Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Doing Women's Studies on the Sly at LaGuardia Community College

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Doing Women's Studies on the Sly at LaGuardia Community College

Article excerpt

You see, they had had no wars. They had had no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together-not by competition, but by united action.

-Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland (51)

Many feminist writers, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Herland, Marge Piercy in Woman on theEdge of Time, and Suniti Namjoshi in The Mothers of Maya Diip, have sought to present readers with utopian visions of societies created by and for women. This work, primarily labeled science fiction because of the disjunction between everyday life and the fantasy (or a sometimes dystopic critique), seems impossible to bridge.

Contrast this fictional desire for a woman-centered world with a campus where women's studies is not "quarantined" (in the patriarchy's perspective) to a women's center or a particular space or program labeled "women's studies." Instead, the practice of women's studies is infused into the curriculum, into extracurricular activities, into the very practice of each student-faculty-staff interaction. On the very best days, this is our practice and experience of women's studies. On the more average, or the very worst days, our practice and experience of women's studies is more dystopic, like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. We are two progressive, feminist English professors committed to student-centered learning, collaborative teaching methods, and feminist pedagogy. Our two-year campus of the City University of New York, LaGuardia Community College, does not have a women's studies program but historically serves a large body of women students: 63.2 percent of the student body is female; 67 percent is non-native born; and 86 percent want to pursue their education beyond the associate's degree our institution offers.

We recognize the paradox inherent in our gendered student body and the lack of a women's studies program. However, our campus has a clear focus on general education, transfer, and job preparation. Within the particular context of our work, we do women's studies all of the time, regardless of institutional labels. It is our firm belief that by introducing women's studies at a grassroots level, we will begin to build an institutional need for a women's studies program that cannot be ignored. Books like Paula Caplan's now-canonical Lifting a Ton of Feathers and Jan Zlotnik Schmidt's Women/Writing/Teaching have documented the male-centered climate of colleges and universities and the difficult working environment created for female faculty members.1 A re-reading of these texts, however, provides room for arguing that the very same climate that often proves oppressive for women academics can be equally oppressive for women students pursuing their degrees amid immensely unsupportive family obligations and often challenging financial circumstances. Many of our students are single parents juggling child care, work, and school obligations with tenuous success. Others confront patriarchal attitudes in their families and communities and have been socialized in traditional gender, racial, and sexual roles. The experience of one of our students, Erica, embodies some of these obstacles? A student in Clark's Composition I class, Erica entered the term timid and reluctant to participate in the discussion section of the course. During the semester, however, as she gained more self-confidence, Erica developed into a classroom leader for our research project. This transformation, not unusual to many teachers, is interesting in light of Erica's position in her family.

Erica-Living as 'The Only Daughter': Clark's Encounter

One evening, going home on the crowded subway, Clark was literally pushed into Erica. At our busy school, faculty and students sometimes have meaningful, productive experiences with one another and then, as the unrelenting course of the year wears on, we never run into one another again. The chance meeting on the subway gave Clark and Erica the opportunity to catch up. …

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