Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Does the Official Style in Feminist Studies Contribute to Inequality?

I’m not exactly sure when the official style of writing became an everyday occurrence in my life. I likely saw simplified versions of it in high school in my drier textbooks, not that they were read often, but today, as a college senior, I expect nothing less than my assigned readings to challenge not only my understanding of the world, but also my reading ability. While I usually feel a sense of accomplishment after reading and engaging with a difficult, official document, more often than not, I’m inclined to skip the reading and peruse Facebook, or at best, do a Wikipedia search for a shorter, simplified version on the topic. Occasionally, I attempt to actually read the difficult article, only to find that I still need to do my own research just to understand what I read.
            I’ve found that in classes where one specific interpretation is highly important, reading assignments will be simple and to the point, or if I’m lucky, authored from personal experience. Perhaps this is what drew me, in part, to fields in the humanities, like Women’s Studies, English, and Communication Studies. When I was handed a textbook full of personal essays and creative nonfiction in my intro to women, gender, and sexuality studies course, this change of pace caused me to pause and really soak in the authors’ words, especially when I was used to skimming through 30-page dense articles in which I was lost by the third sentence. It’s not laziness, necessarily, that makes this type of reading more desirable; it’s the literature’s accessibility.
            As I near the end of my college career and enter upper level courses, I have noticed that my ‘fun’ classes (mostly those in the field of Women’s Studies) are getting more difficult and dry. My homework involves more theory, academic writing, and research studies. No longer does the reading feel close to home—it suddenly feels removed and foreign. I am fortunate because I already have the background knowledge needed to understand the basic premise of the readings, due to previous classes. I am also in a position where I have resources to help me get through the material—like peers and professors.
            While I sometimes absolutely dread having to take hours of my day to work through such difficult articles, I understand their importance to the discipline. Without the formulation of theories, we wouldn’t have research, and without patterns found in research we wouldn’t have a reason to study inequality. However, the points made in these articles are so important that they need to reach a broader audience. Because the texts are complicated by use of the official style of writing, they limit who is capable of comprehending them and therefore making use of the knowledge.
I have selected a sample of writing that was assigned to me in class that I found particularly challenging to illustrate this argument. It is titled Speaking to the Past:  Feminist Historiography in Rhetoric, written by Dr. Susan C. Jarratt, who has studied rhetoric, history, and feminist theory and pedagogy. Here is a small sample from this text:
“We should learn from feminist historians in literary studies that the relations of feminist history to "history" should not be only additive. Writing women into history "implies not only a new history of women, but also a new history." Scott points out the need for theoretical synthesis of descriptive cast studies. Without such rhetorizing, marginalization, seems almost inevitable: history of rhetoric here, women's history of rhetoric over there. In Joan Kelly's terms, "compensatory history" is not enough. Gender as a category--i.e. as constitutive of social relations and as a way of signifying power--allows for more than an addition: it shakes up dominant disciplinary concepts. Gender is relational: a history conceived in terms of gender as an analytic differs from "women's history" in that it investigates the ways social categories are constituted around or in the absence of each other” (p. 22).
What I learned in class the day after this reading was assigned were the main points of Jarratt’s article. What this piece (in its entirety) is saying comes down to a few basic points:  first, history is written by men—they are the “dominant culture.” Second, history is no more than a socially constructed narrative. Third, bringing feminist voices into history won’t just add to it, they will change history entirely. Finally we need to break down hierarchies within the feminist movement if we want to break down hierarchies altogether.
With such basic and fairly simple ideas, why was this so difficult for me? First, the author was very fond of name-dropping (which I mostly omitted from the excerpt). For people who study the history of feminism in rhetoric, these names are probably pretty useful. When Jarratt cites these particular people, she is giving herself credibility in these elite circles of scholars who know everything about historical rhetoric and feminism. For the average undergraduate scholar like myself, however, skipping over five long names every few sentences and parenthetical citations every other word gets old quickly. It’s distracting and it doesn’t help me understand the topic.
            It’s not just Jarratt’s use of name-dropping that makes her writing hard to read. She also writes in a very dense way, fitting as much information into a short amount of space as possible. Take these two sentences, for example: “Gender as a category--i.e. as constitutive of social relations and as a way of signifying power--allows for more than an addition: it shakes up dominant disciplinary concepts. Gender is relational: a history conceived in terms of gender as an analytic differs from "women's history" in that it investigates the ways social categories are constituted around or in the absence of each other.” Not only does Jarratt use jargon excessively, she also takes abstract concepts and discusses them in long, complex sentences—complete with dashes and colons. Mainly, however, my frustration with Jarratt’s writing style has everything to do with content. How can someone who is very clearly passionate about feminism, which is, at its core, all about inclusion, be so exclusive? The ideas in this Jarratt’s writing may spark an entirely new way of thinking, which can be hard, but they’re extremely important for people to understand.
            As a kid, I was a really good student. I was in “gifted” programs, I scored well on standardized tests, and I was generally pretty compliant (maybe aside from being a little too chatty with my friends). I’d still like to believe this is true. I may have disliked the work that went along with going to school as a child, but I really didn’t dislike any subject—aside from history.
            You see, no one questions what they learn in school as children. We’re taught that our teachers know all because they went to college. Now that I’m in college, the only thing I’ve learned is that I really know nothing and that everything I’ve been taught deserves critical thought. For example, as children we took for fact that Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” and discovered the greatest country of all time. No one ever tells us that he killed, tortured, raped, took what wasn’t his, and committed mass genocide. We don’t learn about the realities of our history until we are taught about social issues in our sociology, communication, or women’s studies classes—all of which aren’t offered (generally) until college. So what about people who don’t get to go to college? Are they not worthy of learning about a history that wasn’t just written by wealthy white men? I’ll never forget the sudden realization that came over me when I first heard about the problems surrounding history education. I remember thinking, that’s why I hate history. I’m not a part of it. No one like me is represented.
            As far as privilege is concerned, though, I’ve got it pretty good. My parents are middle class, I’m white, I’m able-bodied, I’m fairly thin, I’m heterosexual. I can’t imagine trying to absorb knowledge in our society as a poor, black disabled lesbian. The fact is, people like this actually do exist, and where will they see their unique perspectives represented? I’ll tell you where: in gender studies, in feminist writing, in feminist standpoint theory, and in Jarratt’s writing. Works in this discipline are advocating for the silenced, and, sadly, these oppressed people are likely not going to be capable of accessing such valuable information.
            This reminds me of the Comstock laws that I learned about in my Women’s History (not regular History, I might add) class. It was the poor women who already had 8 children and an abusive husband who made $3 a month who couldn’t get access to information about birth control. While disseminating works like Jarratt’s isn’t illegal, it’s not reaching those who need it most. Maybe my comparison is a stretch, but I really don’t think so. In order for the disadvantaged to learn about their histories, they need accessible information. This means it needs to written in such a way that most people can understand. This is the only way certain groups will ever gain any power.

            As I mentioned above, there is a time and a place for challenging, jargonistic writing. Without it, Women’s Studies could not be an academic discipline. Through research and the official style of writing, this feminized, undervalued field of study has gained power. I just wonder, why is overcomplicating necessary to achieve power? Shouldn’t a field that aims to achieve equality for all people attempt to gain clout through enlightening all people, instead of only privileged college students? My frustration comes from the period in life in which I’ve become educated about such important issues, especially because I am a woman. Had I been introduced to feminism earlier in life, I could’ve been saved from a lot of self-hate, oppression from my peers, and the guilt of unknowingly being an oppressor in the past (and still today). It’s time that valuable information reaches younger, broader audiences.

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