English 420 / 420G Women's Literature
Fall 1999 Semester
Overview of Exercise
|Students enrolled in the upper level / graduate sections of Women's
Literature are exposed to the gender issue in women's lives and women as
writers in a number of ways. There are numerous autobiographical
and poetic statements in the course anthology, Gilbert and Gubar's The
Norton Anthology of Literature By Women, 2nd edition. In addition,
I offer an introduction to on-line resources and announce the required
reading from on-line sources we use to supplement the anthology.
In the Fall 1999 Semester, the reading included one essay by Elizabeth
Robins that I consider a prototype for Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's
Own, Adrienne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken," and other manifestos
which expose the cultural biases that marginalize women who write from
a woman's point of view.
I am project director of The Elizabeth Robins Web, a site which, with modest startup funding from a JSU Faculty Research Grant, makes available hyptertext versions of Robins's previously published works. Over the summer of 1999, I added Robins's collection of suffrage speeches and essays collected as Way Stations (1913) to my on-line offerings. Thus, in addition to Robins' influential play Votes for Women, the clas was encouraged to read either this pamphlet, "Woman's Secret," available on line at http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/robins/waysta/way01wos.htm, and intednded as preface for the novel version of the play, or another essay by Robins, preferably one she addressed to other women writers at their suffrage association meetings in 1909 and 1910. Each of these essays provide the historical context for the themes and tone of the social issues drama that so vitalized Robins' reputation.
In the same manner, I wanted to convey the context for Tillie Olsen's minor masterpiece, Tell Me a Riddle, which students read from the anthology. Even though I also made available the optional viewing of the film adaptation ot the text, students who work with me know that the viwing never takes the place of their engagement with the text. Indeed, it was useful for this class to hear from those who could make careful critiques of the filmmaker's choices as they argued for the strengths in the text.
In order to better integrate Olsen's imaginative text with themes in the course, I elected to convey some of the original impact that Tillie Olsen had on my generation of scholars by relating the importance, when it first was published, of her book Silences, and telling of her appearance at one or two events in the Five-College Area (in and near Amherst, Massachusetts). I also had a taped interview which was broadcast as a Humanities Foundation event from North Carolina's National Public Radio. I carefully selected a segment that I thought best characterized the life forces which Olsen delineates as both hindrances to the time she felt she could devote to her writing and those which characterize the vital energy of a woman's caring-- for children, for political organizations, for working to help support a family. Many of the students are already familiar with Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing," and Olsen, I explained, was asked to give a brief preface to explain the story's genesis. I was particularly interested in conveying what Olsen expresses as the necessity for a "compressed" style, as I felt the flow (and leaps) in Tell Me A Riddle made it challenging to appreciate without such a disclaimer.
I have drafted the procedure for conducting the exercise in a longer version of this document. What is important to stress in this on-line class page is that the initial impulse to personalize and project back an autobiographical statement that students had heard, under somewhat spontaneous circumstances, turned into a major turning point for the class. The exercise was one of many, variously formatted, non-graded response exercises. (Students also wrote paragraphed essays, discussed in small groups and reported to the class, took factual quizzes, and gave me lists of their previous encounters with titles in the anthology). Only one or two students read their pieces on the spot, but I collected all work.
The responses meant more because of the way I elected to return them.
I held them until the last class (announcing I was keeping a xeroxed copy),
then passed them back. Just after coaching them on best ways to deal
with some provocative and synthesizing issues that they were to write up
for the final exam, then, I gave the class the opportunity for a "read-around."
Students left the class with the impressions left by hearing aloud each
spontaneous effort to turn Olsen's outburst into a personalized poetic
statement. The re-creations were elevated into a format more appropriately
classified as a testimonial, a confirmation that indeed, they felt and
comprehended Olsen's burdens and joys of needing to write under less than
perfect circumstances. (In Olsen's original, of course, she names
Henry James as representative of the leisured male writer who has world
enough and time.)
Sample Student Responses
(I am only printing those of students who signed a disclaimer
giving me permission to use their work for Teacher Research)
|No matter what, writing will be hard work.
I will always be the same race,
I will always have the same color skin,
I will forever be a full-time mother.
No matter what obstacle I face each day,
No matter how much I want to stop,
Maybe I did not start my writing career sooner.
Maybe I am not as famous as Henry James, and
Maybe I have not had the same opportunity,
But, I have achieved my writing goals.
No matter if I was female or a male, I completed something
because I believed in myself.
Profound ecstasy of determination.
Discovery . . . over and over and over.
Excited rambling, rambling on.
Good ironing makes good poetry.
worry about daily tasks.
What's for breakfast?
Magically the work is finished.
The story will be finished in an
|In that more triumphant time
In regardless of the body we were born into
regardless of the color of our skin
In all of us
That human ecstasy of achievement
This was as I've written
It's called I sand here writing
It took me two years
Motherhood -- otherhood -- unpaid jobs
More than a fourth of a century ago.
Two years took to write
'Tween cooking, and cleaning,
and being a wife.
My life as a mother, comes
foremost, yes first
But the lives of male writers
I quench for, I thirst.
I write for my children
their worlds to make better,
for peace in the world,
is my great endeavor.
|Years of silence.
Forced to withhold the thoughts
which breathe life into the fire
that is your soul.
Thoughts which run wildly
throughout your mind--
night and day.
the night is yours--
Stolen moments for your own
living within your mind.
Simple, short sketches
that become your life--
in written form
until the years of silence
to leave you released
sex, and station of life is irrelevant, whether
that of the reader or the writer.
We are all damaged in some way, some more,
some less. This is also irrelevant.
We, as writers, should all reap satisfaction
from all of our accomplishments, no matter
what the size.
As we take the time to pick up a pen and write
Flattening out my
never-ending dialogue that
Cutting corners -- heaven forbid!
Must complete my task, must leave it all behind.
Finished -- almost.
This one I have fun with. It's the joy of my life --
Who could think that ironing
that fierce will in the electric
excitement of discovery!
No matter who you are!
Satisfaction! Give your all to all facets
of your life--bring peace!
Awesome. Admiration for a woman
Stepping side to side. Undecided
Awesome. Admiration for the
|Please remember me when I was Fresh and new
And excited by possibilities and challenges.
Remember the twinkle of ecstasy
that lit my eyes because of an "A"
Remember the delight I saw in
Please remember me as vibrant and fully awake
to sit here at my pleasure
and write the Corrected* thoughts
that some people call my faults.
You, Mr. James, scholar-master
You have no worries, cares or concerns,
Sooner or later, I will find the time
Regardless male or female.
The Electric excitement
Henry James! Who
needs the morning to
find you -- And it moves
|Unlike Mr. James, I struggle to write,
Battling the kids, the job, finding time only at night.
Life for some is simple and as a result, a bore.
As for me, I write, I participate for my kids and neighbors and I work
for peace in the world.
|Regardless of who we are born into
There is life in all of us.
--human ecstasy of achievement
Excitement of discovery?
Discovery of life?
duty and feel good
all in one
sleepless and exhaustion
give and give
no end will come
Resources and Influences:
Guth, Hans P. and Gabriele Rico, ed. Discovering Literature: Fiction Poetry, and Drama. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.
Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delacorte, 1978.
Rico, Gabriele. Keynote Address and Workshop on Recreations. Gulf Shores Conference on the Teaching of Writing. Point Clear, AL. August 1993.
To cite this page:
Gates, Joanne E. "Testimonials: A Classroom Exercise Based On Tillie Olsen Interview." Based on a Re-Creation Exercise Inspired by Gabriele Rico Workshops. July 2000 [DATE OF ACESS] <http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/teachpro/olsentes.html>If quoting only from a partuclar Response by letter, cite the full information as above. and list the Student Reponse [letter] before the date.
All instructional materials © 2000-2003 by Dr. Joanne E. Gates. The materials for these pages are copyrighted by Dr. Joanne E. Gates. You may not establish links to nor copy, nor re-edit, nor redistribute the information in these pages in any form, electronic or printed, without Dr. Gates's written permission. No institutional funds were expended expressly in developing this course. The professor retains the right to her own content as intellectual property. Student work for the class will be identified as such. Student authors retain all rights to use, publish, repost their own work only.
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