Guest blogger, Lee Gray
Although I am an English instructor, I also teach the Women in Culture course for the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Austin Peay State University. The department chair, Dr. Jill Eichhorn, encourages participation in the various conferences offered in the discipline. This past November, we attended the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Denver where a graduate student gave a talk entitled, “Women Cropping in the Presence of Others.” In this talk, the presenter shared her research about what women cut from the images and photographs they acquire for their personal scrapbooks. Many of the images the women kept include their children’s triumphant moments on ball fields and other happy, smiling photographs that are a testament to a happy youth. While the women kept strong, positive images, they cut sadness, pouting, and parts of their own bodies (thin arms, fat legs, etc).
From this seminar, I got the idea to assign a scrapbook for the Women in Culture class this spring. The impetus for this idea is that the more creative the students can be about the course content and their responses to it, the more deeply they connect their own lives with it. Using a scrapbook to record and create personal responses to the course overthrows the patriarchal, linear method of teaching and learning. The assignment for the students this semester, then, was to research and collect images and write narratives or personal responses to the information and compile these images as they constructed scrapbooks. The students were required to use quotations from the book or other reading material and were encouraged to use creative non-fiction responses rather than content summaries.
The course relies heavily to two things: good research and thoughtful response to the content. The scrapbooks encourage the students to focus on their creative side and to connect to the material in physical, emotional and spiritual ways, as well as to take an academic approach to research. Since the content of this course is highly personal, the scrapbooking approach is suitable as an assignment because a scrapbook is similar to a diary, so the content of the course becomes more personalized for each student with this method of response to research. The scrapbooks evolve, then, into narratives about the students’ lives in reflection of the personal/ political dichotomy, and they take more complete ownership of their interactions with themselves and society when they can express these responses in a feminine, non-linear fashion.
Each facet of how women venture in life, society, culture and the world at large can be processed through the use of images that students use as a foundation for their personal narrative responses. According to most of the responses students wrote for their mid-term exam, creating scrapbooks in an introductory women’s studies course has given them the opportunity to absorb the course content on a more personal level and to evaluate for themselves in narrative form what they have learned from the material presented to them.
One important aspect in assessing the value of the scrapbook as an educational strategy is to use the original presenter’s results, which meant that I would note and compare what content gets cropped out and what content is embraced for each of the students. Some areas students tend to avoid include the body, unpleasant events, and the concept of privilege and oppression, especially for the white and upper class students in the class. As far as the body is concerned, many students ignored or omitted content from this aspect of the course. This is most telling because the subject of the body and how society views the female body ego through media and other forms of cultural expression is one of the most popular subjects for class presentations and discussion. Based on this finding, when it comes to internalizing and processing the personal effects of cultural influence on the body ego, what does cutting, cropping and editing the body say about how women contribute to their own oppression? Do women own oppression in the form of narrative as well, and does this personal cutting and cropping influence our inclusion or exclusion in the literary canon?
As women, we tend to embrace or keep what we think or feel people will like about us or what we feel is acceptable to our peers and to society, and assessment of scrapbook content has shed some light on this phenomenon. So a good question to ask at this point is whether or not the most perfectly assembled scrapbooks are also the best. One of the more exemplary scrapbooks in the class was assembled by a woman who, according to her mid-term assessment of the course, totally dislikes the class. However, the student’s scrapbook is impeccable in that she wrote thoughtful responses to the course content and included appropriate images to support her views and ideas on each area of study as the semester progressed. This, to me, seems more of a reflection on the student as a responsible citizen in the classroom rather than a student who has absorbed the politics of the course in a personal manner. More importantly, out of all the scrapbooks that were turned in by the students in the course, three additional “well assembled” scrapbooks are also products of students who take a superficial interest in the course. The students loaned me these scrapbooks for the next NWSA conference in Atlanta, where I will present the various approaches to the students’ scrapbooks in a poster session.
It appears that the women who constructed “perfect” scrapbooks have pride in what they do, but they do not show interest in what the course offers them politically. One good idea to ponder at this juncture is whether these students weeded out any personal experiences from their scrapbooks that some of the other students made a point to include in theirs. When it comes to unpleasant events or how we experienced violence or oppression/exclusion (or privilege/inclusion), how do we plan to handle these situations in the future? If these situations are not part of the visual and written narrative in a Women’s Studies scrapbook, how will the students ever pay constructive attention to them outside of the classroom in a social setting? If they crop what they do not want to see, can they honestly contribute to eradicating these wrong-headed symptoms of a dysfunctional culture? In other words, are they cropping these experiences in their own lives, thereby ignoring them?
How do successful women crop, cut and paste their lives into fragments in order to keep up with society? How do successful women writers censor themselves, and how does this censorship affect the completeness of the feminine narrative construction? As writers, we edit our work as part of the writing process. So with the idea that scrapbooks are a constructive narrative that can be cropped and shaped to present a view of the personal and political, do women writers meta-edit their work to the extent that we edit ourselves out of the literary canon?
Lee Gray is an instructor of English and Women’s Studies at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t teaching, Lee produces music and video.
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Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.