Sunday, August 24, 2008

Women at University

Jeffrey Williams' interesting article "Teach the University" from Pedagogy, 2008, argues that we at the university should teach our students about the essences, values, controversies, histories, and cultures, etc of what a university is. Sent to me by my friend and colleague Jeremy, now an assistant professor in Missouri, the article also includes a handy bibliography of books, films, etc that deal with issues of university. One book, Moo, by Jane Smiley, I have but haven't read. Maybe one day, as it is supposed to be funny, about an ag school similar to Oregon State.

Another book on Williams' list is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers, 1936, which I also have and have read but so long ago that I was happy to read it again on our recent vacation to the Oregon coast. The mystery involves a "Poison Pen" who is writing nasty notes and playing nasty tricks on the women at Shrewsbury College (a fictional women's college at Oxford University). The heroine, Harriet Vane, an alum, returns to help solve the crimes, finally calling on her friend and persistent suitor Lord Peter Wimsey for help.

What interested me deeply is the way Sayers tackles the question of women's education. This story is still in the early aftermath of women's. entry to higher ed A quick search on Wikipedia says that Sayers was born in Oxford (her father a chaplain etc). Says Wikipedia,
in 1912, she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford,[4] studying modern languages and medieval literature. She finished with first-class honours in 1916. Although women could not be awarded degrees at that time, Sayers was among the first to receive a degree when the situation changed a few years later, and in 1920 she graduated MA.
Sayers' mysteries are more thoughtful and insightful than light hearted mysteries, due partly to the frequent quotes from Spencer, Keats, etc and the Latin, French, and Greek allusions that are not translated. (According to Wikipedia, she started learning Latin at age 6. ) In fact, the denouement involves a proposal and reply in Latin. Definitely a work of its time period. Very few students today take Latin, though I had three years in my high school - and very useful it has been, too. Her Latin was no doubt helpful when she translated Dante's Divine Comedy.

The gist of the PP's anger is that women don't belong at university, that academic women are shirking their duties to husband and children (indeed their duties to marry and have children), that academic women are taking jobs from men who then cannot support their families, and that academics in general put the principle of truth above personal needs - in this case pointing out an error of fact in a master's thesis that then cost the person his job. (Besides dealing with sexism, Sayers hints at issues of classism that are not as thoroughly explored.) Sayers' feminism is more explicitly dealt with in her essay "Are Women Human" (cover above). If I can find a link to the essay on line I will add it.

I have been thinking of using some of this material for my sample essay #1 for our FYC - on the theme of education, society, and individuals, with readings by Bennett, Gatto, Loewen, Hirsch, et al. I could add my own experience at a women's college, Bryn Mawr, founded 1890's to provide higher education for women.

And in connection with this, this afternoon I plan to watch the film Mona Lisa Smile, which should resonate, considering that my degree is also art history, from a "Seven Sisters" school, about a decade after the plot in the Julia Roberts film. I'll let you know what I think. The film is not on Williams' list, however.

Book cover image credit:



Blogger Michael Faris said...

Sounds like a good article. Can you email it to me?

I haven't read Moo either, but it's supposed to be pretty snarky about the English Dept. at Iowa State, my alma mater, from what I've heard.

12:33 PM  
Blogger Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, the article sounds interesting. Given your interest, I'm sure you've read The Idea of a University. If you want some perspectives that I suspect may not be in your list, I'd suggest:

The Education of a Wandering Man, by Louis L'Amour (Self educated)

Ecclesiastes, by Solomon (both elevates and denegrates the value of education)

Cataract, by Mykhalo Osadchy (finds a university atmosphere among other political prisoners, fascinating read)

The Case for Classical Christian Education, by Douglas Wilson

Madame Currie-A Biography, by Eve Currie (First Female professor at the Sorbonne--this one's probably already on your list)

1:56 PM  
Blogger Sara Jameson said...

Yes, I have read Newman on the Idea of a University, and L'Amour too, and I guess I can count Solomon, though I hadn't thought of him in this regard. Thanks for the tips on Osadchy (new to me) and Wilson. Biographies are always a great touch. But first I want to explore any connection between Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Sayers.

5:03 PM  
Blogger Sara Jameson said...

ps: the film Mona Lisa Smile was fun and apt. The complaint that the Julia Roberts character - art history instructor at Wellesley - was trying to get the girls to break out of their traditional roles - was correct. She was. None of the professors at Bryn Mawr was remotely like her! And our courses did not address art any more recent than the Armory Show of 1913. I'm thankful to have escaped the 1950's.

5:06 PM  

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