June 4, 2003: A moment with...

Elaine Showalter

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Elaine Showalter, the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities and professor of english, retires this year after almost 40 years of teaching, the last 19 at Princeton. Widely known as a feminist scholar, she is the author of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977) and numerous other books. Her most recent, Teaching Literature (Blackwell), is a practical guide to classroom techniques. Beginning this summer, Showalter will commute between Washington, D.C., where she will write for the American Prospect, and London, where she will write a column for the Guardian. Here she talks with PAW’s Lolly O’Brien about her life in the academy and beyond.

Now that London’s calling, what’s your plan?

In this Washington/London axis, I can write about American life when I’m in London, and in Washington I can write about English life. I have a lot of opinions, and I want to get people thinking about things in a new way.

How does popular culture relate to your academic work?

I do a lot of reviewing: television, film, theater, books. Popular culture is a symptom of society, where it is and where it’s heading. I like to use my critical skills in interpreting something very new. For instance, the television show American Idol is an entertaining mix of talent show and soap opera. In its second series, which ran from January to May, it paralleled the Iraq war and gave a fascinating reflection of the mood of the country, its patriotism, and its skepticism. The program is casually interracial and multicultural, a template of contemporary youth culture; and the presence of both upbeat American judges and a harsh Brit made it an interesting gloss on the war coverage from Fox TV News and the BBC.

Can you predict what the next reality show might be?

If the current trend of copying British TV hits continues, I hope it’s the one about how to flirt. The Brits found an Australian woman to coach people in flirting who was astonishingly good. She even taught a shy gay man how to cruise.

Are you still working from a feminist point of view?

That will be lifelong. In my column for the Guardian I expect to write from a woman’s point of view but not a doctrinaire one. My feminism is pragmatic and contemporary. It’s a feminism more interested in power than victimization.

What do you mean by “pragmatic and contemporary?”

Obviously, there are still many problems facing women, but I think feminism needs to accept the reality that women have access to power in areas that traditional liberal feminism scorns. I admire women in the military, in government, in big business, and I think it’s time for feminism to develop an ethic of power as well as one of powerlessness.

In your new book you share teaching strategies, including the use of technology. Can you talk about how you see technology affecting teaching?

Listening is one of the least efficient ways of learning. No matter how brilliant the speaker, few people can focus sufficiently for 50 minutes. For many years I used slides, which broke up the teaching. Now, video and digitized images are much better. I can be talking about a play and in the middle of the lecture I can show a scene done by three different actors, three different interpretations. Or an interview with a writer, or something from the dramatization of a novel.

What other innovations have had an effect on teaching?

Electronic discussion boards. It is amazing and revolutionary how this technology has changed the interactive process between professor and student. The students have a real audience: each other. And because of this, they develop personal voices, and they write with an energy and directness they don’t bring to their academic writing. I try to make them aware of the difference in tone and clarity, and help them imagine a real audience for their academic writing. Also, it is helpful to know from students ahead of time what they’re interested in.

Do you see electronic communication influencing literature?

This semester I taught a course on the American short story, and one of the things we emphasized is the way that from almost the very beginning, with Washington Irving and Hawthorne, there was an interest in the American language — what it was, how it was spoken, and the language ordinary Americans used region by region, decade by decade. We looked at how you could express the most profound ideas and emotions in the colloquial language of America, whether it was Melville, or Sherwood Anderson, or Hemingway.

Today’s students are already an electronic generation; that revolution is not in the future — it has already happened. In the words of one of my seniors, Alex Rosenfeld: “So much of our passions, our problems, our daily existential musings are poured into the electronic format, that it is the obligation of literature to reflect on this experience and to speak to us in its language.”


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