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Good things come in risky packages: The gift of a Women's Studies education

At 35, after many years as a professional writer (including 7 years as a technical writer in the software development industry), I returned to college with over 200 credit hours to complete my bachelor’s degree. Ten years later, I had finished a BA in General Studies at Concordia Lutheran College (1992), an MA in Women's Literature at the University of Illinois at Springfield (1996), and a PhD in Women’s Studies (focusing on issues in math, science, and computing) at Union Institute and University (2000). I took many risks during those important years. Even though I knew that I ultimately wanted a tenure-track teaching position, I risked pursuing non-traditional, individualized graduate education at lesser known schools. Even though I was more comfortable teaching Women’s Studies to women, I risked teaching male computer science students. Even though my graduate work was in Women’s Studies, I risked accepting a tenure-track teaching position in a non-traditional, individualized program. But, the risks have been nothing compared to the gifts I’ve received in return. This is the story of how I did the risky business of transforming my life with graduate work in Women’s Studies.

The story begins with misery. The great thing about misery is that it’s a terrific motivator. I was very unhappy with my professional life as a technical writer in the high-stress, low-values world of software development. So, when the small company that I was working for went out of business, I risked the embarrassment of returning to college as an adult. Believing that I was already educated, I was just there to get the “darned piece of paper.” But, my first gift was already on order.

I chose to complete my BA in General Studies at Concordia Lutheran College which was one of two universities in Austin, Texas that had adapted their schedules to attract working adult learners. Since I had always loved literature and writing, I took a course in 18th and 19th century American women writers. For the first time, I heard the voices of women in an academic context—my own voice. I was stunned to hear women writers struggling with the same questions I’d struggled with, and some of these women were writing over 200 years ago. Hearing the voices of women who’d managed to write and survive in an environment far more repressive than mine provided a deep sense of validation in my existence. I saw that I was not the first woman to feel torn between my true self and the woman my society expected me to be. I saw that many women before me had struggled with the same sorrows, the same frustrations, and the same disappointments. Dr. Susan Stayton, the remarkable teacher who taught this course changed my life that semester by inspiring a new career—using literature to help other women discover themselves and their place in the world, and ultimately to help our whole society become more inclusive. I decided to earn graduate degrees in women’s literature so that I could teach others these stories and participate in changing the literary canon.

My next risk seemed huge at the time, but now it seems less like a risk and more like the first step towards becoming myself. I finally “came out” as a feminist to my conservative Republican family. I still remember the moment at my mother’s kitchen table when I announced that I planned to go to graduate school to study women’s literature. My elite private college educated, millionaire, older brother said, “What are you? One of those femi-Nazis?” Then, he attempted to engage me in a debate about the (to him) absurd notion of a Museum for Women’s Art saying there weren’t any women artists. I replied, “Well, I’m not knowledgeable about women’s art yet, but based on what I know about women’s literature, I can assure you that’s probably not true. The same false claim has been made about women writers, that there weren’t any. But, it’s not true. For example, did you know that there was a woman writer named E.D.E.N. Southworth whose sales of 40,000 copies of her novel The Hidden Hand outsold Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sales of 10,000 copies of The Scarlet Letter in the same year they were first published? Why have we never heard of her?” My brother was stunned. My mother was silent. I was determined.

(To my brother's credit, he later read The Hidden Hand when he was looking for an interesting novel to adapt to a screenplay. And, our relationship has grown tremendously in the 17 years since that conversation.)

My research into graduate study in women’s literature led to my next significant risk. In 1992, the primary way to study women’s literature was to enter a traditional graduate program in English or Literature and sub-specialize in women writers. After an over 230 hour bachelor’s degree, I was not interested in spending any more time studying dead, white, male writers when there were so many women who had yet to be explored. I also considered the only two choices in the country for a PhD in women’s studies at the time: the Women’s History PhD at the University of Wisconsin and the Women’s Studies PhD at Emory University. However, since I was primarily interested in women’s literature, neither of these programs completely met my needs. Ultimately, my stubborn determination to direct my own course of study led me to my next great risk. I pursued a non-traditional, self-designed, individualized master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Springfield which allowed me to focus solely on women writers.

Although I was a bit concerned about the perceived credibility of this type of non-traditional degree when I first applied, once I met the faculty at UIS, my doubts were indelibly erased. The time I spent working on my master’s at UIS remains one of the most fulfilling periods of my life. It seemed that after years of hard labor, I was finally giving birth to myself. I worked with remarkable feminist faculty who contributed to my intellectual development through nurturing and supporting my journey rather than testing and challenging me to fail. I learned about feminist pedagogy by example, and this laid an important foundation for the teacher that I am today. In fact, the environment was so hospitable, that I hesitated to even use the term “defense” to refer to the final committee meeting to review my master’s thesis. And, ultimately, I found the experience of self-directed study towards the master’s so intellectually rewarding and so personally transforming, that I subsequently applied to only one PhD program—the individualized doctorate at Union Institute and University.

It’s important to back up in the chronology for a moment and help you understand how I was paying for all of this. I tried to be a full-time graduate student at UIS relying on a graduate assistantship and federal student loans. However, I rapidly realized that this path was not going to work. So, after finishing all of my master’s coursework, I took a technical writing job in Seattle—planning to complete my thesis long distance. I made the difficult decision to use my lucrative profession as a technical writer to help pay for graduate school. I did not plan to look for a teaching job until I completed my PhD. However, this is where another risk paid off in unexpected ways.

After only 7 months of misery at my new technical writing job, I walked out one day, not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from. I thank Clarissa Pinkola Estes for that. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Estes says that to give birth to your true self, you must be in a nurturing environment. I had been struggling with the first chapter of my master’s thesis for several months. However, after I left that toxic work environment, I finished an entire first draft of my thesis in two weeks. In the meantime, I was also looking for contract work as a technical writer when I noticed the Education section of the Seattle Times classifieds. It occurred to me that since I was virtually finished with my MA in women’s literature, perhaps I could be hired to teach at a local community college.

I applied to three positions to teach women’s literature, and one to teach technical writing. To my utter astonishment, I was hired by the new Computing and Software Systems program at the University of Washington, Bothell to teach technical writing. This meant that while I was completing my individualized PhD, I had the gift of spending four years gaining full-time teaching experience. But, the opportunity to teach full-time wasn’t the only gift.

Since I was one of the first two faculty hired in this new program, I had the opportunity to develop new courses in addition to the technical writing course that I was originally hired to teach. In an effort to bridge my interest in women’s studies with the discipline in which I was teaching, I developed a multicultural Ethics in Computing course and a Women in Computing course. Studying women’s stories was safe, but teaching women’s studies in our largely white, largely male, department was risky business indeed. As bell hooks said, “teaching is front line work” and this was life on the front lines.

When I first taught Women in Computing, I prayed that no men would register for the course. Fortunately, a few brave souls did, and their deep work in the course transformed my world view. Teaching women’s studies to both women and men expanded and invigorated my sense of possibilities about reaching a broader audience with these important messages about constructive social change. Though I struggled with the decision for months, ultimately, I changed the focus of my doctoral work from women’s literature to women in computing. This decision was a new kind of risk on a personal level. You see, I loved the nurturing environment of women’s stories. I wanted out of the (to me) hostile environment of technology. I had chosen the rocky, uphill path, and I wasn’t sure that I was up to the climb.

I spent the next several years living in stark terror. But, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other (or one book in front of the other) and traveling the course I had set for myself. Then, near the end of my doctoral studies, there was a moment where I envisioned a metaphor for my experience that helped me tremendously. It became very clear to me that I felt like I was stepping off the edge of a cliff, daily. But, I was also learning that when I had the courage to step in the direction that I knew to be right, ground always appeared under my feet. I wasn’t sure how it was happening, but I was learning to choose faith instead of fear. And, my faith was rewarded with gifts beyond my wildest imaginings.

I had undergone significant intellectual and personal transformation during my master’s program, but it paled in comparison to the complete transformation that resulted from my doctoral program. Near the end of my doctoral studies I discovered why I think this occurred. It is generally understood that we learn by hooking the unknown to something known. However, when the learner is not prepared to receive new information, it remains only information, rather than being integrated into knowledge. When you take a set of prescribed courses, you may or may not be ready for the questions and answers you’re exploring. But, since I was directing the sequence and content of my doctoral studies, I was continually ready for what came next. Each learning experience moved rapidly from information to knowledge as it was integrated with the known.

When I finished my PhD, I began to look for a tenure-track position. UWB was a small, growing campus. I had been one of two women faculty who founded the Computing and Software Systems program in 1996. Both of us were hired as Lecturers on annual contracts. During the four years that I remained in that job, we watched the department hire numerous men into tenure-track positions, while they denied my colleague (who had a PhD in computer science) a tenure-track position. When I completed my PhD and announced that I was involved in a nation-wide search for a tenure-track job, there was suddenly discussion about creating a position for which I could apply. However, the hiring wouldn’t happen for another year, and I could potentially wait a year to watch someone else be hired into the job that I had created.

While I considered remaining at UWB (with a promotion to Senior Lecturer, which also meant a possible five year contract), I submitted about a dozen applications to Women’s Studies programs across the U.S. As the first few rejection letters began to trickle in, I was initially surprised to find myself feeling relieved. However, it didn’t take long to identify the source of my relief. Basically, there are two options for women’s studies scholars who want to teach at the university level: 1) teaching in women’s studies departments at large universities where tenure is granted by that department (unfortunately, many of these departments are more rigidly hierarchical than traditional programs and are doing little to challenge the patriarchal norms of the academy); or 2) teaching in smaller universities where women’s studies may not even have department status and where tenure must be granted by women’s studies and another “home” department.

For me, there was one other option that I had been considering for over a year—to teach adults in an interdisciplinary program where students design individualized degrees. My whole life suddenly made sense in the context of that option. One of the primary reasons that my Women’s Studies education was so transformative is because I developed self-designed, individualized graduate degrees. It was the process of completing individualized graduate study that had granted me authority over my own education, restored my lifelong love of learning, and validated my innate desire to seek connections between things.

When people first asked me what I gained from my graduate education, I used to say that I was a completely different person. But, I rapidly realized that wasn’t quite accurate. What my graduate education in Women’s Studies really did was to give me back myself. Spending years studying about institutionalized systems of oppression and their costs to me personally and to society as a whole helped me find the courage to give birth to my true self and to embark on the life of compassionate service that I had always envisioned. I was literally transformed—not into someone different, but into someone more authentic. I became more Mary than I'd ever been.

Naming the ways in which I had internalized sexism while simultaneously participating in race and class privilege helped me develop tools for approaching life challenges from a standpoint of clarity and strength. I also learned new “both/and” paradigms for viewing the world that continue to aid me in the lifelong process of expanding my limited perspectives about myself, about others, and about the world in which I live. So, I was ready to take the last (or at least most recent) great risk. I chose to accept a tenure-track position in a non-traditional, individualized BA program.

I have just completed my 13th year in the Individualized, Interdisciplinary and Lifelong Learning Department at Metropolitan State University where I teach and advise adult learners who are developing individualized, interdisciplinary bachelor's degrees. In our two core Educational Philosophy and Capstone courses, I regularly teach about institutionalized systems of race, gender, and class oppression to a much larger audience (who might never take a Women’s Studies class). I also have the opportunity to teach at least one class per year in our Women’s Studies program. The professional risk to teach in this non-traditional program rewarded me with the brass ring—security. I’m now a tenured full Professor.

However, little did I know that the greatest gifts were yet to come, and that they would keep coming. The daily participation in my sacred calling as a teacher provides me with many opportunities for teaching others about interlocking systems of oppression and returning to them the gift that my Women’s Studies education so generously gave me. Good things really do come in risky packages.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in NWSAction. 16.2 (Spring 2005): 22-24.