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Web Event 1 - Politics of Literacy

Ang's picture

Angela Meng

Unsettling Literacy

21 February 2017

The Evolution of Bryn Mawr College as a Political Institution and How the English Curriculum has Developed

            In 1885, Bryn Mawr College admitted its first students to the small private women’s liberal arts college. The purpose of the school was to provide a space for young wealthy white women who desired to seek a higher education when there were few in the United States. While Bryn Mawr wasn’t the first of such women’s colleges, but it was the first to offer a graduate school. The school holds this fact proudly, as it demonstrates the school’s rich history of political disobedience to accept, what is called in modern culture, the glass ceiling of gender, specifically in regards to women’s education. 

            As time progressed, the politics of the world changed, and so the college began to adapt. More and more women around the world now had access to the United States and could apply to the college, this meant diversity. And so a question to ask is, how did the progression of history change the institute and its values, and how have the values of high literacy changed at Bryn Mawr? Specifically, how have all these changes in politics around the world and the college affected the English curriculum, which traditionally has never been very inclusive or diverse? In order to comprehend and answer these questions, I took a trip to the school’s online special collections to dig through the archived college catalogues.

            Throughout the history of Bryn Mawr College, it’s hard to say that there was ever a year where it wasn’t political in any manner, as the very fact of existence of an educational institute such as Bryn Mawr, a space provided for those of a group that do not have equal access and rights as the Caucasian heterosexual cis-male, is politically incendiary. Throughout the archived catalogues, despite countless changes in the format and content in between the catalogues, the original feminist ideals were proudly displayed in various forms as the college’s mission or included in its history. But clearly when we speak of Bryn Mawr’s feminist ideals, it’s hard to say exactly what those ideals are. In the beginning, Bryn Mawr was an educational haven for only wealthy white women. These said wealthy white women would come to Bryn Mawr to expand their knowledge and achieve a higher education, and they would their colored maids with them to help them in their academic endeavors. Notably, it’s also worth mentioning the history of wealth in the area founded on slave labor, which Bryn Mawr very likely benefited from. So what about those women? What about colored women with less power than the wealthy white women? Are they included in Bryn Mawr’s “refusal to accept the limitations imposed on women’s intellectual achievement”? These are all questions and arguments that continue on the campus to this day, even if some clear improvements have been made by the college to include more diversity among its student and faculty body.

            So how has Bryn Mawr changed and how has it affected the English curriculum? I specifically say the English curriculum not only because it is my intended major, but because English as a field of study has been something that’s always been somewhat of a strange study and heavily influenced by history as well as current events. There’s the classic, “what are you going to do with an English major?” question most English majors are all but too familiar with. And the reason behind that lies in the somewhat intangible and inconclusive goals of the study. What do you and society gain from studying writing?

            Up until recent years, the English curriculum reflected the college’s origins as an institute for wealthy white people. The English curriculum at Bryn Mawr College has always required a prerequisite course that served to offer its students an introductory foundation on English literature, however, the function and foundation of this perquisite class has changed drastically. Until 2000, this prerequisite class was called “Introduction to Literary Study,” a course with the goal of introducing its students to the fundamental authors of English literature and their writing. In this class, students critically studied in chronological order “major works by major authors, including Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and one other major work,” in which the “emphasis will be on close reading and on the continuity of traditions and modes in English and American literature.” In 2000, the English department reimagined the prerequisite class and renamed it to “Methods of Literary Study,” which now explores “the power of language in a variety of linguistic, historical, disciplinary, social and cultural contexts and investigate shifts in meaning as we move from one discursive context to another” through a variety of course readings.

            In just the name and description of these two prerequisite courses, we can see how the college and, more specifically, the English department at Bryn Mawr have changed since the founding of the school. In the original introductory class, there was a focus of what’s considered “major literary works,” which subsequently included only white men, therefore ironically perpetuating white male superiority in a women’s college. When the course was reimagined, the English department demonstrated the “refusal to accept the limitations imposed on women’s intellectual achievement” that the college boasts of in its history. Rather than teaching women of white men throughout history as major literary works, the college began to slowly incorporate more into its curriculum so that students can gain a better understanding and then, therefore, learn to become better global citizens of the world, starting with the introductory perquisite course.

            Other additions and changes to the curriculum included variety and diversity in the subject matter. Traditionally, the English curriculum has been filled with courses that focused on such subjects as Middle English, Elizabethan literature, Classical and Romantic prose, and the likes in English writing from different time periods from around Great Britain and the United States. Today, not only has the introductory course been revamped and reimagined, but the curriculum has been changed drastically to include diversity in the subjects available. Today, while courses with focuses on traditional literature like those seen in the traditional curriculum, there are also courses with focuses on African literature, Latina/o culture and literature, postcolonial literature, and a variety of film subjects. Additionally, the English department is also currently actively seeking out a new member to add to its faculty to teach Afro-Caribbean poetry, a subject no one would have imagined to be included in any course curriculum in the early years of Bryn Mawr’s history.

            In Kirk Branch’s Eyes on the Ought to Be, he recounts a number of his experiences teaching at a variety of educational organizations and institutions. Through using his recounts as a lens to view educational systems as a whole, and specifically Bryn Mawr, it is clear that education is rarely completely nonpolitical. Traditionally, Bryn Mawr, and most educational institutes, teach literacy in a manner of “prioritizing the minutiae of standard English grammar,” and the instruction of literacy “receives the task of making individuals employable and economies strong.” Literacy, traditionally, has simply to prepare individuals to be qualified for jobs. And so, the basic concept of liberal arts schools are political as they strive for a society that eliminates this idea of training for a single job, and rather, prepares individuals who are well-educated and capable of critical and careful thought. Branch explains the “political nature of education,” that there is always something “always at stake in teach, that teaching was always about more than encouraging the learning of basic curricular goals.” If we consider these ideas from Branch, we can analyze the development of Bryn Mawr College from its origin to the way it is today.

            Specifically in the English curriculum, we can see this “political nature of education” Branch speaks of. While for the majority of its history, the English curriculum, and the school as a whole, was focused on preparing intelligent women who could be well-prepared and respected in society. Today, however, education is more than just “encouraging the learning of basic curricular goals.” Bryn Mawr College encourages not intelligence and knowledge in its students, but strives to create a steady stream of graduates who are not only clearly well-educated, but well informed global citizens who don’t see education and politics as separate but interconnected, if not equal.

            While I wouldn’t argue that neither Bryn Mawr College nor its English curriculum are models of diversity and inclusion, I would argue that it’s on an upward trajectory path in terms of improving the diversity of its education. So to conclude this essay, I’d like to close with another question to think about. Where do we go from here? In what ways do we make sure that Bryn Mawr and its English curriculum continue to diversify, and in what ways could it be further improved in the values they strive to emplace and their general mission? And in what ways can we imagine or expect the English curriculum to continue to change in an ever more political world?


 Works Cited:

"History." History | Bryn Mawr College. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2017 <>.


Bryn Mawr Calendar. Bryn Mawr College, n.d. Web. <>.


Branch, Kirk. "Introduction." "Eyes on the Ought to Be": What We Teach about When We Teach about Literacy. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2007. 2-3. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

In his first chapter (which we discussed together in a small group last month), Kirk Branch argues that “the early mission of English education became teaching students a proper orientation to language and literacy,” that the “development of English studies…can be tied [in particular] to anxieties about class-based and feminized ways of reading,” and that (even more particularly) the “personal and informal ways of reading literature advocated within early 20th century women’s clubs became useful feminized foils for definers of English studies” (36- 37).

In that context, it seems to me not the least “ironic” that a women’s college, bent on proving that women could do the intellectual work that had been reserved to men, would model its curriculum on that of elite male colleges. (Though I remember the counter-argument developed here in the early ‘80s about establishing a Program in Feminist and Gender Studies,when it was maintained that this wasn’t needed, since “everything we do here is feminism"!).

I’m interested (okay, just a little shocked!) that the shift away from the chronological review of great male authors that constituted “Introduction to Literary Study” (with its focus on “continuity of traditions and modes”) to “Methods of Literary Study” (which looks @ “the power of language in a variety of linguistic, historical, disciplinary, social and cultural contexts and shifts in meaning”) didn’t take place until the year 2000, and I would like to hear much more about how you see this shift from coverage of major texts to interrogation of methods of reading them as constituting a move into diversification.

A major theme throughout your paper is the notion of that “liberal arts schools are political,” Bryn Mawr especially so: you describe “the school’s rich history of political disobedience,” claim that the very fact of our existence is “politically incendiary,” assert that Bryn Mawr College strives for graduates “who see education and politics as interconnected and equal.” I’m wondering what your evidence is for these claims? In light of our recent problematizing of ideals of education as offering “correction” and “betterment,” I find myself a little uneasy with your description of our “upward trajectory.”

Along these lines, I’d also like to hear more about your saying that “Bryn Mawr very likely benefited from slave labor” (do you know the story of the graveyard behind English House: that former house slaves from the Harriton Plantation are buried in here, each of their plots marked with stones, though not with names--while the slaves who worked in the fields are buried "on the rise" behind Harriton House itself, in graves that have no markings.....)? I’m also wondering how familiar you are with the history of the exclusion of black women from BMC’s “refusal to accept the limitations imposed on women’s intellectual achievement” (for starters, take the "Black at Bryn Mawr" Digital Tour).

Eager to talk more about all of this,