Gender in the Composition Classroom

Liane Wardlow,  graduate student at University of Southern California
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.

References
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.