist and women’s rights activism and writing. In a previous PALS blog post, I wrote about “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature,” a very popular 200-level topics course for English majors and minors that also fulfills a general education requirement for non-majors. I am currently teaching a class for English majors on nineteenth-century social reform movements and literature. I’ve also had the chance to speak about some of the writers featured below at community fora and an International Women’s Day teach-in on my campus.

Angelina and Sarah Grimké: “Read, Pray, Speak, Act”

Angelina Emily Grimke.jpg

Students are consistently inspired by the words of Angelina and Sarah Grimké. The two sisters were daughters of an influential judge and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged by slavery, they became abolitionists and moved to Philadelphia. Through their writing and speeches, they were some of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement. They initially spoke only to female audiences, but when men joined the audiences the Grimkés received censure and criticism. This lead to their advocacy for and involvement in the women’s rights movement as well.

Several of their most significant pamphlets are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and are easily accessible for classroom use. In her 1836 pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, Angelina Grimké provided four interconnected strategies that women could use to fight slavery:

1) Read

2) Pray

3) Speak

4) Act

Because I teach at an institution with a religious tradition and an emphasis on service, my students see the relevance of Grimké’s words to the social justice issues they care about today. Students comment that Grimké’s advice to be informed and reflective makes their activism and political involvement intentional and structured, a contrast to the mayhem and dysfunction they see in Washington, D.C. and the state capital of Austin. To them, Grimké’s words mean 1) First, educate yourself on the issue; 2) Then reflect by connecting your fears and hopes about the issue to your own values or a “higher power”; 3) Next, foster dialogue with your family, friends, and others in your sphere of influence; 4) And finally, take action in your community by contacting lawmakers, protesting, and volunteering.

Grimké’s pamphlet was burned in the south, and the Charleston police warned that if the sisters ever returned, they would be greeted by—and not protected from— violent mobs. Things only got worse for the abolitionist movement after that with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the events leading up to the Civil War; yet the Grimké sisters remained committed to the abolitionist movement and women’s rights causes.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How did the Grimkés’ religious commitments inform their writing and activism?
  2. What does “Read, Pray, Speak, Act” mean to you? Is this an effective political strategy in the present day?
  3. How would the Grimké sisters respond to today’s social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington?

Sojourner Truth: “Make This Nation Rock Like a Cradle”

Image result for sojourner truth

Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved woman and a vociferous abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man when she sued for her son’s freedom. During a speech in 1858, an audience member accused her of being a man, so she opened her blouse and showed her breasts. Truth was a deeply religious woman whose millennial vision for an ideal world informed her activism. Throughout her life, she worked as an itinerant preacher to tell the “Truth” of the Christian gospel and work against injustice and inequality.

Truth is most known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, an extemporaneous oration she gave at the Women’s Right Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth demands equal human rights for all women, including black women. She identifies the intersection of race, slavery, and gender in her critique of national inequality:

Nobody eber halps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place! [….] I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off the slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Truth had not been invited to the Women’s Right’s Convention and was not on the program due to tension between black and white women in the abolitionist and women’s movements. Because she could not read or write, white women later rewrote Truth’s story, including multiple transcriptions of her famous speech. Indeed, teaching “Ain’t I a Woman” as a literary text raises pedagogical questions about cultural appropriation, textual mediation, and issues of white privilege that students see as relevant and ongoing in the present day.

After the Civil War, Truth worked in Freedman’s Villages in Washington D.C. When threatened with arrest for this work, she said she would “make this nation rock like a cradle.” Teaching Truth’s life and work as a model of moral courage encourages students to think deeply about the United States’ legacy of slavery, racism, and sexism and the tensions between idealism and activism.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How can learning about Truth’s experiences as a black woman, a former slave, an anti-slavery activist, and a women’s rights advocate provide us insight into our own experiences?
  2. What did it mean for Truth to “speak truth to power”?
  3. How can Truth’s positive and negative relationships with white women help us see a better way for race relations in the present day?

Today’s Students: “Structure to the Chaos”

Image result for parkland students face the nation

There are any number of American women of letters who joined the ranks of Alcott, the Grimké sisters, and Sojourner Truth: Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to name a few. All of these women writers used their voices and the written word to point out the nation’s flaws and injustices and imagine “a more perfect union.”

My once despondent students have been heartened by the influence of these writers’ thoughtful and committed activism over the past year, and especially by the outcome of the December Senate race in Alabama and the recent activism and voice of Parkland, Florida student Emma Gonzalez. But through the study of earlier activists and writers, they now realize that change comes slowly and there is still work to be done. Many of my students have said that learning about the perseverance of these women writers makes them feel “safe and comforted” and brings “structure to the chaos” of today’s unpredictable political news cycle.

The students find it encouraging that all of these women writers believed in the democratic institutions of the United States, even when our country’s promises seemed distant and unachievable. The lives and writing of these American women provides students with examples of moral courage and remind us that those who “hope and keep busy” engage in a profound act of pedagogical resistance in our daunting political times.

Questions for classroom discussion:

  1. What do these authors have in common with present-day protest writers and activists such as Claudia Rankine and Emma Gonzalez?
  2. What did these writers have at stake? Do you think they worried about the outcome?
  3. Which quote from the readings makes you feel better about the future? Is there a quote that helps you see the present-day situation more clearly?

Questions for pedagogical reflection:

  1. Has the election of 2016 changed the way you teach specific authors, texts, and courses?
  2. Is it appropriate to promote students’ personal development—along with their intellectual development—in American literature courses? How do you do this? Through class discussion? Reflective essay prompts? Other strategies?
  3. How is the framework of “moral courage” applicable to other authors you teach? What does this pedagogical approach allow us and our students to see in the literature that other approaches might overlook?

Note: This blog post is based on an opinion article published in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read that article.

 

 

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Happy Accidents: Family and Place Writing in Creative Nonfiction

I’m usually compelled to blog about a sequence I’ve carefully constructed—one I’ve thought about in depth, struggled with, and streamlined. But today I’ll look at a sequence that wasn’t planned at all. This is because I’ve located an underexplored area in my own pedagogy: the happy accident.

Not that my teaching is particularly accidental: on a scale from haphazard to organized, I’d say I’m pretty organized. But on occasion I encounter someone superorganized. And I marvel, because the superorganized are impressive and humbling.

On the other hand, teaching a course that is fairly organized—a couple notches down from extraordinary and a bit shy of superorganized—has its perks: sometimes I discover a gem… a happy accident. Where I hadn’t envisioned a clear transition between lessons, now I discover they are not only connected, but that one is actually integral to another. As if I had planned it (which, technically, I did).

The Big Picture

This happened recently in my introductory course on the creative nonfiction essay. With a cluster of weekly topics planned for the first half of the semester, I wasn’t particularlyworried about how those topics would build: I envisioned an inventory of basic tools. This would give students the necessary foundation for an outside research progression and an ekphrastic writing project during weeks 7-15 of the course. I paid more attention to the strategic arrangement of the second half of the semester.

But sparks are flying between two topics early on: Writing the Family and Place as Character. It looks like studying family gives students (particularly students who are learning to read like writers) a foundation for place. Why didn’t I think of this myself?

Reflection

Beginning creative writing students often struggle with setting. They tend toward no-place on one hand, or toward elaborate—and stagnant—descriptive passages on the other. The initial attitude is often some variation of how/why make place come alive? It just sits there. And while much of the place-based writing tradition in American literature does involve imagery and description, it is a fallacy that “good place writing” = “long descriptions of place.”

Students of the novel learn, for example, that Balzac’s lush descriptions of a drawing room simultaneously function as a sophisticated socioeconomic study of nineteenth-century France while also situating his characters in precise positions within that stratified society. Setting in contemporary creative nonfiction essays work the same way; the key is to get students invested in understanding the work that a description of setting or a passage about place is doing in the essay as a whole.

I notice that even if students overall don’t tend to harbor curiosity about place writing, they are concerned about the ethics of nonfiction family writing. In general, they don’t want their own writing to sell anyone out or burn bridges—many are living on their own for the first time and miss their families more than they expected to. Learning to read like writers in this context means, among other things, learning to find the sweet spot where compassion, respect, and honesty all coexist on the page.

 

Texts and Classtime

I’ve paired the Tell It Slant chapter, “Writing the Family,” with three essays: David Sedaris, “Forgive Me”; Rebecca McClanahan, “Interstellar”; and Dinty Moore, “The Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Fathers.”

David Sedaris’ essay centers on his sister, Lisa. After gathering reader responses in a few minutes of personal reaction-based discussion, I introduce the term “characterization” with a very open-ended definition. Characterization is any passage or element of the text that reveals one or more of the following: personality, mood, inclinations, preferences, history, desires, motivation, conflicts, gestures, the body, the mind, the spirit. We take a few more minutes for open-ended discussion in which students interact with this definition and the text. Then, I have students work individually. They create a two-column table and select the three passages they consider to be “most revelatory about Lisa” for the left column.

All essays named in this post appear in this anthology.

 

Once this column is filled out, I introduce the heading for the right-hand column: “what exactly the passage reveals about Lisa.” Students work individually to get initial ideas down, then we open up the activity for collaborative analysis.

What’s valuable about this series of steps is that it sets students up to pass through several stages of precision. A passage they had initially agreed was “funny” in the first

Writer David Sedaris; photo from davidsedarisbooks.com

round of class discussion becomes, for one student working individually, a passage that reveals Lisa’s guarded sense of lurking danger. When that student shares this insight in the second round of discussion, others chime in. They agree line reveals Lisa’s wariness, but it’s still funny. Why? Well, it also reveals the narrator’s perspective on Lisa (it reveals that Sedaris finds Lisa both charming and overly reactive, giving us a window not only into Lisa but to the sister-brother dynamic). We repeat this with other passages students have chosen, and find a repeating pattern: powerful characterization often tells us more than one thing about a character.

In the End

I’m sharing a deceptively simple insight: students negotiating their own autonomy/independence and family ties tend to be invested in understanding characterization—its methods, its risks, and its power—particularly in the context of writing the family. Thinking about characterization as an assemblage of meaningful

Writer Diane Glancy; photo from the Poetry Foundation

revelations prepares beginning students to approach setting and place as an assemblage of meaningful revelations as well. For example, the discussion question, “what does detail XYZ reveal about the character?” is valuable beyond family writing because it demands that students make the same mental moves they need to make in order to parse a text’s construction of place. For example, Diane Glancy’s essay, “Sun Dance” involves “the low, rolling hills of South Dakota under the sky that lidded them.” The same close reading approach we took to Sedaris’ essay will reveal a degree complexity and importance in Glancy’s treatment of place very similar to what students found in Sedaris’ treatment of his sister.

The experience reminds me, as a teacher, of the importance of audience: I can probably never know my students well enough. This places a very particular kind of pressure on my pedagogy—it comes in large part from my academic training, but it also depends on continually ethnographic observation of the student population I’m immersed in. With every window I get into their lifeways (happily accidental or otherwise), it becomes possible to understand their learning more clearly, and—I hope—to teach them a little better.