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High school English lit makes room for women writers

PAYING special attention to women's literature has in the past decade become a small industry in academia. But only recently has acknowledging the particular voice and view of women writers begun to trickle down to high schools. Part of the reason is concern about the excesses of feminist ideology. Yet a more mainstream effort to include women is also taking place - as evidenced by a five-week seminar on ``Women and Fiction'' for high school teachers from across the country here at Simon's Rock College.

Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the seminar looked in depth at works by Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bront"e, and Alice Walker.

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Participants agreed in several areas: that women writers observe and speak differently, and give importance to different values, than men do. That most English teachers don't have a specific idea of what this means. That women's works should make inroads into a male-based curriculum - not just to interest young women, but to better educate young men.

``Most teachers say: `I teach Woolf; I teach Emily Dickinson,''' says Jean Martin, chairman of the English Department at Hall High School in West Hartford, Conn. ``But they teach them the same way they do male writers; that's just wrong.''

Many teachers must convince skeptical colleagues that there is a women's voice. Certainly, they say, there is a male voice. Take Ernest Hemingway. His character Nick Adams, the young man in ``Big Two-hearted River,'' goes out alone into the forest. The painstaking detail with which Adams sets up camp, cooks, makes coffee, catches grasshoppers to fish with, as well as his conscious effort to restrain his impulses on the trip, are part of a rite-of-passage narrative that speaks out of a certain kind of male experience.

Just so, students should hear of women's experience, says seminar director Patricia Sharpe, a Simon's Rock professor. ``What we always do is ignore gender and say it doesn't matter,'' she adds. ``But it does. It offers a fuller picture.''

Dr. Sharpe uses Virginia Woolf, herself reluctant to be labeled a ``woman's writer,'' as the course's seminal figure - a bridge between the 19th- and 20th-century ideas of ``female.'' (Woolf looked to Jane Austen for guidance; Alice Walker looked to Woolf in writing ``In Search of our Mothers' Gardens.'')

Woolf's ``To the Lighthouse'' had the most powerful impact on the class - with its central character Lily, who, as a woman painter, has to struggle to believe in her own vision, as contrasted with that of her genuinely gracious but very Victorian mother - and asks the terribly simple question: What is a woman now supposed to be?

Woolf also offers some of the sharpest (and funniest) insights into the differences between male and female modes, Sharpe says. In ``A Room of One's Own'' Woolf describes the male penchant for trying to find and ``capture'' some final truth through ``research methods'' and clear principles of logic. She's in the British Museum puzzling over the relative poverty of women. Next to her an Oxford scholar is plowing through a card catalog, taking notes, and occasionally letting out ``little grunts of satisfaction.'' In contrast with Woolf's own anxious quest, he seemed to have ``some method of shepherding his questions past all distractions till it runs into its answer as a sheep runs into its pen.''

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NEH seminars are set up to pull teachers out of paper grading, get them further into their subjects. In this case: What's the social context of the novel? Are women's works structured or patterned differently from those of men? In what way is their sense of time, ambiguity, indirection, different? What constitutes ``greatness''; and have women been excluded from the canon?

``The seminar is an important chunk of time, a way to reconnect,'' says Martha Madson of Milton, Mass.

Sharpe had teachers read more than 20 pieces of criticism. The group challenged new forms of criticism (deconstruction) that suggest meanings can be derived only from texts - irrespective of authors and social conditions.

``What unifies these works is a felt need for a female tradition among the authors,'' Sharpe says.

History teacher Nancy Spencer of Albuquerque, N.M., thinks it's just a matter of time before the male-based curriculum (with its emphasis on economic, military, and political events) takes more account of women. She already includes new views on the American Revolution, notably those of Cornell scholar Mary Beth Norton, who argues that ``many colonial women claimed a new sense of being American. Coming out of a stifling Europe, they had less to lose. They understood the importance of independence in a unique way.''

Others say introducing women's experience will continue to be quashed in schools. ``It's an uphill battle,'' says a teacher from Boise, Idaho. ``You have to do all the work and planning yourself, with little support.''

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