To Know Her Own History chronicles the evolution of writing programs at a landmark Southern womenÆs college during the postwar period. Kelly Ritter finds that despite its conservative Southern culture and vocational roots, the WomanÆs College of the University of North Carolina was a unique setting where advanced writing programs and creativity flourished long before these trends emerged nationally.
Ritter profiles the history of the WomanÆs College, first as a normal school, where women trained as teachers with an emphasis on composition and analytical writing, then as a liberal arts college. She compares the burgeoning writing program here to those of the Seven Sisters (Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Barnard, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Mount Holyoke) and to elite all-male universities, to show the singular progressivism of the WomanÆs College. Ritter presents lively student writing samples from the early postwar period to reveal a blurring of the boundaries between “creative” and “expository” styles.
By midcentury, a quantum shift toward creative writing changed administratorsÆ valuation of composition courses and staff at the WomanÆs College. An intensive process of curricular revisions, modeled after HarvardÆs “Redbook” plan, was proposed and rejected in 1951, as the college stood by its unique curricula and singular values. Ritter follows the plight of individual instructors of creative writing and composition, showing how their compensation and standing were made disproportionate by the shifting position of expository writing in relation to creative writing. Despite this unsettled period, the WomanÆs College continued to gain in stature, and by 1964 it became a prize acquisition of the University of North Carolina system.
RitterÆs study demonstrates the value of local histories to uncover undocumented advancements in writing education, offering insights into the political, cultural, and social conditions that influenced learning and methodologies at “marginalized” schools such as the WomanÆs College.
Ritter's judicious combination of archival, library, and naturalistic research results in an illuminating study of writing at the Woman's College. In this scholarly narrative, Ritter focuses on literacy education in a first-rate Southern women's college and on the personal and professional achievements of many of the graduates. She also recognizes, however, the sociohistorical context in which these women were educated, a context that includes conditions of gendered and raced labor as well as ongoing tensions between the creative writing and composition programs.
A fascinating and instructive reminder that there is no history of composition: there are histories of composition, conflicted and filled with politically and culturally constructed understandings of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and—as this book in particular makes clear—geographical region and disciplinary identity. This thoroughly researched local history adds a needed layer of complexity to the historical frameworks that have informed archives-based scholarship in composition studies.
[An] engaging and timely volume . . . meticulously researched . . . Ritter is a scholar of the first rank.
A welcome addition to our knowledge of women's education and of women's writing. Chapter Four ("The Double-Helix of Creative/Composition") alone should be required reading for all students in rhetoric and composition, for it illuminates the history of composition in remarkably insightful ways.
Kelly Ritter is associate professor of English and director of composition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the author of Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920Ð1960 and Who Owns School? Authority, Students, and Online Discourse. Ritter also is editor of the journal College English.learn more