Review of Robbins’s Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Exchange

Review of Robbins’s Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Exchange

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 1 Fall/Winter 2019

Author(s): Jessica Enoch

Jessica Enoch is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland where she directs the Academic Writing Program. Her recent publications include Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work; Mestiza Rhetorics: An Anthology of Mexicana Activism in the Spanish Language Press, 1887-1922 (co-edited with Cristina Devereaux Ramírez); Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor (co-edited with David Gold); and Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition (co-edited with Jordynn Jack).


Robbins, Sarah Ruffing. Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Exchange. U of Michigan P, 2017. 372 pages.

Cover of Robbins's book. The background is black with the title in red and subtitle in yellow bold typeface. The top half features an on old photograph of women and men who are wearing dresses, hats, and suits and standing along a brick wall. The bottom half features a more recent-looking photograph of three African American young women wearing dresses and aprons and posing together.
Image from University of Michigan Press website.

Part of my work as a writing program administrator at my institution over the past year has been to lead a committee in which our goal is to reinvent our first-year writing course so that it better and more capaciously engages issues of diversity and inclusion and prompts students towards community engagement and social justice. It’s an exciting, and, I’ll admit, intimidating task, as I will spend the next few terms working with instructors in my program thinking about how our students can and should explore perspectives other than their own, interrogate their standpoints, and consider how they might become active participants in their worlds. As I toggle between composing this review and thinking through the work ahead of me, I realize how fortuitous it is that I have had the opportunity to read Sarah Ruffing Robbins’s excellent book Learning Legacies: Archive to Action though Women’s Cross-Cultural Exchange. Her book is just the text I need, and that I’d wager many Peitho readers need, as we redouble our scholarly, administrative, and pedagogical efforts to make diversity and inclusion central to our work and to embolden our dedication to social justice.

The main project of Learning Legacies is to consider how pedagogical pasts have, can, and should inflect our pedagogical present and future. Robbins’s main chapters examine three turn-of-the-twentieth century educational sites: the HBCU Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia; Jane Addams’s Hull-House settlement in Chicago, Illinois; and the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Throughout her chapters, Robbins investigates the pedagogical activism that took place at these sites, exploring the cross-cultural teaching and learning that happened between (often) white women educators and African American, immigrant, and Native students. Critical to note, and as I discuss below, Robbins frames the case studies of Spelman and Hull-House as positive examples of intercultural teaching and learning, and Carlisle as a negative example of an assimilationist educational program that Native teachers like Zitkala-Ša resisted. Robbins does not, however, isolate and study these moments only within their historical context. Rather, Robbins’s goal is to trace how these moments have become “legacies” for those who followed, tracking interlocutors’ engagements with these teaching moments and the “meaningful intercultural work” they created in response (5). That is, her goal is to investigate how legacies are not just made but also how they are received, considering the ways the “self-conscious heirs” to these historical narratives have taken up these stories of teaching and learning, reanimating them for their own purposes (5).

Important for Peitho readers, Learning Legacies is decidedly feminist in its orientation. To be sure, Robbins’s historiographic focus is on sites where women teachers engaged in cross-cultural teaching and learning with their marginalized students. More specifically, Robbins highlights Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles from Spelman, Jane Addams at Hull-House, and, as noted, Zitkala-Ša at Carlisle. But Robbins’s feminist project goes much deeper than her treatment of these women as historical subjects. Critically, and what I found be to most compellingly, Robbins adopts a feminist research method of narrative inquiry and performs a feminist rhetoric of collaboration in her writing. Readers discern her research method of narrative inquiry through Robbins’s work to identify, craft, and reflect on the layered storytelling that stands at the center of the book’s work. As she notes, each case study has three narrative layers: “a historical narrative about a specific learning legacy”; “a story about how those cultural resources are being used in social action today”; and a “personal narrative about [her] own learning process” (6). Thus, Robbins’s investigation hinges on the stories that have been told at and about Spelman, Hull-House, and Carlisle, as well as the story of her own research and writing—stories marked by Robbins’s critical reflection on her role as the storyteller.

By telling these stories in this way, Robbins carries out the imperatives of feminist standpoint theory, articulated by figures such as Adrienne Rich and Jacqueline Jones Royster, in which the scholar does not pretend that their research is objective or conducted by an all-knowing, omniscient observer, but instead the scholar makes clear how the research is produced by a human agent whose identificatory categories inflect what they see (and do not see), what they find important, and what they interpret and how. Robbins marks her interpretive position as a white woman educator throughout all of her chapters, by stepping back and articulating how her standpoint shapes her analyses and argument. As Robbins makes her presence and practice known throughout Learning Legacies, she also and importantly includes aspects of her research that often go unarticulated in scholarly writing: conversations with archivists and museum curators as well as scholars and teachers within and outside rhetorical studies.

This latter point leads to yet another major benefit of Robbins’s method of narrative inquiry: her explicit discussions of the deep and necessary collaborations that sit at the heart of cross-cultural research and pedagogy. Robbins’s writing demonstrates what she calls the “epistemic value of collaboration,” as she describes in great detail how her large- and small-scale interactions have enabled and guided her work as a scholar and as a teacher (231). Robbins’s overt explication of her collaborative work with archivists and museum curators, as well as scholars, teachers, and students, also indicates the pivotal role that deep listening, self-reflexivity, empathy, and humility play when researchers both investigate intercultural learning legacies and respond to them by creating teaching practices of their own.

The main chapters of Robbins’s book dive into the specific case studies and the learning legacies they inspired. After a thorough and thoughtful introduction to the project of the book in chapter one, chapter two, “‘That my work may speak well for Spelman’: Messengers Recording History and Performing Uplift,” engages Spelman College as a revolutionary example of an HBCU dedicated to black women’s education. Here, Robbins tells the story of how her collaborations with Spelman archivists Deborah Mitchell and Taronda Spencer enabled her to examine the efforts of Packard, Giles, and their Spelman students to enact a “cross-racial, cross-gender, and cross-region partnership” that cultivated the school’s growth “despite structural forces aligned against them” (44). Robbins uncovers these partnerships through her close reading of Spelman’s newspaper the Messenger, exploring how this text did the work of addressing external audiences (50), identifying Spelman’s own celebrities (55), and enabling communal agency (61). To conclude the chapter, Robbins traces how these early efforts created a legacy for those who followed, including Robbins herself. For example, Robbins examines Founders’ Day celebrations in the 2010s in which Spelman teachers and students commemorated the transformative work of the college’s early years with the goal of directing and inspiring their contemporary work. Robbins also moves on to “illustrat[e] in the concrete terms of syllabus construction” how she has brought the Spelman archival documents and the Messenger into her classroom at Texas Christian University (75). Robbins prompts her students to conduct intersectional feminist analysis by asking them to read and juxtapose contemporaneous writings by collegiate women. Students thus analyze and compare the narratives found in the Messenger with a collection of poems by a TCU teacher—Ida Jarvis’s Texas Poems (1895) (75). Robbins explains that through this pedagogy she “think[s] critically about how [she] can teach those texts comparatively, including highlighting white privilege inherent in the TCU-based woman writer of the same era as the Messenger authors” (75).

In chapter three, “Collaborative Writing as Jane Addams’s Hull-House Legacy,” Robbins turns attention to Jane Addams’s settlement that created collaborative opportunities between middle-class white and working-class immigrant women living in Chicago. Robbins studies the stories Addams told about Hull-House work through examining understudied texts such as My Friend, Julia Lathrop (1935). These overlooked texts reveal how middle-class leaders of the settlement house “supported the growth and agency of working-class women” (106) and how both groups of women took part in “collaborative knowledge-making” (89). Acknowledging critiques of Addams and her Hull-House endeavors, Robbins does not pretend the settlement project was perfect, but instead explores how those who followed Addams have engaged, remembered, and built on the work of the Hull-House. Robbins turns attention to the present-day efforts of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, under the direction of Lisa Lee, Lisa Junkin Lopez, and Heather Radke, and the collection Jane Addams in the Classroom, with David Schaafsma and Todd Stigter serving as editors. Here, Robbins explicates in rich detail how both the museum and the teachers cited in the collection have built inventive practices from Addams’s investment in “collaboration, shared learning, community-building, [and] intercultural work” (132). Of particular note is Lee’s “Rethinking Soup” program at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. This program invites the public not just to remember how Addams “welcomed…diverse visitors” to dine, discuss, and debate contemporary concerns at Hull-House but also to participate in similar kinds of conversation and connection in the contemporary museum space (123).

Chapters four and five examine the learning legacies generated from the assimilationist teaching at the Carlisle Indian School in particular and off-reservation boarding schools for Native students more generally. Chapter 4 “Reclaiming Voices from Indian Boarding School Narratives” examines how Carlisle promoted its assimilationist program through its own publications, Indian Helper and Red Man, as well as through publishing essays like “Indian Education” (1884) in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine and novels such as Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home, Founded on the Author’s Actual Observations (1891). Robbins then explores how teachers and writers responded to this debilitating propaganda for Native students through composing counternarratives that protested boarding school culture. Robbins examines criticisms contemporary to Carlisle’s time such as Native teacher Zitkala-Ša’s autobiographical essays published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900 as well as more contemporary responses to Carlisle’s educational program such as Esther G. Belin’s From the Belly of My Beauty (1999), Laura Tohe’s No Parole Today (1999), and N. Scott Momaday’s play “The Indolent Boys” (2007).

Chapter five “Learning from Natives’ Cross-Cultural Teaching” considers responses to Carlisle’s educational program that move beyond critique to examine “positive counter-narrative[s] of intercultural learning” and identify “cross-cultural alliance builders” (183). Robbins focuses attention on sites like the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the activist work of such figures as K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty (To Remain an Indian, 1995), Diane Wilson (Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life, 2011), Amanda J. Cobb (Listening to Our Grandmother’s Stories, 2000), Ruth Maskrat Bronson (Indians Are People Too, 1944),as well as Lisa King, Rose Gubele, and Joyce Rain Anderson (Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics, 2015). To conclude the chapter, Robbins circles back to her own pedagogical responsibility to “draw on studies of that painful history” of Native schooling and “build alliances with accomplished Native educators today” as a way “to improve [her] own cross-cultural work” (191). Robbins here underscores the value of listening to Native teachers and taking in their expert teaching practices. Specifically citing the excellent work and insights of figures like King, Namorah Byrd, Kimberli Lee, and Malea Powell, Robbins highlights the pedagogical goals of scholar-teachers like Powell who teach with the aim of “carrying tradition” (224). As Powell notes in an interview with Robbins, Powell’s goal is to “pass culture on” through teaching Native rhetorics and other “practices of making” so that these practices are “useful for the future generations” (223).

I cannot close this review without highlighting two final critical aspects of Learning Legacies. First, as should be clear from this review, Robbins’s investment in collaboration and listening is made real through her citation practices and her deep engagement in the work of others. Throughout the book, Robbins shines light on and explores an amazing array of scholars and scholarship, modeling for all of us what it means to build on the work others in positive and productive ways. Second, throughout all of her chapters, Robbins identifies the key role the archive plays in creating possibilities for cross-cultural teaching and learning. As this review should indicate, Robbins consults not only primary texts like the Messenger; My Friend, Julia Lathrop; and Indian Helper but she also showcases and analyzes those “texts”—from performances and museum exhibits to edited collections and novels—that have responded to these original materials by articulating and enacting new forms of activism. Key features of this book, then,are both the robust archive Robbins builds as she studies and tracks legacies of learning as well as her demonstration of the critical part archives play in catalyzing pedagogical endeavors aimed at social change. The subtitle of her book promises, and Robbins demonstrates this critical connection through each chapter, that we can move from archive to action.

Thus, as I take on my administrative work and endeavor to deepen pedagogical connections at my institution among writing, diversity, community engagement, and social change, I am invigorated by Robbins’s excellent book, Learning Legacies. She makes clear how examples from the past have inspired pedagogical practices aimed at social justice for those who followed. Indeed, what is likely the most important aspect of Robbins’s book is her implicit invitation for readers like me to become part of the intercultural learning legacies she showcases in her book. I’ll do my best to accept this invitation, and I hope other Peitho readers do as well. We should all craft our own unique responses to these pedagogical examples, participating in and perpetuating the learning legacies Robbins cites.

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