Academic journal article Reader

Changing Our Stories: Engendering Imaginative Agency through Reading and Writing (about) Literature

Academic journal article Reader

Changing Our Stories: Engendering Imaginative Agency through Reading and Writing (about) Literature

Article excerpt

The role of reading in relationship to writing is "underexamined," not only in composition classes, as Gary Ettari and Heather C. Easterling state in a recent issue of Reader, but also in many literature courses (10). Despite the challenge of reader-oriented theories, most literature professors at our institution (and, we suspect, elsewhere) continue the New Critical practice of asking students to write only analytical essays about literature. Yet this traditional approach does not necessarily help students to examine their responses to assigned texts, nor does it help them to acquire imaginative agency; that is, it does not teach students that reading and writing (about) literature can also help them to imagine or reimagine their own lives in relationship to others-to lovers, to family, to friends and community. To teach imaginative agency, the authors of this article designed and twice co-taught an undergraduate topics course, cross-listed with Women's Studies, entitled "Changing Our Stories," in which the value of storying and re-storying our lives was our major theme. We argue that as a result of the creative alchemy that occurred during the second time we taught "Changing Our Stories"-a course designed to invite students to take a writerly stance toward reading-most of our students acquired a degree of imaginative agency rarely achieved in courses that require only analytical forms of writing. We illustrate this claim primarily through an analysis of students' final written projects;1 but first we outline our theoretical assumptions and briefly describe our course.

Theoretical Assumptions

To begin, we define imaginative agency, not as the autonomous act of an individual, but rather as dialogic. As Mikhail Bakhtin argues, it takes a minimum of two to create a speech community, a speaker and a listener, or a writer and a reader (see Holquist).2 Moreover, if communication is to occur, we must both listen and speak, read and write; therefore, as Bakhtin argues, "We must all, perforce, become authors" (quoted in Clark and Holquist (66)). We also assume, like many other feminists, that the subject, or self, is inherently relational. For example, even when adolescents declare their independence, they need parents to acknowledge their declarations. As Jessica Benjamin explains, "Recognition is that response from the other which makes meaningful the feelings, intentions, and actions of the self. It allows the self to realize its agency and authorship in a tangible way"(12). With this dialogic-relational model of reading/writing subjects in mind, we invited students to analyze literature with the goal of becoming story tellers /writers themselves. That is, we invited students to imagine themselves as readers who could, potentially, author their own texts and lives.

However, before inviting students to become authors, we first required them to read attentively. We think of reading, not as a process of projecting ones identity into a text-as, for example, Norman Holland does-but as a form of receptive listening. As Schweickart explains, the relationship of reader and text need not be one of dominance or submission; instead, it can be a caring relationship. "To listen with care," Schweickart says, "is to treat the text not merely in its texuality but as the expression of a subject" (1990: 89). Only after students listened/read with care, exploring the works of women writers in class discussion and short writing assignments did we ask them to emulate the writing of a range of women authors, in a variety of genres, introduced in the course. Also, since we were teaching women' literature to 33 (mostly) women students, we approached assigned readings in a manner similar to that described by Adrienne Rich in "Vesuvisus at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." Rich's rhetoric in this essay "represents an implicit commentary on the process of reading women's writings," as Schweickart observes (1986: 45). Rather than assuming the stance of a resisting reader, which Judith Fetterley recommends for women reading men's writing, Rich assumes the stance of a woman writer reading another woman writer. …

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