- Historicizing Women’s Public PedagogiesShared Authority and Cross-Cultural Collaboration
Sarah Ruffing Robbins’s curriculum vitae reads like an archive of action in cross-cultural teaching. Now the Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at Texas Christian University, she began her career as a high school English teacher in Georgia and Michigan in the 1970s and 1980s. She continued to teach in Flint while she started her PhD at the University of Michigan in the 1990s. During her first tenure-track job at Kennesaw State University, she founded and directed the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project, a local iteration of the National Writing Project that brings together Kennesaw State and local high school teachers to improve writing instruction. Robbins has moved with apparent nimbleness through a variety of roles as a teacher, researcher, administrator, and public intellectual. Along the way she has published numerous books and articles about women’s educational and literary history, writing pedagogy, and institutional transformation.
Robbins’s idea of the “learning legacy” comes from her decades of public engagement and her research on nineteenth-century women writers’ literacy narratives. A learning legacy, in her conception, is a kind of archive [End Page 353] left behind by teachers and students as they work through particular pedagogical problems. More specifically, it is “a story about an intercultural learning process that used collaborative epistemologies toward potential social agency” (4). In this book, which Robbins presents as another archive of her own learning processes, she covers three topics in three layers: African American education, immigrant education, and Native American education, layered by (a) her readings of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century primary texts (from the archives of Spelman College, the writings of Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House, and the Carlisle Indian School), (b) her descriptions of the reuse and redeployment of such primary texts in public education and outreach projects, and (c) an autoethnography of her own education by these texts and their curators.
Robbins builds her chapter on African American education, for instance, around readings of the Spelman Messenger, the school periodical that began in 1885 and is still published today. Robbins closely reads issues from the school’s early decades, finding that they ultimately challenged the common narrative that had freed blacks being “saved” by white teachers who came from the North. In Robbins’s account, students and faculty writers for the publication celebrated and enacted black rhetorical agency. This is their learning legacy—“an institutional commitment to education for leadership” and an “affirmation of African Americans’ cross-generational and cross-race collaborations in liberal arts learning” (41). Robbins then explains that she and K-12 teachers in Atlanta were able to use the Spelman Messenger in public school classes as part of a multiyear project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The goal was to engage students and teachers in local interdisciplinary research under the theme “Educating for Citizenship.” She describes the relationships she established with local teachers and, in particular, with the profoundly knowledgeable and generous Spelman archivist. Finally, she reflects on her own position in majority-white institutions, concluding that “by teaching the learning legacies of Spelman’s heritage from a stance of appreciation, I affirm the position of black students in my classroom as belonging there” (75).
In the chapter on Jane Addams, Robbins describes how research and engagement around the Hull House project has exploded since she first studied Addams during her dissertation research in the early 1990s. This time around, she wants to read Addams’s final book, My Friend Julia Lathrop (1935), because it has received much less critical attention than Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) but, more substantively, because it reflects her central [End Page 354] interests in collaborative storytelling and shared knowledge production. (It honors Addams’s associates and was finished by another of those associates after her death.) Hull House lives on, Robbins contends, through the writing and storytelling that are its ultimate learning legacies. In the educational and public engagement layer of this chapter, Robbins looks...