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Who's Afraid of Domain of One's Own?

“A student must have a domain of her own if she is to write…”

I was surprised to learn, in a recent conversation with colleagues, that although there are clear and justifiable connections between “Domain of One’s Own” (hereafter, DoOO) and Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own from which the initiative gets its title, we could identify no one who had written substantively about those connections. In some references, only Woolf’s picture appears, with no mention at all of the book or its contents.

After our DoOO Book Club reading and conversation about Woolf’s book, I decided to write more thoughtfully about the relationship between the two. Two caveats: I am neither an expert on Virginia Woolf nor on Domain of One’s Own. Instead, I am relying on my own reading of the book and my colleagues’ thoughts on what we read. The conversation took the form of some questions posed by UMW Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies Executive Director Jesse Stommel, and I do my best to reconstruct them here.

Should we make more obvious the connection between DoOO and Woolf?

What does it mean, both literally and figuratively, to have a room of one’s own? Woolf’s room with a lock, and resources (the famous “500 pounds a year,” but also education, time, and access) provides a place within which the figurative can flower. Similarly, a domain is more than a delimited internet space with your name on it–it is a figurative room that provides time, creative license, and a space to express oneself freely. Part of our discussion revolved around what people are most lacking that prevents them from fully using their domains. The time and space to write? Or is it something deeper than that–the need for a place to write and create without fear?

What can Woolf tell us about the goals of DoOO?

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” We can see in Woolf’s essay instructions on how to locate the space to find, develop, and write in one’s own style. A similar goal undergirds DoOO. Though this approach is more difficult and potentially risky, it has been critical that this writing be both public and allow students to take part of a wider digital conversation, one that is ultimately not dictated by others, including their instructors.

What does that work look like, and how can we best encourage that free expression?

“But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Woolf’s reader gets a profound sense of the stifling nature of education at Oxbridge with its “only one right way,” clearly oppressive not only to the women of the time. How do the professors and staff structure the learning process so that use of DoOO is not yet another required course task but one that is empowering? How do you move from a tool taught by a professor to one a student can use as she chooses? How can we use DoOO within a course framework while not inhibiting students’ own creative impulses? Students are often at a loss as to what to do with all this unstructured freedom, or maybe don’t yet believe that they are capable of this type of work. How do we create a safe space where students can practice that freedom?

How does Woolf help us think about identity?

Woolf tries on multiple other identities in her book, much as students might choose to do with their domains. She narrates her piece as multiple characters named Mary who exist in potentially dangerous spaces outside marriage or motherhood. She also invents fictional women authors to demonstrate the difficulties women writers have being taken seriously. Identity as a concept is central to DoOO. Students learn how to develop their own online presence. They gain knowledge to protect their identities online, but more importantly, they learn to take control or manipulate their online identities in numerous ways. Students can take risks (or not) with these personas in a safe space as they develop more fully.

Should DoOO have an explicitly feminist voice?

Woolf’s short book has now become a classic feminist text (not everyone in our group was initially aware of this). Should students learning about DoOO also learn about this? UMW, of course, is an historically a women’s college, with a strong women’s and gender studies program and prominent feminist voices represented among faculty and students. Another connection might involve recognition that Woolf is writing at the tail end of fundamental shifts for women (voting rights, first wave feminism), much as this is a time of great upheaval for students, digital identity, and online learning. On the other hand, concerns about access and social justice which might be prompted by Woolf could actually take us beyond feminism to think about other social justice concerns related to DoOO. The book does not limit us to discussing women and sexual politics, but extends to social class, economics and other forms of power.

What other inequalities might DoOO address in terms of cultural capital, social justice, access?

Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers, classified as second-class citizens. With no wealth of her own and no title, no one would take a women writer seriously. “In the first place, to have a room of her own… was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.” Nevertheless, in 1929, even Woolf, as an upper middle class married woman with an inheritance from an aunt, does have the 500 pounds, along with time and the space to write.

What other inequalities could be addressed with DoOO? Generational differences? Young college students’ work online, like the writing of women in the early 20th century, can often be delegitimated as “scribbling.” The digital divide? How do we ensure that all of our students not only have equal access to DoOO but also feel equally comfortable with information and communication technologies provided by the project? How would we address further inequities presented for students who might be further marginalized in a liberal arts setting, such as adult students, first generation college students, students with disabilities, and so forth? If empowerment is to happen with DoOO, it must happen for all.

How is the connection between Woolf and DoOO central to the liberal arts enterprise?

She asks, in the absence of fiction and history on women, how do we actually “know” women? So classic liberal arts questions such as, What is knowledge? What can we do with it? How do we know? What is meant by reality? can link Woolf to conversations we’ve been having about how DoOO fits within one’s education (as well reveal the false dichotomy between liberal arts and digital technology yet again).

Finally, how do we use DoOO and liberal arts education to empower students? Perhaps more to the point, how do we create systems that don’t disempower? The tautology this choice might evoke: This gives the student the power to choose to remain on line, to curtain one’s online presence, or not after graduation. A choice to keep one’s domain, to change it significantly, or *not to use it at all. *(Bear in mind the not inconsequential fact that teaching students this might negatively impact the way our own institutional evaluators assess the success of DoOO).

But what did we eat?

“Novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” It wasn’t until I finished this essay that colleagues reminded me that we talked about this very quote, and what it underscores about the importance typically placed on arenas that are publicly male (discourse) versus privately female (domestic). In that spirit, let me add that although it’s possible nothing very witty was said, we did have some lovely nachos and margaritas.

In the end, we don’t have all the answers to the questions posed above. This is just the beginning of the meal. Please join us in a broader discussion of the role that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own can play in the Domain of One’s Own community.


Debra Schleef is a Professor of Sociology at University of Mary Washington. She is on Twitter @DebraSchleef and she blogs at http://intentionalsociology.org/. We love Debra.

[Film still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)]