Adjunct Associate Professor, Humanities and Media Studies Coordinator, Writing Across the Curriculum; Beginning July 1, Coordinator, Freshman English program
What brought you to Pratt six years ago?
I was strongly attracted by the opportunity to teach at an art school. I thought—correctly, as it turns out—that it would be stimulating to work in the midst of so many different kinds of creativity.
What is the role of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) in an art, design, and architecture school such as Pratt Institute?
Stated most simply, it’s to work with the writing that’s done in the majors.
We’d like to help students progress in their writing skills during each year they spend at Pratt, while also helping the students and faculty to use writing as a tool for learning within those majors. This year, in consultation with several departments that asked for our help, we began a pilot project. It was an intensive one: We ran faculty development workshops to help create rubrics for the evaluation of student writing and to help write assignment handouts that clarified writing expectations. We conducted essay-structure and “On the Thesis” workshops for students. We also instituted weekly “WAC Office Hours,” staffed by WAC faculty who had become familiar with their assigned department’s thesis, capstone, and other requirements, to consult one-on-one with students engaged in departmental writing assignments. Again, this was all at the invitation of specific departments. We’re planning to repeat and perhaps expand upon this model next year.
WAC faculty also continued to work on artist statements and other artists’ writing in the studios, by the invitation of individual studio professors. The relationships between these individual professors and the WAC faculty who work with them are, in many cases, long-standing ones, and these workshops are designed after close consultation between studio and WAC faculty.
Tell us about your appointment as coordinator of the Freshman English program as of July 1 and what you hope to accomplish.
Coming to this position from and in addition to my position as coordinator of WAC, I think I may bring a heightened sense that if WAC seeks to build on the skills learned in Freshman English, we want those skills to be solid ones. So yes, I have a very deep and committed interest in improving student writing in freshman year. I’m equally committed to finding ways to improve our students’ critical thinking skills and to having them explore both creative and theoretical texts in the program.
How does it fit in with the Honors section you are teaching in addition to your standard courses, Introduction to Literature and Critical Studies I and II.
In all of these courses, including what we call the Honors section of ENGL-103, which is reserved for students who enter Pratt with a 4 or 5 on their AP English exam, I try to bring in all these things: Creative texts including poetry, short stories, plays and novels; theoretical texts that we examine on their own and then in relation to one or more of the creative texts; and writing and editing assignments intended to challenge and develop students’ critical thinking and writing skills. I spoke earlier about writing as a tool for learning, and I try to bring that element into my own class as well. I hope that in free writing, drafting, revising, engaging in peer review, and shaping their words into a final version of their paper, students are also drafting, examining and, where necessary, revising the thoughts they may have first brought to the page.
What educational background do you bring to these courses?
I have a B.A. in English from New York University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Goddard College.
Though you majored in English, you write a lot about history. Why the switch?
My first book was a biography, which isn’t a terribly unusual choice for an English major. I wrote about the suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was a beautiful and moving writer as well as the central theorist of American first-wave feminism. From there, it was really a case of one thing leading to another. I did so much primary-source research on the suffrage movement for the Stanton bio that it seemed to beg for a follow-up book of its own, the book that became Women’s Suffrage in America. And then, while writing both the Stanton biography and the suffrage book, I had found myself frustrated by the resources available to quickly locate a fact about women’s history—this was the early 1990s—so, thinking I’d try to fill that gap, I wrote The Encyclopedia of Women’s History in America. The legal decisions I wrote about in the encyclopedia led to Women’s Rights on Trial, and the activists I wrote about in the encyclopedia led to Activist American Women’s Writings. And so on. So it wasn’t so much a decision to switch as a matter of simply going where that first book led, one step at a time.
You felt it necessary to write several books on women’s rights over the last 20 years, though women’s status has risen steadily in most parts of the world.
I still see a lot of things that need addressing—maybe enough to keep me on the subject for another 20 years! Yes, we can talk about the general rise in women’s status, especially if we talk about women in the developed world. But we can also talk about how very many of the word’s individual women are still at risk, specifically because they’re female. We live in a world where thousands of Congolese women have been raped as part of a military strategy, where demographers report that 1.5 million girls are “missing” in China due to selective abortion and, to a lesser extent, female infanticide, and where approximately 240 girls die in India every day from the pregnancy-related complications that follow early child marriage. The U.S. isn’t immune from inclusion on this list of nightmare possibilities, either: The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 13, well below the age of consent in every state. And yet, 49 states treat underage prostituted girls as criminals, rather than as the trafficking victims they actually are according to international law. Only New York State law, beginning this year, classifies these underage girls as victims needing rescue rather than criminals who should be arrested and tried. So yes, the status of women has risen generally in many places—and I certainly don’t want to minimize that—but I remain very concerned about the many women who have been left behind.
You addressed some of this in your most recent book?
Yes, in Human Trafficking. So much is intertwined. The growing disparity between the numbers of men and women in China, for example, has led to an increase in human trafficking as men face a “bride shortage” and resort to buying women who are kidnapped or sold to traffickers by their families. Child marriage, as well the marriage of any adult without consent, is considered human trafficking as well under international law, but it continues. I have to say that in my human trafficking book, too, there was an element of just going where things led. I had intended to write about sex trafficking, but as I researched, I felt I needed to write about all of modern-day slavery: forced labor, child soldiers, trafficking for involuntary organ harvests, and trafficking in infants, as well as sex trafficking.
Can I ask what it was like to write that book?
They were the saddest years of my writing life. Non-fiction books are usually sold on the basis of a proposal that outlines the project and goes so far as to say what will be covered in each chapter. This takes a fair amount of research, and whenever I've finished writing a proposal, I've felt I understood where the writing of the actual book would take me. I thought I understood where this book would take me, too, but I was wrong. With every additional day of research and writing, I found yet another sub-basement of hell that I hadn’t imagined could exist. Many of those sub-basements are here, by the way: The United States is one of the top 10 importers of trafficked people.
Do you have any more books in the works?
I’m working on a book about religion and women, and it brings me back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the end of a lifetime spent working for women’s rights, she concluded that even in an officially secular country, religion was the basis for most views that devaluated women. After writing about the devaluation of a lot of women in the human trafficking book—the girl children forced into marriages or prostitution in their communities, and the 80% of transnationally trafficked people who happen to be female—I, too, wanted to look at religion’s influence on the status of women. But I wasn’t quite ready for another several years of unremitting sadness, so I broadened the idea to include an examination of the ways religion had inspired and empowered women, as well as the ways in which it had limited and damaged them.
What do you for recreation? Any summer plans?
I started riding horses when I was a little girl, and I never stopped. I plan to spend just about every morning riding, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll also be finishing my book.
Are you a Brooklyn resident?
Yes, and a native New Yorker as well. I love living here.
What do you see as the greatest benefit of being a 21st-century woman living in the West? The greatest hazard?
The greatest benefits are great indeed: freedom, opportunity, and hearing from quite a few young women that they’ve never once felt oppressed or held back because they’re female. The hazard? Thinking that one’s own comfort is an accurate measure of the worldwide welfare of women.
Photo: Joe DuPont