Rebel Girls and Nasty Women
The start of the school year usually finds English Professor Elif Armbruster abuzz with excitement. After all, there are few places she would rather be than the classroom.
That epiphany first struck Armbruster as a college undergrad, somewhere around line 254 of Milton’s Paradise Lost (“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”). Sitting in her dorm room, she was bowled over by the poet’s brilliance. “I thought, ‘All I want to do with my life is read and write and teach. I have to become an English professor.’ It was as clear as day.”
But as classes began at Suffolk in September 2018, very little seemed clear to Armbruster.
For the previous 10 months, the #MeToo movement had moved sexual harassment and assault to the center of the national conversation. But now, as a pitched battle unfolded around Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Armbruster was reminded that when women step forward to describe their experiences, they can risk being silenced, shamed, or worse.
“People were truly being heartless,” she recalls, pointing to the death threats that Christine Blasey Ford received following the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. “There was such a pervasive lack of empathy in the culture.”
Studying first-hand accounts
The hearings left Armbruster determined to create a setting where students could explore the historical, cultural, and political context of the issue.
In September 2019, she launched a First-Year Seminar course devoted to #MeToo memoirs by authors like Roxane Gay, Janet Mock, Grace Talusan, and Jessica Valenti, who chronicle the impact of sexual assault on their lives and their refusal to be silenced.
“I felt reading these women’s words could really awaken empathy in my students,” she says, “especially for those who had been victims themselves.”
"I want my students to find their voices and get comfortable using them."
Three years later, Rebel Girls and Nasty Women: Literary Activism and the #MeToo Memoir is among the College of Arts & Sciences’ most popular First Year Seminars. (The class takes its name from a popular Bikini Kill song and the phrase Donald Trump used to describe Hillary Clinton during a 2016 presidential debate.) And now it’s the basis for a powerful essay that Armbruster contributed to the new anthology #MeToo and Literary Studies: Reading, Writing, and Teaching About Sexual Violence and Rape Culture (Bloomsbury).
Mary Holland, the book’s co-editor and a professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, praises Armbruster for creating a comprehensive teaching model that others can follow in their own classrooms. “I’m moved and impressed by her class,” Holland says, “and deeply happy to know that professors like Elif are out there doing this kind of work.”
Creating a safe space
Her students universally — and fondly — call Armbruster by her last name. They call her course life changing.
“Armbruster didn’t just teach us about the required readings,” says Lauren Muro-Belandria, Class of 2023. “She taught us about more valuable things, like recognizing our strengths and purpose in life.”
“She created a safe space where we could open up and talk about issues that we are living through,” adds Mack Brown, Class of 2023.
To create that safe space, Armbruster lays a strong foundation, providing students with historical context and readings on the women’s movement, as well as definitions and statistics on sexual misconduct and assault from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Without a clear understanding of the legal issues, she says, “a lot of students are sort of winging it when it comes to things like consent. I feel the less fuzz the better.”
She also takes steps to “set a tone and make sure we’re comfortable talking about heavier material,” says Brown, an English major from Belmont, Mass. That material can be devastating. In her memoir The Body Papers, Grace Talusan documents how she was sexually abused by her grandfather, beginning at age 7. “For most of my life, I believed I was a bad person because something bad had happened to me,” she writes.
As Armbruster observes, that’s an all-too-common side effect of sexual assault. Sharing their stories is a powerful first step for survivors, she says, enabling them to move from isolation and self-blame into a sense of community and empowerment. Her students saw that firsthand when Talusan visited the class and led a creative writing workshop.
For Abby Larmore, Class of 2023, there was nothing abstract about Talusan’s memoir. A close relative of hers had recently been sexually assaulted, and when the assailant went on trial Armbruster reached out to Larmore and provided support.
“She was completely in my corner,” says the political science major from Wilmington, Delaware. “She also really expanded my understanding of what my college education could be. I knew very little about the experiences of lesbian, gay, and transgender individuals, and didn’t know how to talk about these issues. Armbruster creates such a safe learning environment, you feel able to ask questions, to learn and grow. That’s a real insight into who she is as professor and as a person.”
Armbruster assigns biweekly writing responses to all the readings, but instead of 12-point, double-spaced papers with one-inch margins, she asks students to submit hand-written letters, to encourage greater immediacy.
Her final isn’t an exam or a term paper, but a creative project in which students are required to engage with all the assigned memoirs and additional readings, but are free to choose what form that project will take.
Muro-Belandria created a comic book featuring scenes from each of the memoirs for her final project. Another student designed a board game called “The Road to Equality.” Still another stitched a dazzling pair of patchwork pants, with each individual square featuring images of women from advertising and pop culture, along with relevant quotations.
“We literally didn’t have to stay between the lines,” says Larmore. “Traditional schooling can come with boundaries. But when you take those barriers down, you can allow more discovery.”
Armbruster says that helping young women make such discoveries “is perhaps the most important work I can do. I want them to find their voices and get comfortable using them.”
That sense of discovery has continued for Larmore, Muro-Belandria, and Brown, each of whom are minoring in Women’s & Gender Studies. “It’s made advocacy a focus in my life,” says Brown. “Now that we have this awareness, it is never not going to be part of the discussion going forward. We don’t want to let all that we’ve learned go to waste.”