Allison Beth Schmidt Papers - Introductory Essay

Date range: 1992-1995
Location: D. 264
Size: 1 box

An Introductory Essay, by Nancy Niemi, in consultation with Lynn Gordon and Patricia Irvine

This collection of Allison Beth Schmidt's papers was donated to the University of Rochester by her parents, Howard and Sheryl Schmidt, on May 4, 2000. Allison Schmidt was a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester from September 1992 to June 1995, and the papers in this collection span these four years. Allison received an MA in English from the University of Rochester College of Arts and Sciences in 1993 and was engaged in doctoral studies at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development when she died in June 1995. Since much of her research and writing in English and education work focused on the gender inequality, the Gender and Society Group at the University of Rochester supported the collection and organization of the Allison Schmidt Papers in preparation for their entry into the University of Rochester Archives.

The papers and notes in this collection were written in a variety of contexts, including University of Rochester courses and Allison's public school teaching at Canandaigua Academy and Canandaigua Middle School, but several themes were common to them all: gender equality, critical pedagogy, and the discovery of self. These papers show how her thinking developed as she wrestled with these themes in relation to her students, her colleagues, and herself.

The theme of promoting gender equality through feminist critique and practice predominates in all Allison's papers. When she began taking courses at the Warner School in the summer of 1993, she examined education in its social context, explored feminist approaches to pedagogy, and struggled with understanding the nexus of gender, race, and social class in the construction of social inequalities. While she was enrolled in the doctoral program, she took a full-time teaching position as an eighth-grade teacher at Canandaigua Middle School, and in her writings from that period, she attempts to ground her theoretical inquiries in a concrete educational context. Allison expressed joy and frustration in bringing together the practical and the theoretical, and she also gained insight about herself in relation to the possibilities for social change through education.

This discussion of Allison's papers follows the chronological order of the collection. The master's degree documents from December 1992 to May 1993 are self-contained. The doctoral work documents are divided into two parts: December 1992 - December 1993 (Part One) and January 1994 - June 1995 (Part Two). The professional teaching documents (December 1993 - March 1995), however, were written during overlapping time periods and the reader is invited to investigate them in this light.

Master's degree documents (September 1992-May 1993)

Almost every paper that Allison Schmidt wrote for her English courses concerns gender equality. In her paper "A New 'Gender'ation of Women" (Folder 2.1; No date), she writes about being a woman, and she speculates about her own gendered upbringing: "The influence of my father seems to have played an important role [in my life] in that since he had no sons, his daughters would embody the best of traits of both males and females. This genderless upbringing was not something I questioned . . .. In fact, I now see it as the most natural, healthy manner to establishing a true identity within a child." (p. 2). Several lines later she writes, "Although I spoke of a genderless upbringing . . . I was inundated with characteristics from both genders, making me 'genderful'?!" Allison uses this "genderful" confidence in her subsequent analyses of various literary works.

In her analysis of the title character, Emma, in Hays' Emma Courtney (Folder 1.2, May 27, 1991), Allison illustrates her belief that women can and do achieve success equal to and independent of men. In the following excerpt, Allison portrays Emma as an unorthodox female hero:

Mary Hayes has created, through Emma, a model by which other women of the era could learn and live by. There is a bit of Emma in all of us. We all have our passions, our weaknesses, our desires, but Emma is able to coordinate these humanistic qualities with headstrong values and a desire to succeed in a man's world. For her, this man's world will just have to move over and become a women's world, too (p. 7).

In her papers, Allison often defends the actions of literary characters that she admired or whose behavior could provide models for her own life. In her analysis of Tennyson's controversial poem, The Princess, she wrestles with the contemporary criticism of the poem and the tension Tennyson created by challenging male and female roles. Her title for the paper, "Tennyson: Ideas of 'Mask'ulinity and Femininity in The Princess," (Folder 1.3, December 11, 1992) reflects this tension, astutely describing the masks worn by the poem's characters in service of their gendered personas.

Allison's pursues her interest in the textual analysis of gender in her paper, "Regaining Subject Status in Shakespeare's Othello," (Folder 2.10, May 14, 1993). In this paper, Allison develops her skills in literary analysis in her efforts to elucidate the ways in which authors, poets, and playwrights have grappled with gender. Allison perseveres in the task she undertook in the Tennyson paper: taking issue with the "masculinized literary criticism" of the play (p. 1). Skillfully weaving character analysis (particularly of Desdemona) with contemporary psychological and cultural insights, Allison offers her insights about Shakespeare's ideas of masculinity and femininity, illustrating how these ideas might play within modern cultural contexts. For example, Allison analyzes the following lines from Othello:

We must not now displease him.
My love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his cheeks, his frowns --
Prithee unpin me - have grace and favor in them.

(Othello, 4.3.17-21)

The language in the above passage from Shakespeare's Othello is at once both historically contextualized and ironically damaging to the female figure, the commodified woman. Desdemona, who speaks these lines, does so from a isenfranchised position, one of objectification and seeming desperation which would ultimately lead to her demise. She is, however, the voice of the Renaissance woman in her placid appraisals, unceasing loyalties, and naive submissions. Arguably, Desdemona is representative of the trapped and cornered female figure, caught in the double bind of true womanhood and threatening sexuality (p. 2).

Although Allison considers the role of Othello's race in her analysis of the play, she does not write explicitly about gender in relation to race and social class inequality; Professor Gross' critique of this paper indicates as much. However, Allison does address this interplay directly in her papers for the education courses she took subsequently.

In Allison's four papers for the course "Rhetoric and Style" (ENG 447), one of the last English courses she took, she expresses impatience with literary theory and begins to analyze gender issues in writing and in pedagogical practice: "I will acknowledge that my taste for theory is bittersweet, a factor which channelled [sic] my interests away from the further study of it," she wrote in a short essay on authors Gates and Christian (Folder 2.2, No date). "My intentions lie instead," she continues, "in the hands-on approach to reading a text" (p. 2). At this point in her education, Allison seemed ready to reject most of what literary theory, as she understood it, had to offer.

In her essay for this course on Virginia Woolf (Folder 2.4, No date), Allison again seems impatient with abstraction and the formal analysis of text. While exploring the style and rhetoric of the authors, she also examines Woolf's critique of men's and women's gendered roles. In this essay, we catch a glimpse of why Allison, in her public school teaching, may have emphasized the importance of writing with her middle-school students: "Writing," she writes, "enable[s] one to create whatever structure he or she believes in so that writing yourself into a power position in some ways really gives you a tangible power" (p. 2).

In the "Eliot Commentary" (Folder 2.5 , no date) Allison writes about T. S. Eliot, calling his use of language "characteristically male" and finding it "impossible to justify" in the late twentieth century. She cites a sentence from Eliot ("We must treat it [the idea of a Christian society] as being for the individual a matter primarily of thought and not of feeling") and has this to say about it: "This statement bears with it a mark of stereotypical language in its emphasis on information and its rejection of intimacy" (p.1). Allison would continue to investigate what she considered gendered language use in her final paper for this course, using her classmates' language as data.

Allison's final paper for "Rhetoric and Style" is titled "Language and Gender: A Case Study," (Folder 2.8, May 14, 1993). It seems fitting that one of her last papers before entering the school of education reflects her growth both as a woman and a writer while hinting at some of the issues she would take up as an educator and researcher:

In preparation for this project I perused my classmates' papers and concluded that, to me, the discourse of women speaking as directly and poignantly as possible was most revealing and enlightening. In shuffling through the old papers, I came across my own gender autobiography. I read it over a few times and saw someone I wasn't quite sure I recognized. The style was a configuration of so many things: indoctrinated learning habits, a need to achieve the status quo, and certain insecurities. I saw a dramatic change (well, at least to me it was dramatic) in the style of my last paper in comparison to that of the first. And so, upon choosing which two classmates' work to study, I chose the remaining females as a means to procure a better understanding of the essential reasoning that underlies feminine discourse (p. 1).

In this paper, Allison postulates the existence of a feminine discourse and then attempts to define the nature of it. She states, "I hope to explicate that, as women, they [the two in her case study] do have a specific agenda in terms of what they are trying to say through their words and that there is such a phenomena [sic] as feminine discourse," (p. 3). From her classmates' written texts, Allison extrapolates eight characteristics of "feminine discourse":

  1. Blatant signs of confidence
  2. Use of subjunctive language (ability to be honest with oneself)
  3. Overt awareness (self-consciousness)
  4. Outward signs of possession of both male and female language use which reflects a significant part of the personality
  5. Disgust with oversimplification
  6. Criticism of weak feminine discourse (one that may make excuses for men, etc.)
  7. Disgust with overtly male discourse (one that may be anti-feminist or anti- other, etc.)
  8. Traditionally held forms of feminine discourse (pp. 3-4).

"Feminine language," she writes, "empower[s] women [in the same way] masculine language has empowered men" (p. 16). She ends the paper with the hope "for a day when language does not have to be necessarily sequestered and labeled [because] then the world will be a much simpler place" (p. 17). Thus, as Allison left the English literature program to begin her study doctoral study in education, she was consciously exploring the role of language and discourse in implementing social change.

Doctoral work documents - Part One (December 1992 -December 1993)

In July 1993, having completed her MA in English in May, Allison began to take graduate education courses as a non-matriculated student at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development. In Allison's first paper for the Warner School in this collection, she again introduces herself. However, in contrast to the "New Genderation" paper (Folder 2.1, no date), written nine months earlier, she writes almost nothing about gender and language, focusing instead on multiculturalism, a central topic in her education course, "Teaching, Curriculum, and Change" (summer 1993). Her writing for the courses "Adolescent Development" (ED 415) and "Theory and Practice in the Teaching and Learning of English" (ED 431) reflect her emerging awareness of the roles that race and social class might also play in the construction of in social inequality.

In papers for both courses, Allison writes about her discovery of the ways that racial and social class inequities are evident in the practices of public schools. She maintains that "the study of language and literature . . . fostered immeasurable possibilities" for students (Folder 4.2, October 12, 1993). In a group project with two other students in the course on adolescent development, she collected demographic data from two Rochester-area schools in the attempt to further understand James Coleman's work regarding educational inequities (Folder 4.4, November 29, 1993).

By the end of the semester, Allison draws the following conclusions about the origins of student differences in achievement that she observed in local urban schools:

I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to pinpoint where the disparities between white student achievement and black student achievement originated. It is certainly not a matter of inherent ability variables. Nor is it inherent culturally as some researchers would have us believe. Rather, it is an interwoven pattern of social ills which continue to bolster up the haves while punishing the have nots and all the while remaining politically deaf to the anguished cries of the needy and the downtrodden (Folder 4.6, No date, p. 9).

Having identified what she calls the "interwoven pattern of social ills" that create social and academic inequities, she turned to possible solutions. Allison clearly wanted to act, to do something. At the end of 1993, she proposes a model "to increase the effectiveness of urban education" based on Coleman's purposive action model (Folder 4.5, December 16, 1993, p. 8.) She ends her paper with the following: "In espousing interrelatedness [between the individual, the community and society] I am hoping to view educational and social reform in a new light." Her professor for the course, Dr. Elliot, responded, "It's nice to know that there are still people out there who are looking at the future with some feelings of hope." Allison took that hope with her into her student teaching experience in the spring of 1994.

Professional Teaching Documents(December 1993 - May 1995)

Allison was a student teacher at Canandaigua Academy, in Canandaigua, New York, from January to April 1994. Allison demonstrated her professional mind-set by taking the initiative to "apply" for the student teaching placement even though she knew the University had responsibility for that (Folder 8.1, December 2, 1993).

Allison's "Evaluative Assessment of Student Evaluations" (Folder 8.14, no date) and letter of recommendation from her cooperating teacher, Kathy Nacca (Folder 8.13, April 18, 1994), indicate that Allison had an extremely successful student teaching experience. In her "Evaluative Assessment" (Folder 8.14) she writes, "Many of [the students] remarked that I was a 'great' teacher (what an ego boost) and that they felt comfortable in my classroom," (p. 1). Allison continues,

A constant thread running through the [student] evaluations was their desire for varied presentation styles. My students were seeking movement, energy, dialogue, change, all the things that make an effective classroom space. . . . One criticism that puzzled me was the students' fear that I would be taken advantage of. I think this has to do with the fact that I was more lenient than their teacher. I was willing to extend certain deadlines for certain circumstances. I made comments concerning my desire for them to achieve and that the purpose of education is not to continually punish students with zeroes, but rather to give them motivation to produce quality work. They liked this sentiment, yet it made them uneasy because it was so different from what they had been used to (p. 1).

Evidence for the accuracy of Allison's self-assessment can be found in the many documents she produced for her students at Canandaigua. In the documents in folder 8 (#4-12) there are examples of the questions Allison posed for her students and the feedback that she gave them. She spent the most time teaching the novel Crime and Punishment in her Advanced Placement (AP) English class. Copies of some of her students' writing appear in folder 8.10 (ca. March 1994), and they show the high quality of written work that Allison was able to elicit from her seventeen-year-old students.

Allison seemed anxious to address the gap between educational theory and practice by teaching in as many contexts as she could. Several remaining documents in this collection evidence Allison's efforts towards obtaining teaching positions in the months following her student teaching experience. Documents in folder 8 (#15-19) include letters of recommendation written for her, letters of application written by her, and an official transcript (Folder 8.18, October 27, 1994). In 1994, she applied for (Folder 8.17, October 20, 1994) and secured a full-time teaching position at Canandaigua Academy and began teaching there while continuing to take doctoral courses part-time. A letter of application to teach at Monroe Community College (Folder 8.20, March 24, 1995) reveals her intention to teach there at the same time. A letter from her graduate advisor, Dr. Crichlow (Folder 3.7, May 28, 1995), informed her that she had passed her doctoral core exam and praised her exemplary course work, but while he applauded her enthusiasm for teaching experience, he cautioned her not to overextend herself with too much teaching work outside her doctoral degree.

Doctoral work documents - Part two (January 1994 - June 1995)

While Allison's student teaching experience at Canandaigua Academy was a positive one, she was critical of some of her experiences in the teacher preparation program at the Warner School. In her "Reflections" paper (Folder 4.7, May 10, 1994), Allison expresses frustration with what she felt was a lack of support for beginning teachers: "My greatest concern with the program," she writes, "is its schismatic relationship to the student teaching experience . . .. The student teacher . . . should be carefully monitored by a trained professional who is able to carry on a dialogue [about] . . . the teaching process . . .. [When] the student teacher is left to reflect upon her own practice, it [reflection] becomes significantly less effective as a learning tool," (p. 8).

To take action on her frustrations with the program, Allison designed a survey to "compile data concerning the quality and effectiveness of the certification program in secondary English" (Folder 4.7, May 10, 1994). The survey is an example of Allison's boldness and confidence in her own perceptions; she was willing to confront the problems she saw and actively pursue solutions.

The 1994-95 school year was Allison's last, and her writings reveal a growing impatience as she realized that public education was not the place she had envisioned it to be. "I tend . . . in weak moments, towards the idealistic in my attitudes toward teaching and public education," she wrote (Folder 5.1, September 27, 1994, p. 1). In her papers from this period, she begins to synthesize her previous study in the fields of education and English in order to "reinvent" herself in the educational world. She writes, "The notion of reinventing oneself intrigued me . . . in our idealism . . . we are eager to embrace what is different and somehow make it our own. While I find this partially appealing, I also find it self-destructive if, in the process, we ignore the importance of our own narrative" (Folder 5.1, p. 2). Thus it was that Allison wrestled with how her personal narrative meshed with the experiences of her colleagues and her students.

This desire to synthesize what she had learned in English literature and education comes across in her writing in several ways. In her papers for "Women and the Professions" (ED 488), Allison explores how women use their voices to create social change for themselves and others. She investigates the roles that women journalists play in determining what counts as news and in influencing how it is written and reported. In these papers, Allison concludes that there is no common female voice among women in the same profession, much less among women from different races and social classes.

But even while Allison attempted to come to terms with the complexity of the social changes needed to change women's status, she showed impatience with repeating what she thought she already understood. For one course, she writes, "If I had [sic] to read one more article about how everything, from canon formation to advertising to literacy are all tied up in the notion of [social] class, I think I might gag. We all know that these issues, in fact, all social issues, cannot be conceived irrespective of political, economic, and social circumstance" (Folder 5.1, p. 2, September 27, 1994). While Allison's statement reveals her growing awareness of the complexity of social problems, her frustration with reading about problems rather than doing something about them allowed her to believe that "we all know" what she herself was just coming to understand.

Not long after she wrote those words, Allison's assumption that everyone understood these complexities in the same way she did was challenged. In her essay, "Women, Native, Other" (Folder 5.4, October 24, 1994), Allison disagrees with the stance of a female professor who "presuppose[s] that feminism has one inclusive definition" and that "feminism was a bad word" (p. 1). While Allison welcomed opposing points of view, she wrote that this discovery posed a disturbing challenge to her thinking.

Allison's last complete work, "Invisible Privilege in a Middle School English Classroom: Struggling With Adolescents and the Art of Generative Themes" (Folder 7.1, June 1995) was written for "Critical Literacy" (EDU 582). In the paper, she ties together many of the issues that had preoccupied her. She answers some of her questions and poses new ones, offering a glimpse into where she might have gone from this point.

Allison's "Invisible Privilege" paper is poetic yet analytical. She uses both styles to stress that she felt as much a student as she was a teacher in the process of using "generative themes" in her English classes. The concept of generative themes derives from Paulo Freire's book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he proposes that literacy, in order to become a tool for social change, is best taught using themes taken from students' lives and experiences. Allison's paper critically describes her attempt to use generative themes in two of her classes, skillfully blending the theoretical underpinning of her attempt to "[have the students] create new knowledge . . . that is . . . meaningful to them" (p. 9) in the conservative context of a public school.

As she takes the reader through a description of her process, she examines her successes and failures with using generative themes. That she even attempted to build her curriculum and pedagogy around generative themes is admirable. As an untenured teacher, straying from the conventional English curriculum could have possible repercussions for future employment. She acknowledges this: "Employing a critical literacy process in a classroom requires a tremendous amount of risk" (p. 17). However, Allison had the courage to take it. This project was the culmination of her first attempt at public action, her first try at social change through education.

In the conclusion to this paper, Allison writes, "Through the use of generative themes, I have asked the students to abandon their previously held notions of education in order to 'name their world.' What resulted was that these students and their peers walked away from this experience with a greater sense of their own world and of how to relate the importance of that world to others" (p. 16). How Allison and her students might have fared in subsequent attempts like this is speculative; that she would have taken more risks like this, however, is not.

At the time of her death, Allison was wrestling with the tensions between theory and practice in her profession and in her personal life. She was also trying to find a context in which to engage, actively, in making social change and remedying social inequity. She had moved from writing and theorizing to writing-in-action in a public school context. Professional educators from multiple disciplines share Allison's belief that social change through public schools is not only possible, but perhaps one of the only remaining avenues for widespread social reform. When Allison died, she was just beginning her struggle with education as it is and education as it might be. Tragically, we will not have Allison's help in that continued struggle.


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