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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 331-336
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Letting Our Students' Voices "Out at Last"
The collection of nine essays that editor Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock has assembled in The Pedagogical Wallpaper: Teaching Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" demonstrates that Gilman's 1892 narrative of patriarchal oppression, mental health, confinement, and women's creativity can engage students and teachers in a number of different ways. As with similar volumes that describe diverse approaches for teaching single texts or authors, The Pedagogical Wallpaper offers readers concrete descriptions of the contributors' best classroom practices, including provocative questions for initiating classroom discussion, formal and informal writing assignments, and strategies for using electronic technologies to enhance students' learning experiences. Teachers who already include "The Yellow Wall-Paper" on their syllabi will find that this collection of essays opens up new angles of vision on how students can interact with the story; teachers who have yet to introduce Gilman's narrative to their students will find a wide range of options as they plan their courses.
Despite Weinstock's assertion that "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is included in "courses around the world offered under the auspices of history departments, American studies programs, and psychology departments" (3), all the [End Page 331] contributors to this volume have completed advanced studies in literature and teach English classes. Nevertheless, The Pedagogical Wallpaper aptly illustrates how Gilman's text can be taken up by scholars who bring diverse theoretical principles to the classroom. In an essay ironically titled "'I Will Follow That Pointless Pattern,'" Joanne B. Karpinski describes a formalist approach to "The Yellow Wall-Paper," a method that she feels has been "neglected by contemporary theories that minimize the role of the individual author" (36-37). In the introduction to literature classroom where she teaches Gilman's narrative, Karpinski asks students to work in small groups to catalog the descriptive terms used by the narrator to characterize the house, its furnishings, her husband, and the wallpaper. As the students notice that the narrator often uses contradictory descriptive terms, they are able "to contemplate other irreconcilable features of the narrative that contribute to the effect of defamiliarization" that Gilman induces in her narrator and her readers as patriarchal discourse is disrupted by an emerging feminist voice (43). Ultimately, Karpinski cogently argues that such a focus on formal structures, like descriptive terms, is particularly useful for novice readers who may be resistant to ideological approaches to literature; formalism can help students recognize that "values are imbedded in the language of the text, not imposed by the teacher" (45).
While Karpinski's pedagogy productively looks back toward the formalists of the mid-twentieth century, Jonathan Crewe's "Queering 'The Yellow Wall-Paper'" draws on a body of recent theoretical work in gender studies that challenges binary conceptions of sexuality and that resists monolithic significations of desire, eroticism, and identity. In his queer reading of Gilman's text, Crewe explores the narrator's resistance to "conjugal, heterosexual maternity" and suggests that her "'discovery' of a woman, and a queer one at that, in the wallpaper patterns that fascinate her constitutes a form of (self-)recognition" (52). More though than simply pointing to previously unrecognized dimensions of the narrator's complex sexual identity, Crewe tracks the signification of queerness throughout the narrative as "normative language and perception are increasingly 'queered'—rendered strange—by a narrator who indulges her subjectivity yet also feels threatened in her normality by doing so" (53). Though Crewe does not offer specific classroom strategies for engaging students in such a queer reading, his carefully rehearsed arguments about "The Yellow Wall-Paper" underscore the important role literary texts can play in initiating dialogues that revise and retell the cultural history of the United States.
In addition to demonstrating how teachers with diverse theoretical [End Page 332] commitments might introduce their students to Gilman's narrative, The Pedagogical Wallpaper also reveals that the 1892 story can be productively paired with...