Gender in the Composition Classroom
ender inequity, or equity, depending upon one's level of optimism, continues to be an area of concern. As a composition instructor at the University of Southern California, I have become increasingly aware of the gender inequity, or maybe I should say, the lack of gender equity, in college classrooms. The process of writing is unique in that its reflective nature provides a unique insight into students' minds, reflecting their thinking and reasoning patterns as well as their beliefs and values. The schemata they bring to the writing task are formed by memberships in cultural groups, e.g. in a particular social class, ethnic class or gender. Yet, while women and men may share a particular ethnicity and social class, they remain ulturally distinct in terms of writing. The ways in which one's membership in the 'gender culture' evolves are many, as are the ways they are portrayed through communication in general, and writing in particular.
Women and men are raised differently, to be members of distinct gender groups. Why, then, would we not expect female and male students to have different learning style preferences? Why would we not expect them to express themselves differently? As long as we continue to expect the same kind of reasoning and writing from both female and male students, we continue to put women in a losing position. According to Gradin (1994) the rhetoric of "the academy privileges forms of discourse and styles of speaking and reading that are largely andocentric." While universities were once only places for privileged white men, they are now increasingly diverse, multicultural communities. (Jenkins, p.19) Though universities are changing rapidly, much rhetoric has not. What this means to the pedagogy of the university is not clear. What is clear is that something will need to change, as the once solely acceptable form of discourse is now challenged. Part of the richness of a multicultural classroom is the variety of experiences, perspectives and discourse patterns. Currently, however, those who do not conform to the academies' ideal discourse pattern suffer. Instructors must remember that "although the discourse patterns of female, minority, and non-Western writers represent an alternative style to that enshrined in the Western academy, they also reflect the favored rhetorical pattern of many non-Western cultures." (Jenkins, p.23)
Typical college writing courses require that students use explicit, persuasive language -- that which is most commonly associated with classic male discourse patterns, and more specifically, the privileged white man who has historically had access to college. Thus, the circumstances are such that white men are more likely to be well-prepared and successful in college. While men are linear and explicit, keeping an objective distance between author and subject, and author and audience, women tend to incorporate personal experience and draw connections between author and subject and author and audience. (Hayes, p.296) "Female epistemology conceives of 'knowing as a process of human relationships', as opposed to traditional male epistemology, which conceives of knowing terms of abstract formal principles." (Hunter, p.20)
Because these differences go largely unnoticed by the academic community, women are more likely to struggle with their college writing, not only in composition courses, but also across her courses. This is in stark contrast to studies of elementary and middle school children. Such studies often reveal that women are assessed as better writers. (Englehard, p. 206) What changes between these early years and college that women change from being the 'better' writers to being the struggling writers? What changes is the preferred mode of discourse. In elementary and middle school children are often asked to write personal narratives, while they are then devalued if they bring that form of writing into the college classroom. This is a serious problem as many women learn to question and undervalue their own work in this linguistically biased environment. (Hunter, p.22, Isaac, p.151)
In order to make any major changes, the pedagogy of the academy must be examined and changed. Unfortunately, "discussions of critical pedagogy often remain very far removed from practical application and reside within a lofty discourse of theory, leaving suggestions from critical pedagogical theorists disconnected from practitioners' actual experiences." (Ferganchick-Neufang, p.21) The reality is that pedagogical discussions are even farther removed from composition as these courses do not receive the same status as other college courses. The trend is for composition courses to be taught by graduate students with little experience, the majority of whom are underpaid women who lack the same job security as the 'scholars' in academia. Some see this "...as sex-segregation, with women occupying the majority of practitioner roles and men the majority of scholar roles." (Ferganchick-Neufang, p.22) Thus it appears that scholars who are engaged in discussions of critical pedagogy are often not the same scholars teaching composition. In light of this fact, how a composition teacher is to construct her course so that it allows both women and men to have a voice that is accepted by professional readers of various disciplines is not evident.
As educators decide how to best teach female writers, they must struggle with whether they should give more value to female discourse patterns, or push female writers into the male discourse patterns. For the time being, it appears that there are some changes that teachers can implement to create a classroom more conducive to various discourse styles. Teachers can allow students to collaborate and peer edit to establish a sense of community within the classroom. Educators can begin by assigning works that encourage use of personal experience, thus lessening the anxiety level of female students. Hopefully with continued research and discussion and more female voices, the academy will change such that it embraces various forms of written discourse, thus achieving a higher level of gender equity in the composition classroom.
Ferganchick-Neufang, J. (1996). Women's Work and Critical Pedagogy. The Writing Instructor, 21-34.
Gradin, S. (1994). What's Gender Got to Do with It? National Forum, LXXIV, No.1, 19-21.
Hayes, C. (1995). Some Questions for Feminist Rhetoric. Teaching English in the Two Year College, 295-301.
Hunter, P. (1988). Writing, Reading, and Gender, Journal of Developmental Education, 12, No.1, 20-26.
Isaac, K. and Reimer, C. (1994). Women Writers-Building new Personal and Academic Expectations. Teaching English in the Two-Year college, 150-156.
Jenkins, R. (1993). The Intersection of Gender and Culture in the Teaching of Writing. College Teaching, 19-24.
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Created: March 2000 / Updated: Saturday, 24 March 2001