Teaching Women Writers of the Americas

By Bickford, Donna M. | Radical Teacher, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching Women Writers of the Americas


Bickford, Donna M., Radical Teacher


"My consciousness was raised about happenings outside of the US and about my own education."

I feel I have a lot to learn concerning all things unrelated to my ethnocentric education."

"I like to learn what the mainstream culture hides or ignores." (2)

My work in the classroom has always been connected to my interest in developing frameworks for comparative feminist transcultural literary criticism and analysis, and particularly in projects which link literatures of the United States and Latin America. I see my scholarly work as activist in nature, as I create new methodologies and enter into progressive efforts at curriculum transformation. Feminist literature, feminist literary criticism and analysis, and feminist pedagogies continue to be necessary strategies for achieving social change. They are not "front-line" in the sense that this term has been used to connote participation in public rallies, marches, and protests. But my work in the classroom, and the work of thousands of other feminist educators, is crucial work toward social justice. To this end, my pedagogical practices and assignments link my scholarly projects and activist impulses to my work in the classroom.

In the Spring 2000 semester, I taught a course entitled "20th Century Women Novelists of the Americas" at the University of Rhode Island. (3) The course included novels by women writers from the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. (4)

URI is a mid-size state university with a fairly even gender split and about 12% non-white students. The students in my course were all women of traditional college age, and all of Euro-American background. (I had envisioned an ethnically/racially diverse group of students in the course, but my outreach efforts--which included contacting the Multicultural Center, the Talent Development Office, and several Student Organizations--were unsuccessful). Since the course was cross-listed in both English and Women's Studies, several students came with some background in feminism and women's literature. None of the students, though, had read literature from countries other than the U.S. or Great Britain.

One of my goals for the course was to translate the activist projects apparent in the novels we read into student activism. I wanted students to understand their capacity--and responsibility-- to engage in social justice work. Thus, there were three required assignments: a traditional essay (which I called "comparative literary analysis and criticism"), a context report, and an activism project.

I incorporated contract grading in this course to allow students some control and autonomy over their assessment; I wanted to empower them and for them to feel ownership of the class. I also saw contract grading as an opportunity for students to consider their capacity to make choices, an important step in social justice work. The language I used to describe contract grading attempted to communicate these goals:

"In the spirit of responding to Paulo Freire's call to subvert authoritarianism in the educational process, and by invoking a practice sometimes referred to as "contract grading," I offer you the opportunity to participate in deciding how your work in our course will be assessed. Since--as Freire notes--reducing authoritarianism does not mean abdicating authority and pedagogical responsibility, I have designed the assignments that each of you will complete. You may decide what percentage of your grade will attach to each assignment. You will complete the Course Contract, (5) sign it, and return it to me no later than Thursday, January 27. I will sign it and return a copy to you during our next class meeting. I hope that this opportunity will encourage you to identify and capitalize on your individual strengths and interests. I also hope you will use it to challenge or motivate you to expand your comfort zone through these different modes of participation. …

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