Book Reviews

Issue 33.1 Spring 2005 (Online Exclusive)

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Liberating Voices: Writing at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, by Karyn L. Hollis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 192 pages.

Reviewed by Wendy B. Sharer, East Carolina University

The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, which operated from 1921 until its funding was withdrawn by a union-fearing college administration in 1938, brought 80-100 students per summer to a picturesque campus in suburban Philadelphia to introduce those workers to the liberal arts and prepare them with the research and advocacy skills necessary to improve the material conditions of industrialized America. Through detailed historical background and a plethora of student writings, Karyn Hollis provides a vivid account of faculty, students, and composition instruction at this unique educational institution.

            Hollis’s reasons for telling this history are, in my reading, threefold. First, she wishes to add to the growing body of scholarship that examines rhetorical education in contexts other than the traditional college classroom. While the classroom spaces used to conduct the Bryn Mawr Summer School may have been traditional, the student body, the pedagogical methods employed, and the work produced was anything but. Second, Hollis intends to suggest that the instructional methods employed at the Summer School are instructive for educators today. As she explains, “The Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers offers an important antecedent to the feminist and activist pedagogies we strive to develop today” (11). Third, the book provides Hollis with a vehicle to preserve the texts of the women workers who attended the school. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the book is the writing by Summer School students that Hollis appends to almost every chapter.

The introduction and first chapter provide historical context and a broad stroke overview of the kinds of writing done in the school. Hollis also establishes materiality as a central theme in her study: she explains, “discourse was not disembodied or dematerialized at the Summer School” (4). Instead, the physical, bodily cost of industry was a near constant topic in student writing. Through these efforts to put the students’ working and living condition at the center of the curriculum, instructors at the Summer School practiced what Hollis calls “a materialist pedagogy” (4).

            How this materialist pedagogy was enacted in composition instruction is the focus of chapter 2. Hollis explains that Summer School teachers, despite the predominance of current-traditional methods of writing instruction at the time, employed teaching practices that foreshadowed the innovations of the process movement, including “peer critique and collaboration, guided revision, [and] assignments that link personal experience with work or academic disciplines” (34). Teachers were particularly interested in using students’ experience as the basis for instruction. In fact, “almost all text used to teach writing was student-generated; writing topics came from students’ work lives” (34). Students’ experience informed writing in different disciplinary contexts as well. Students in advanced economics courses, for instance, collaborated in statistical studies of labor issues they had personally faced, eventually publishing these studies as “Bulletins” of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor.

            Chapter 3 investigates autobiographies written by Summer School students. Hollis explores how students established powerful discursive selves through three primary types of autobiographical writing: Narratives on Family and Childhood; Narratives of Work and Union; and Narratives of Education. These types of narratives share several commonalities. First, they consistently focus on the material and embodied conditions of workers’ existence. As Hollis argues, this focus on the body in narrative “is a resistant, counterhegemonic move, a way to subvert . . . disembodied, androcentric autobiography” (76). For these students, reflecting on experience was not merely an exercise of the mind—it was intimately connected to lived physicality. Second, the narratives often involve a shift from a first-person “I” narrator to a more collective “we” narrator. Through this movement of subjectivity from the self to others, students developed a belief that collective action and change were possible.

            Hollis concludes the chapter by urging contemporary composition instructors to utilize the collective voice in their writing assignments because asking students to write as “we” can help develop a sense of “powerful collectivity with legitimate rights and demands” (84). While many of today’s classrooms include more economically diverse, and perhaps less activist-minded, groups of students (I suspect that collective consciousness could develop at Bryn Mawr in part because the student body was composed of working women who had the desire to attend the school), Hollis’s suggestion is worth engaging.

            The exploration of different genres of writing produced at the Summer School continues in chapter 4 with a discussion of labor dramas composed and performed by students. These dramas furthered the school’s materialist pedagogy and its emphasis on collective action by having students collaborate in dramatizing working conditions and performing possible ways to ameliorate those conditions. In addition, because many of the plays focused on the composition, advocacy, and eventual enactment of labor policy, the process of writing and performing labor dramas gave students knowledge of the literate practices involved in these endeavors—knowledge they might use in future work for progressive change in their home areas.

            While student-written dramas, like student-written autobiographies, were of several different types, most sought to minimize the division between viewer and performer, with audience members frequently becoming characters or participants. The student-written examples that Hollis includes also regularly reveal attempts to explain the technical language of labor policy in the language of the working class, in effect “translating” official discourse and allowing working women to get more involved in the conversation. Hollis suggests that these labor plays exemplify how drama might be used today to advance social action. Interestingly, this kind of education through drama foreshadows the Theater of the Oppressed movement begun in the 1960s by Augusto Boal, a contemporary of Paulo Freire. In Theater of the Oppressed, audience members were invited to come on stage—typically during a performance related to a community issue—and instruct the actors how to perform possible courses of social action. According to Boal scholar John Paterson, “through this participation the audience members became empowered not only to imagine change but to actually practice that change, reflect collectively on the suggestion, and thereby become empowered to generate social action.” The suggestion that composition teachers use drama as an educational strategy also recalls Patricia Dunn’s recent argument that composition is too focused on textual methods of instruction. Dunn suggests that we need to make use of multiple intelligences, to engage our students’ various visual, tactile, an auditory ways of learning, rather than relying on traditional, text-heavy teaching practices.

            Chapters 5 and 6 provide an engaging exploration of literary study and creative writing at the Summer School. As part of the literary studies curriculum, students read a variety of fiction and poetry written from the worker’s perspective. At the same time, Hollis explains, faculty did not “divorce the study of literature from literary production,” and students were encouraged to write poems that asserted their power and challenged industrial systems (119). Poetry became a site where women could claim control of their bodies and emphasize their “inquiring minds, aesthetic ambitions, and creative abilities”—three aspects of their humanity that were not given freedom in their working lives (153).

            While chapter 1 provides the most information about “traditional” composition instruction, these final two chapters are the most revealing in terms of how literary and “non-literary” writing can, and perhaps must, inform each other. These are the chapters I want to show to colleagues who suggest that composition instruction is somehow less important than literary study or who assert that there’s no place for creative writing in the composition classroom. I would not suggest—and Hollis is not suggesting—that we turn composition classes into creative writing workshops, but creative writing is sometimes a very effective way to encourage students to think critically about the world. Creative writing might also, Hollis’s study suggests, be a particularly important means to reach oppressed student populations that don’t come to educational institutions with a sense of presence or power in the discourses of academia and political life.

            Liberating Voices is a fascinating study, enhanced immeasurably by the many student texts that Hollis includes. The book does, however, leave the reader with some questions. Hollis raises one such question in her afterword when she questions the “authenticity” of the workers’ voices. Were these voices actually produced by and for the Bryn Mawr environment? In other words, were the students simply reproducing the ideologies they heard in their classrooms from their teachers? Perhaps the most pressing question for me as a reader, though, concerns the impact of the Summer School. What happened to students once they left Bryn Mawr? Did their education genuinely help? Several sample writings in the book suggest that some students viewed the Summer School as a suspension of cruel reality—they knew this time of beauty and learning would soon be abandoned as material reality pulled them back to their laboring lives. Was Bryn Mawr just a teasing sample of middle-class life? How did the students cope with their return to everyday work? Did any of the literate practices transfer into that more oppressive material context?

            A few lingering questions do not detract from the overall scholarly significance of Liberating Voices; rather, they make the book a rich place to discover areas for further study. The book also provides meaningful direction for teachers. As Susan Kates puts it, “As contemporary educators everywhere continue to struggle to educate student populations that are increasingly diverse, recovering the pedagogical artifacts of other teachers committed to historically marginalized students is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor” (22-23). Liberating Voices presents one such worthwhile and necessary endeavor.

Greenville, NC

Works Cited
Dunn, Patricia A. Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2001.

Kates, Susan. Activist Rhetorics and American Higher Education. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2001.

Paterson, Doug. “Augusto Boal Biography.” Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Forum Nov. 1999. U. of Nebraska at Omaha. 14 Jan. 2005
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