Gender & Writing, Humanistic Writing

Don’t feel free to call me Anne

Many of my students have trouble referring to women by their last names.  When we write English papers (or news articles and other reports), we typically refer to someone at first reference by first and last name, and for every reference thereafter, by last name only.  It is efficient and professional to do so.  But when it comes to referring to women, there is great resistance to this practice on the parts of both male and female students.

I first noticed this resistance when I began teaching freshman writing almost two decades ago, and nothing has changed, regardless of the class.  For instance, when I teach early American literature, students have no problem referring to John Smith as “Smith” or William Bradford as “Bradford.” But for some reason, when we encounter Anne Bradstreet, she is forever “Anne” in the students’ hearts and minds (and papers).  Nevermind that her famous poetry collection, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America (1650) did not even publish her name on its title page.

I do not believe that students hold onto the first names of women because they are withholding respect from them.  They almost universally rate Bradstreet’s poetry and her perspective on the New World as extremely valuable to our understanding of early America. But they assume a level of familiarity with her that they do not deem appropriate for Smith and Bradford.  They accept that significant male figures, whether they are civic leaders or writers, are detached beings set apart to do a particular job; hence, a last name reference feels correct and even deferential.

Female leaders or writers, on the other hand, dwell among us, in the minds of my students.  They are accessible. Certainly, Bradstreet writes about motherhood, love, household concerns, and sickness—all topics that pertain to the home.  But she also writes about God and Queen Elizabeth and the philosophy of art. She was highly educated, albeit informally, and was the first American poet to be published. She was ambitious and savvy about her identity as a poet.

Just as students refuse to accept that Anne Bradstreet may be referred to as simply “Bradstreet,” they also refuse to accept that there are no portraits of her.  Inevitably, presentations about her poetry will be accompanied by a modest and dutiful looking Puritan woman whom they insist is Bradstreet herself.  This painting appears as the frontispiece of Luther Caldwell’s An Account of Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan Poetess, and Kindred Topics, published in 1898.

When I teach writing, I am extremely clear about the protocol of using last names when referring to writers and critics.  There is something gravely unequal about referring to a major American woman writer as “Anne” while her male counterparts are known by their surnames.  Complicating this issue is the fact that “Bradstreet” is not even Anne Bradstreet’s given name.  She was born Anne Dudley.  So, one could argue that the first name reference is more of a nod to her true self, and not to the legacy of the family into which she married at the age of 16. But that is not what is happening.

When a woman has chosen a last name, it should become the professional moniker by which others refer to her.  Our resistance to doing so may reflect the assumption of familiarity that feels generous to the one who assumes, while in reality it disregards the identity of the woman with no last name.


Humanistic Writing

The best end result of writing

I asked my freshman writing students today what the best possible outcome would be for their research papers. Most of their responses had to do with the practical benefits they might gain:

“We’ll be better writers.”

“We’ll figure out how to apply our writing skills to other situations.”

“We’ll know how to do research.”

All true, but the response I was hoping for was, “I learned something about myself.” The practical ends of writing instruction are important.  We need to communicate clearly and effectively if we expect to relate to others. And yet, when I am reading student papers, I always search for moments of insight that can only come from deep contemplation.

My students are writing about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of the Power of Context, which proposes that our behavior is dictated by our environment. Gladwell suggests that positive surroundings create positive human behaviors; conversely, negative environments engender unsavory behaviors, including crime.

It’s a liberating idea, Gladwell argues, because it means that changing things for the better is within our control.  We do not have to shrug our shoulders and passively attribute crime to sociopathic personality or genetic predisposition.  We are not at the mercy of someone else’s inherent destructive tendencies.

As my students do their research and apply these ideas to different kinds of environments—schools, nursing homes, urban areas, workplaces—they are energized by how right Gladwell is.

At the same time, I ask them to consider what Gladwell is also saying about human nature: “Character isn’t what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be.  It isn’t a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits . . . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstances and context.” (The Tipping Point).

I posed this question to the class: “What if I tell you that your thoughts are irrelevant, that the feelings in your heart don’t matter, that everything about you is only shaped by your surroundings? How do you feel?”

After a silence, one student replied, “Helpless.”

This is not a piece of wisdom that we find through research. It only comes from the effort of meditating on the research and articulating how our minds respond to it. If my students are digging deeply enough into the topic as they write, and struggling to make sense of it in clear language, I think they will feel a natural resistance to the idea that our character is just a bundle of habits that can be dismantled in chaotic circumstances.  They may discover that there is something intangible, and perhaps ineffable, about being a person. And maybe—just maybe—they will take note of such insights in their papers.

That is what I want them to learn through their writing. Not how to write a topic sentence or to integrate a quotation, but to struggle through the structure of the paper to reach the best possible outcome: to discover in themselves their own original view of human nature.

Humanistic Writing

Writing and Human Capabilities

DSC_0196As 2018 kicks off, the internet buzzes with ideas about how to do everything better than last year: work, relationships, fitness, you name it. As a college professor, I am always thinking about how to teach better. So much of teaching is about preparing students for life after graduation. How do we know what, exactly, this rising generation will need to know to sustain themselves in their careers? A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that we shouldn’t worry so much about mastering the next hot skill set because it will change as swiftly as technology evolves:

“As the half-life of specific skills diminishes, and machines become proficient at tasks including even decision-making, then fundamentally human capabilities become more important: empathy, curiosity, creativity, imagination, emotional and social intelligence, leadership, and the development of other people.”

Writing helps to develop all of these human capabilities. It requires us to pull something out of our minds—thoughts, feelings, concepts—and connect it to the world around us.

We learn empathy when we struggle to make an idea comprehensible to someone else.

We demonstrate curiosity in our willingness to acquire knowledge and convey it to others.

We use imagination as we shape our language to describe or explain something.

We exhibit emotional intelligence by managing our feelings in an effort to communicate clearly.

We practice social intelligence when we see ourselves as communicators in a complex environment.

We exercise leadership in our willingness to guide others with the content of our writing.

We foster the development of other people by sharing the thoughts that we think will help them.

It is not an overstatement to say that writing helps us to nurture the most essential aspects of our humanity. The writing process slows down our minds, and because our efforts are outwardly directed, it connects us to others.  Or at least, that is what we strive to do when we write—to situate ourselves in the world and to find ourselves in sync with other minds.

Happy New Year.  May 2018 be a great year for you and your writing. pen small