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In ‘Women Writers’ Course, One Small Step For Man Is One Giant Leap For Womankind

Don’t let the 55:45 male to female ratio discourage you; Penn State is doing well in its progression in Women’s Studies.

Not only does the university offer a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies, Bachelor of Science in Women’s Studies, and Minor in Women’s Studies, it also has a Sexuality and Gender Studies Minor within the Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and a slew of Women’s Studies based courses in other departments.

That is a lot of Women’s Studies.

Specifically within the English department there is English 194, better known as Women Writers. This class was taught in the fall semester of 2015 by Sarah Salter, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, wielding a PhD in English from Penn State and eight full years of teaching students here on campus.

This semester, the Associate Head of the English Department, Bob Burkholder, offered the teaching position for Women Writers to Michael Anesko, a Penn State alumnus with a PhD from Harvard.

Although it may seem on the surface a female professor would be better suited to teach a class focused on the feminine perspective in literature, Anesko is more than qualified for the job. While on faculty at Harvard in the mid-80s to the early 90s, he was involved in the vote to bring women’s studies to the curriculum.

“When the issue was being raised at Harvard at the time, the air was just crackling with anxiety about what’s going to happen when this comes forward,” Anesko recalled. “What chances will it have?” He made sure he and other Arts and Sciences faculty members attended this particular meeting in order to cast his vote for the inclusion of Women’s Studies.

Although the end vote was an overwhelming “350-something to 1” in favor of Women’s Studies, Anesko remembers female professors giving “impassioned pleas to the assembled faculty, assuming there was this force of opposition just waiting to shoot the whole thing down.”

In the hopes of igniting appreciation for the option to study women writers and other forms of Women’s Studies at Penn State, Anesko began his first class by sharing his narrative of involvement in progress.

Though this appreciation only reaches a small portion of the Penn State population because of the limited male student body that takes this class, Anesko offers up the possibility they may think it’s not for them or they would be unwelcome, which is certainly not the case.

“The minimal male presence is, for me, a problem of [Women Writers] that I try to address or at least discuss in class,” Salter agreed. “I open the course with the caveat that a focus on ‘Women Writers’ means a necessary exclusion of perspectives that are explicitly identified as male. For me, acknowledging how exclusion works… in this example is an important part of establishing our learning community.”

Both professors offer a possibility to expand the syllabus from strictly women writers. Salter explains, “Expanding the scope of the course to include a range of women writers, writers writing about women, or from female perspectives, or the like, is for me an important element of keeping the course relevant for contemporary students and attentive to the discursive contexts in which gender circulates.” Her syllabus included writings from Marcel Proust as a way to introduce a new perspective, and Anesko includes poetry as an extensive unit in his classroom. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson bring forth a different form of literature that his students can learn from.

In a class Anesko previously taught, he focused on the juxtaposition of pieces written by male authors and female authors. For example, he mentions the comparison of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin and “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James and how both pieces recognized similar topics in the life of a married women, while both offer different and interesting perspectives. Meanwhile, the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller are constants in both semesters of the course in order to bring forward the rich historical content from the beginnings of the feminist movements.

It is apparent Penn State is home to many courses and professors that not only support the expansion of well-rounded curriculum but the importance of equal representation in many areas of studies.

Since Women Writers is a part of the English department, it highlights the success Penn State achieves in offering cross-listed courses.

“It is exceptionally important for a university to offer cross-listed courses in various disciplines or areas of study so that students are exposed to course content that they might otherwise not experience,” Salter said. “At least as important, though, is the fact that cross-listed courses allow professors or instructors to teach in areas that may be near but not the same as their stated area of expertise.”

“In my experience, the chance to teach with and learn from students in Women’s Studies has been an important learning opportunity for me that I hope the students also appreciate.”

Not only does Penn State encourage the inclusion of cross-listed courses in its large curriculum, it also encourages professors to push themselves as much as the students. Therefore, the academic excellence of Penn State is only heightened by both faculty and students.

Providing a Women Writers course in the English department and choosing a highly educated male professor to teach this specific women’s studies course puts more fuel in the fire of expanded opportunity and a progressive educational environment.

Way to go, Penn State.

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About the Author

Emily Davis

Emily Davis is a writer for Onward State, who is currently a junior majoring in English. She is an avid Spotify enthusiast, occasionally wears colors other than black, and will devour an entire box of Gushers with pleasure. You can easily stalk this rad person on Twitter and Instagram @emily_davis56 or contact her through email at [email protected]

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