On Literary Criticism

“Christina Rossetti.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866. (Image/Wikimedia Commons)

One of my best professors taught women’s studies. She understood that feminism was only one way of interpreting the world, and she was interested in whether we could use  it’s vocabulary and arguments correctly, not in our adopting that perspective.

Once, I wrote a feminist essay on the Canterbury Tales. Based on these lines

“No man acquits himself in meekness quite
As women can, nor can be half so true
As women are, save this be something new.” (936-8)

I argued that Chaucer was offering a compliment to women by saying that they excelled men in humility, which after all is a virtue (vir-tus, or “manly quality”). This professor gave me a B and wrote something along the lines of “Good work! This is very true, but remember, a feminist wouldn’t argue it.”

She was the real deal! The class was about free inquiry! To succeed in this mandatory class, I didn’t have to violate my conscience any more than a debate team member who took both sides of an issue for the sake of practice.

I scored well in that class, even enjoyed it. I wrote essays about everything from a feminist perspective, learning the jargon and the worldview. I still speak conversational English major. My knowledge of Christina Rossetti’s background didn’t hurt me one bit.

Here’s something else this teacher taught me. She liked students who constructed serious arguments, and didn’t care what they personally thought about anything. Further, some women’s studies professors get in trouble because failing students write outrageous essays about their hatred of men.

These essays aren’t sincere attacks on the patriarchy, they’re last-ditch attempts at improving a bad grade by sucking up to the teacher. Sometimes, they end up in the news and cause moderate professors to be personally attacked for things they didn’t actually teach.

People different from us get burned sometimes, too.

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