Why I Don't Do Women's Studies
by Justine Nicholas
by Justine Nicholas
In a recent article, William Anderson described a culture of vicarious victimization that has pervaded so many campuses. He also explained how it has contributed, at least in part, to turning a questionable (to put it charitably) accusation into a travesty of justice that has tarred and feathered three young men who seemed to be doing little more than acting like young men.
Professor Anderson's article, and e-mails we exchanged following it, got me to thinking about an experience I had while I was in graduate school.
At the time, I was supplementing my assistantship by teaching a night course for another university. This class met in one of that university's "satellite campuses." The one in which I taught was located in a former junior high school in the East New York section of Brooklyn. That year, the NYPD's 75th Precinct, which included the campus, recorded more homicides than were recorded in all of France or Germany.
All fourteen students in that class were Black and/or Latina women who lived in that neighborhood or in the adjoining communities of Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant. And all of those women were older than I was.
Years later, I still think of them as one of the most enjoyable groups of people I've ever worked with. Some had jobs; others were trying to jump-start their lives after husbands, boyfriends or others in their lives died or disappeared. No matter their circumstances, they all came to class prepared to engage in lively, informed discussions. Their experiences gave more resonance to the insights they gained from their reading and shared with the class.
Everything went swimmingly until one class session just after the midterm. That night's class session was unlike any other up to that point: I was the only one talking.
Frustrated, I snapped my book shut. The students stared at me. Equally stunned, I grappled with myself for a way to proceed. I intoned, "What are you thinking now?"
Neither their stares nor silence broke.
"All right," I sighed. "Could you tell me what you think of the reading?"
I had assigned an essay from the reader the university's English department mandated for the course. Previously assigned readings included short stories and poems from that same reader. The works all, in one way or another, dealt with some aspect of working (or not working) and community life. The essay, I thought, complemented those readings by offering another perspective, albeit one more theoretical and academic, on the issues and ideas we had discussed.
But the students thought otherwise. They made comments about not learning anything from the essay or simply finding it boring. I assured them that their responses were valid and asked them to explain why they had such responses.
"It was written by some white professor," said Marva, whose son was one of my graduate-school classmates. "He's using lots of big, fancy words to tell us that there's racism and sexism."
"OK. So why does that bother you?"
"Look at me. Do you think I need anyone to tell me that there's racism."
I giggled nervously. "Hmm…I guess that would be like your son warning you about the risk of pregnancy."
Everyone laughed. Others added their comments. Finally, I said, "Well, I guess I won't be assigning that one again."
"So why did you assign it?" Marva wondered.
I mumbled a few things about its relevance to the topics we'd discussed. But I agreed that it had its shortcomings; indeed, I really didn't care much for it.
Then Ivette, a strikingly beautiful woman whose abusive ex-boyfriend intimidated her out of a modeling career she'd begun to pursue in her teen years, wondered aloud, "Why don't you teach us things you really care about? Things you know really well?"
My tongue only partly in my cheek, I retorted, "What if everything I know and love was written by dead white men?"
"Well, we need to read what they wrote," Ivette responded.
"We're here for an education. Give us the best you've got." That challenge issued from Shirley, who just a few months earlier completed her high school diploma at age 46.
"OK. Be careful of what you wish for…"
"Don't be afraid to teach us," Marva insisted.
A couple of days later, I bought enough copies of the Dover Thrift Editions of William Shakespeare's The Tempest and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House for everyone in the class. I told the students that these books, which cost only a dollar each, were on me, but they all insisted on paying for them. I chose those two plays for no other reason than that they are my favorites.
Their responses exceeded my most optimistic hopes. They were eager to read parts of the play aloud. And, even though our "campus" was located several miles from the university's library and none of them had computers (This was in the days before Internet usage was widespread.), all of them did probing research on various aspects of the plays, including their performances, historical contexts and, in the case of Shakespeare, his language.
Later, I realized that the plays mattered to these women for the same reasons they meant so much to me. Shakespeare and Ibsen both dealt with matters of fate and choice, and the consequences of each. And they did it in such a way that reached across centuries and continents, and across divides of socio-economic class and gender.
When I was growing up, the only books in our house were the set of Grolier Encyclopedia my grandmother purchased for us. Neither of my parents finished high school: My mother went to work to help support her family and my father joined the Air Force, where he completed his GED. For me, plays like those of Shakespeare and Ibsen, as well as the 19th-Century English and French novels, and Latin American poetry I would find at the local public library, allowed me to see worlds that existed beyond the bubbling bricks and flaking paint of my blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood.
I realized that my students were simply asking me to help them experience the intellectual and aesthetic nourishment I gained from my own reading. To have done anything less would have been cheating them. They didn't want to read more about "black experience" or "Latina perspective" any more than I would have wanted some ivory-tower pundit to tell me about my neighborhood. My students and I lived the lives the academics purported to represent; we wanted more.
So I gave those women the best I could at the time. It may not have been much, but at the end of the semester, all of my students thanked me.
And I continue to thank them, wherever they are. If I hadn't met them, I might've become a professor of Women's, Gender, or one of the other "studies" rather than a lifelong student of literature, history, language and art.
January 27, 2007
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.
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