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Commentary: A Gift and a Revelation

By Julio Alves, Acting Director, Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning; Lecturer, Department of English

Although I have been teaching first-year students to write for twenty years now, a fundamental lack persisted at the core of my teaching until the last course I developed on women and social change: No matter how clever and inventive I got with my assignments, I still felt they had been done before. True, in my classes students learned to write anyhow, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to give them something to work on that had not been worked on before, something they might keep working on in other courses, something that might be truly theirs. And that's what took me to the Sophia Smith Collection.

Inspired as a student by second-wave feminism, I developed an early, strong interest in issues of language and gender. Especially as a graduate student, I read widely in the field of women's history and women's studies, where the most interesting work on gender ideologies was taking place. Five or six years ago I recalled a later book, Sara Evans's Born for Liberty (1989) and started thinking about developing a writing course around the ideas in its second half, on 20th-century American women's history. I mustered enough courage to approach Sherrill Redmon, director of the Sophia Smith Collection, with my idea of working the collection into the course. This I did with much trepidation. Would she throw me out because I'm just a writing teacher? Because I'm not a historian? Because I want to invite lowly undergraduates -- first-years at that (and not even history majors in history courses) -- to traipse through a world-class research facility?

The catalogued papers of 20th-century women activists from the Sophia Smith Collection became the centerpiece for a new writing course developed by Julio Alves, center. Kara McClurken, SSC project archivist, left, Alves, and Lesley-Ann Giddings '05, right, struck up a conversation while looking through papers from one particular collection. Photo by Gregory Cherin.

My reception couldn't have been more different. Sherrill was enthusiastic, helpful and supportive, and we quickly settled on a stunning list of 20th-century activists whose papers were well catalogued and easily accessible, all exceptional women, some famous, others not, some still living and working, others not: Jane Addams, Blanche Ames Ames, Mary Ritter Beard, Phyllis Birkby, Ella Reeve Bloor, Vivion Lenon Brewer, Carrie Chapman Catt, Eleanor Gwinnell Coit, Madeleine Doty, Elaine Goodale Eastman, Mary Kaufman, Dorothy Kenyon, Lola Maverick Lloyd, Constance Baker Motley, Jessie Lloyd O'Connor, Frances Fox Piven, Bertha Capen Reynolds, Margaret Sanger, Rosika Schwimmer, Vida Dutton Scudder, Gloria Steinem, Alice Morgan Wright.

The course quickly took shape. I had never worked as hard planning a course but also never had so much fun or been so rewarded. It is, I think, as good a writing course as I can offer. The first half of the course uses Born for Liberty and related books and articles to frame the context of 20th century women's history. The second focuses on biography and critical analysis of a specific aspect of a subject's activism.

The students' involvement with their subjects is immediate, intense and emotional: disappointment in Elaine Goodale Eastman's use of her talents to promote her husband's career at the expense of her own; anger at Margaret Sanger's apparent abandonment of her children; indignation at Alice Morgan Wright's lack of reference to her life partner and collaborator Edith Goode; shock at Ella Reeve Bloor's love life; pride in Mary Kaufman, a Jewish woman, for her role in prosecuting Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg and shame at our government's withdrawal of support for the prosecutions; sadness and outrage at the effect of McCarthyism on Dorothy Kenyon's life.

Especially with the more contemporary activists also comes the locating of oneself in recent history and the sometimes shocking realization that rights and privileges we take for granted today were bitterly fought for not too long ago: "Gloria Steinem fought for women's right to choose -- I want to write about Steinem's involvement in the abortion movement!" or "I registered to vote when I got my driver's license and I couldn't have done that if not for Frances Fox Piven -- I want to write about Frances Fox Piven and the Motor-Voter Act of 1994!"

The identification of student and subject is so complete that posteriorly I remember a student's subject much longer than I do her name. I can't recall the name of the student who moved to New York and writes to me from time to time, but she studied Lola Maverick Lloyd; the one at the registrar's office last week researched Elaine Goodale Eastman; and the one at the Thai restaurant wrote about Gloria Steinem.

For these students, more than any others I've taught, the writing cannot but happen, especially the biographical writing, and the investment is palpable. Fifteen-page final papers are common and written without much prodding. In fact, I often find myself in the enviable position of having to rein the papers in, because the students really do get excited. They can't believe they're actually looking at Mary Kaufman's or Jessie Lloyd O'Connor's FBI file, or at one of Gloria Steinem's typewritten speeches, or at an actual handwritten letter to Margaret Sanger from a woman on the Lower East Side. They write to Frances Fox Piven; they call Judge Constance Baker Motley's office and the New York State Legislative Library in Albany requesting confirmation of Motley's voting record as New York state senator or clarification of what exactly happened to the urban renewal bills she introduced.

For me, a teacher of writing, the Sophia Smith archives have been a gift and a revelation. I have never enjoyed teaching and reading student writing as much. Above all the experience has taught me that students learn to write best and want to write most when they are part of a community of engaged scholars -- teachers, librarians, archivists.

Secondly, working at the archives has taught me that if I want students to write, to put themselves in the writing and to keep writing, I must give them meaningful assignments with a promising future. I knew I was on the right track when one of my very first students started her presentation by flashing a picture on the screen and saying, "This is Madeleine Doty, and she is very cool."

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