Textbooks & Teaching Home
Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

Re-Visioning Women's History through Service Learning

Catherine Badura

Teaching women's history in southwest Georgia, I commonly hear statements such as "I didn't even know they had a history," and "So, do you also teach men's history?" So I have embraced the risk of "teaching outside the box," chancing that it is a risk worth taking. My academic institution, Valdosta State University, fifteen miles north of the Georgia-Florida state line, has a student body of just under nine thousand; 75 percent are white, 21 percent African American, and 4 percent "other." The school serves primarily a forty-one-county area of south Georgia, an area known for diverse pecan types but not for much cultural diversity. A small Asian and Hispanic population barely challenges an ingrained perception that people, issues, and history are largely black and white. Many students see any course prefaced by "women" as either too radical (so they react), or not "real" history (so they do not have to take it seriously). My courses in women's history include rigorous reading and writing assignments that exceed the local norm and disabuse them of the latter attitude. Service work often disarms the former and opens students to learning some of the lessons of history.

For the past four years students in two of my U.S. women's history courses--a course on women activists and a survey from 1869 to the present--have had the option of working fifteen to twenty hours in one of several community agencies that serve, and are directed by, women. Students who choose the service option conclude by writing a paper relating the service to course objectives, the readings, and other topics covered in lectures and class discussions. The alternative to service work is a lengthy, more traditional research paper. Not surprisingly, most students choose service work.

In my approach, service does not replace reading and writing about the historical subject, and I am not suggesting that service is equally valuable in all courses, for all fields, or for all students. Nonetheless, where I have used it (after all, women's history was born "outside the box"), I have found it particularly effective at collapsing the cultural barriers that create "us" and "them" thinking. The service projects are carefully designed to push students to think critically about the ways time, place, and circumstance have intersected to shape women. By linking praxis and theory through experience, service can be especially effective in the discipline of history.

Moreover, the service component I create differs fundamentally from the community service students carry out as members of sororities or fraternities. Students who have had both experiences quickly surmise the difference and often mention it in class or in writing. Among other substantive differences, service required for course work generally leads to direct contact with the dispossessed. Students report that sororities generally screen them from direct interaction. The goal of including service as course work is to educate and transform the student and, by inference, society; the goal in other settings is most frequently charity.

Service projects require a number of set conditions to succeed, in particular, good working relationships between academic faculty and the directors and staff of the chosen agencies. Although my first commitment is to students' learning experience, the projects have to be mutually beneficial to student and agency and, on the larger scale, to the university and the community. Such goals have never been exclusive of each other, but they are not always easy to negotiate. The most common difficulty is balancing the overworked schedules of everyone involved: students (most of whom have jobs in addition to school), agency staff, directors, and faculty. Volunteer coordinators within the agencies help, but not all agencies have coordinators.

Experience has led me to channel most of my students into two agencies: the Haven, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and New Horizons, a homeless shelter for women and children. The directors of those agencies have helped design the projects for students to satisfy research criteria for course requirements as well as to meet the agencies' needs. For example, one year students working for the Haven surveyed the local newspaper over the past decade to collect articles on cases of domestic violence. Other students researched the different ways social institutions--the criminal justice system, schools, churches, etc.--work together to secure justice for victims of domestic violence. The Haven used the information to help write a sizable grant proposal for public education, which, according to the director, was successful largely due to research contributed by students. Students combing the newspapers learned a great deal about local attitudes toward domestic violence from the location of the articles in the newspaper (back pages) and from the language used to report the incidents. They learned that the social class and race of the victims shaped reporting of the cases and saw how women are doubly victimized when local institutions fail to work together.

The historicizing of such lessons occurs both explicitly and implicitly. First and foremost, course readings are historically focused. Beginning each course with excerpts from familiar historical documents and returning to them frequently as reference points also keeps the class historically situated. Students ponder the time-sensitive meanings of concepts referred to in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the very familiar Pledge of Allegiance: ideas such as "self-evident truths," "unalienable rights," "general welfare," and "liberty and justice for all." We discuss what those concepts probably meant to the authors, but also how they have been interpreted and appropriated locally and globally ever since. After thinking about what the concepts mean to them personally and what they have meant collectively to any number of peoples, students then wrestle with how they might be interpreted by particular people with whom they work in the shelters--people most of the students had, until then, only vaguely known existed.

When the semester topic for my course on women activists is the historical roots of poverty among women (the specific focus varies each term), students read about the history of social welfare policy and the evolution of attitudes toward poverty since the colonial era. Work at the local homeless shelter makes such reading more meaningful. Students explore how attitudes toward the poor have both changed and remained the same. Also, working with women and children at the shelter helps them think more critically about "welfare reform," stereotypes of welfare recipients, and arguments about welfare's alleged failure.

Several students, black middle-class women and men especially, confronted deep-seated misgivings they had about welfare recipients. Some of the women not only had spent a good deal of energy distancing themselves from the image of the stereotypical "welfare queen," but also had bought into this image and been a part of the chorus of disapproval. After reading about how the female archetypes Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire have been used over time to identify, characterize, and oppress black women, and after working at shelters where chronically poor women, black and white, as well as formerly mainstream middle-class women share residence, students' attitudes change dramatically. Historic context provides a missing link. With their new perspective, students reevaluate the degree of personal responsibility for the plight of each individual woman, generally acknowledging that personal history fades in relative importance compared to more comprehensive social and economic forces. In their papers students recall discussions of independence in the introductory part of the course to note now that the dispossessed women with whom they work may be seeking a measure of that coveted independence to take care of themselves and their children--not trying to find clever ways to cheat the system. Students change the focus of their concern from questioning the motive and character of the women struggling in the shelter to thinking about how attitudes and beliefs that undermine women's economic and psychological independence are built into the social structure.

In the survey course, making connections often occurs more implicitly. The readings help students understand how and why women especially are victimized by domestic violence and homelessness. Whether they work at New Horizons or at the Haven, students gain an awareness of how gender has always shaped public attitude and public policy by restricting public awareness. When students work at the Haven, they discuss the difference between the ways women handle a domestic crisis today and the ways they--victim and supporter--might have handled it a hundred years ago. After examining cases of domestic violence in different eras of the past, students compare community attitudes then and now and generally marvel at similarities between eras centuries apart. When they first begin working at the Haven, students discover the pervasiveness of domestic violence in the local community (always a shocking discovery), and then they discuss why it remains such an issue nationally. From readings they learn the historical relationship between the feminist movement and public awareness of domestic violence. After working in the shelter with women and children victims, many female and male students formerly suspicious of anything they perceived as a "feminist agenda" begin to sympathize with some of the primary concerns of feminism. Because service facilitates this sort of change in perspective, it deserves consideration as an alternative to more traditional methods of teaching and learning history.

Although I have used service successfully in my classes, I still have my doubts. It takes time and energy to make the initial community contacts and to sustain those relationships. Colleagues are often skeptical, even when they wish to be supportive. But most important, I know that service work does not serve every student's needs, and distinguishing between those whose historical awareness will be awakened best by service and those who would benefit more from the traditional research paper sometimes eludes me. Students who might fall through the cracks can be found at both ends of the learning curve. Unmotivated students threaten to strain relationships with the agencies and can reflect poorly on the university. Although scheduling is a problem for all students, it becomes a blanket excuse for the unmotivated students. Very often they are either unwilling or unable to work out a schedule with the agency at a time when they can interact with residents. Members of this small minority wind up folding clothes or shelving food and then complain because they do not "get the point." (But then, some conscientious students who do nothing more than fold clothes and shelve food make remarkable connections between their readings and their apparently inane experience.)

But my primary concern is the exceptional student. Some students already have ample experience working in the community; others have sufficient critical thinking skills and abundant empathy for "others" across culture and time. For the former, lessons of service and awareness of the value of diversity are a way of life; for the latter, an appreciation for historical lessons and the value of understanding change over time is already well developed. In the few cases in which students are already active in the community, or in which I judge that the student will benefit more from a traditional research paper, I strongly encourage the latter.

Here, I think of Ann, an especially gifted and highly motivated history major who wanted to do both the service and the traditional research paper. Initially (against my caution), she worked out such a plan but then had to decide between the assignments. During the semester, she reluctantly gave up work at the Haven to devote her time to a paper on the implications of the historiographical debate on the Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon (1908).1 At the end of the course, she turned in one of the most impassioned and cogently argued research papers I (or some of my colleagues) had ever read. Granted, for this student, a service assignment very likely would have resulted in its own eloquent insights. But she and I might have missed the opportunity this research paper provided--for her an experience that motivated her toward graduate school, and for me the best student paper I have read to date.

That Ann wrote on Muller v. Oregon only makes my dilemma more poignant. This historic case and the story surrounding it reveal the nuance, paradox, complexity, and contradictions found in history. Moreover, the case also teaches as well as any single subject why leaving gender out of the analysis eliminates more than merely half the picture. But in roughly ten years of teaching Muller expressly to drive home all those salient points, I have never been convinced that even one student completely "got it"--until Ann. By comparison, more students have learned something of this lesson in a visceral way through service. Such a practice cannot be an abuse of the discipline of history if it is our aim to reach more than a handful of students in our careers. When keeping that aim in focus, I struggle less with concerns that tend to divide the mind over whether or not to venture "outside the box" when teaching women's history.

1 Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908).