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Campus Women Lead

Winter 2011

Volume 39
Number 3

40 Years of PSEW


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Anita Clair Fellman spacer Jennifer Fish spacer
Anita Clair Fellman
Jennifer Fish

Still Courageous after Twenty Years
By Anita Clair Fellman, chair emerita, and Jennifer Fish, chair, Women's Studies Department, Old Dominion University

In 1990, the Women’s Studies Program at Old Dominion University (ODU) was one of ten programs invited by the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) to participate in The Courage to Question, a grant written by Caryn McTighe Musil, then NWSA executive director, and awarded by the US Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). The grant was designed to help NWSA look closely at student learning outcomes in the often-maligned women’s studies classroom. At that time, ours was the oldest women’s studies program in any publicly supported university in Virginia, but it was also a very modest one: the director was its only faculty member. The program offered a minor—consisting of two core courses supplemented by courses cross-listed by other departments—and a graduate certificate. While this structure encouraged faculty throughout the university to create women’s studies classes, it also gave the Women’s Studies Program very little control over the minor curriculum. Participation in the FIPSE project offered us the opportunity to look more closely at what was actually being taught—and learned—in all our affiliated courses. What we learned in the process shaped our development of a women’s studies major shortly after the project’s completion.

A Framework for Growth

Based on discussion among participating program faculty and the FIPSE project’s consultants, NWSA project staff selected four possible areas of inquiry for project participants: knowledge base (what were students expected to learn?), critical skills (were students being taught to analyze?), feminist pedagogy (was there anything distinctive about the women’s studies classroom?), and personal growth (how did students change over the course of their involvement in women’s studies?). At ODU, we opted to use all four of these in framing our assessment goals. This framework is what makes our chapter in the project’s final report, The Courage to Question: Women’s Studies and Student Learning (published by NWSA in conjunction with AAC&U in 1992), 1 so instantly recognizable to us today. These four pillars continue to provide structure both to our women’s studies major and to the continual assessment of student learning that we, like all departments on campus, undertake annually.

At the time of the grant, we interpreted knowledge base to include an awareness of the interlocking, systemic nature of women’s oppression, with consistent emphasis on the variety of overlapping and sometimes contradictory ways in which women relate to what we called patriarchy. When we began to design the major and hired the department’s second faculty member, we kept this understanding of knowledge base in mind and sought a specialist in global gender issues to enrich our emphasis on diversity beyond American borders. Although students were initially indifferent to global perspectives, our program’s global focus now lures students to our major (and to our graduate certificate). The global emphasis overlaps with courses that meet the major requirements for international studies, sociology, public health, and even business—offering new pathways for potential majors to enter women’s studies at a time when the university has encouraged students to consider second majors. We also draw majors through our distinctive summer service-learning course in South Africa, where students work with local women’s organizations to contribute to social change while developing a more grounded understanding of interlocking systems of inequality.2 Thus our global focus is a central reason why the number of majors in our department has grown significantly, from approximately five students in 1995 to forty-five majors and fifty-five minors in 2010.

Regarding the goal of helping students build critical skills, the FIPSE project helped us discover that we needed to spend more time honing students’ abilities to read, write, and speak analytically. When we began changing the curriculum to emphasize these outcomes, our students groaned at the seemingly endless writing we asked them to do. But our department now has the best pass record on campus for ODU’s University Exit Exam of Writing Proficiency, and our students who go on to graduate school are well prepared. Our critical skills measure also includes assessment of students’ oral presentations in the classroom, as well as a public “senior reflection” that we require of all majors. While students may resist these departmental requirements as “additional work,” anecdotal evidence from alumnae suggests that the writing, reading, and oral communication skills they attain serve them well in their next steps after graduation.

In regard to feminist pedagogy, our initial goal of emphasizing student voices in the classroom remains realistic, as we have fortunately been able to cap classes at forty students. During exit interviews with faculty, students repeatedly refer to the significance of our classrooms’ usual physical layout: a circular desk arrangement that symbolizes and facilitates student participation and community-building, while helping students embrace the valuable challenge of literally facing others who may not agree with their ideas or whose backgrounds and perspectives may be very different. They note with pleasure their increased confidence in articulating their own ideas in these settings.

Extensive classroom interaction facilitates cohesion among students that spills over into collaborative activism beyond the classroom. During the grant period, we chose to evaluate the fourth goal, personal growth, by examining the changing nature of friendships formed in the women’s studies classroom. That still seems like an appropriate measure, but while the departmental community lays the necessary foundation, students actively cocreate additional feminist educational opportunities that lead to deep and lasting interpersonal ties. For example, our student publication Phem ( has generated an expansive scholar–activist network that draws alumnae together. Students also participate in the Triota honors society, an annual feminist boot camp, and a series of conferences to expand their engagement with the wider discipline. Additionally, they succeed each other in internship and volunteer opportunities in a variety of feminist organizations.

Two Decades Later

Women’s studies at ODU is now a department. It is still small—with three full-time faculty members and one joint appointment—but it is undeniably vibrant. In times like these, it is risky to claim sustainability for even an apparently well-established women’s studies department. Nonetheless, when we ponder why we seem to be flourishing, we see a number of possible reasons. We are one of three longstanding women-centered units on campus that are mutually supportive of one another (the other two being the University Women’s Caucus and the Women’s Center). Our department’s dynamic and engaged community support group, Friends of Women’s Studies, provides a further web of feminist connection, while raising money and providing links to individuals and organizations throughout our region. We have also been fortunate to work with supportive deans throughout our thirty-three-year history. Moreover, our department thrives because of its diverse student body, which draws in turn on the overall diversity among ODU’s students. For the most part, our students do not come from privileged backgrounds, and once women’s studies engages their interest, it is hard for faculty to resist putting time and effort into fostering students’ growth and their nascent belief that they can make a difference in the world. Finally, the need to be self-reflective about our curriculum, our pedagogy, our students, and ourselves—a habit instilled during The Courage to Question—has pushed us to continually revisit central questions about what is being taught and how students internalize the core concepts of women’s studies. All the evidence we have gathered as a result assures us that the process of feminist pedagogy is as important as the content we convey in helping students and faculty become intergenerational feminist scholar–activists.


McTighe Musil, Caryn, ed. 1992. The Courage to Question: Women’s Studies and Student Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

1 Our chapter, cowritten by Anita Clair Fellman and Barbara A. Winstead, is titled “Old Dominion University: Making Connections.”

2 We have recently added a local service-learning course that enables students to work with refugee girls in the Hampton Roads area.

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