Re-Visioning Women's History through Service Learning
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
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
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
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.