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Mirabile Dictu: The Bryn Mawr College Library Newsletter

Fall 2009 Issue 13

Bryn Mawr in Three Dimensions: Tracing Our Roots
Evan McGonagill ’10

In History B325, our class had the opportunity to look beyond the Bryn Mawr that we know through our experience as students alone. By beginning with readings and lectures on historical context, we built a foundation onto which we anchored a detailed self-directed study of the school. Professor Shore and Stephanie Wujcik ’08 were extremely receptive to the interests of the class, making it possible for us to study the material that we found most compelling and move at the pace that we deemed appropriate. Part of what made the class so exceptional was the opportunity to cultivate individual areas of interest and expertise through the three writing assignments—an expertise which we then were able to share in our discussions. The group interactions were consistently supplemented by our own personal experiences and preexisting knowledge of Bryn Mawr. These elements, taken together, fed into a unique collective learning project in which each member of the class was able to contribute in ways that reached beyond our roles as objective scholars. As we worked together throughout the semester, the lines between intellectual and personal curiosity became blurred, and our scholarly and subjective understandings of the school enriched one another greatly.

Though we were studying Bryn Mawr through the lens of the past, our personal familiarity with the school made the comparisons with its status in the present inevitable. The similarities and differences between the early years of founding and development and the institution that exists today stand out with equal starkness: when looking at the women who made up the student body, for example, it was startling to discern the vast difference between the racially and economically uniform population that attended our school a century ago, and the relative diversity that we enjoy today. However, in reading the diaries and letters of those women in Special Collections, many of us noted that certain personal qualities came through which were immediately recognizable—such as intensity and passionate drive—showing us that some aspects of Bryn Mawr have changed very little. It was exciting to follow the school through various cultural and political phases of American history, and over the course of the semester the characteristics that have remained constant began to take on a new gravity and resonance in the present. By tracking the patterns of change and consistency over 125 years, the core of Bryn Mawr’s identity as an institution was thrown into relief and I came to see the school in three dimensions.

From my perspective, this interplay between change and consistency was exemplified by our study of the Bryn Mawr traditions, which are steeped in vagueness and mythology despite the fact that they form a large part of many students’ experiences here. There is a tendency to imagine that they have always existed in their current form, and people often know very little about their origins or development. This existing mentality made the examination of their roots even more interesting. To study our traditions is to untangle a thick cluster of histories that extend into the present, and it was by viewing them thus that their significance became clearer to me: within our community, these practices act as tangible history, relics that still live and inspire, and they form a palpable connection between the current generation of Mawrters and the individuals who make up our past and future. Taking a closer look at the phases they have passed through, my impression of these customs as a static point of continuity was erased and they were revealed to me as something much more flexible and responsive, something that every student helps to mold. I began to conceptualize them as simultaneously more powerful, and less sacred: they represent the continuation and result of a long chain of personal histories and meaning, but in learning how much they have changed I also found that many things were newer than I thought, and much has been lost over time. This pattern was repeated often in our exploration of the school’s past, as we discovered things that were alternately foreign and familiar, and bridged the gap between the two.

This class has given me new things to be proud of, but it has also revealed the more uncomfortable side of history.

My personal investment in Bryn Mawr’s present has grown into an investment in its past, which made it difficult to face certain aspects of the school’s historical identity. It was fascinating to look back to the early days of the school’s founding and see familiar attributes at its core, such as dual commitments to the highest standards of education and the interests of women. Yet, in my experience, seeing the ways that the Bryn Mawr of the past failed to live up to the expectations that we now hold for ourselves was often accompanied by some measure of shame. It feels hypocritical to accept the ways that our predecessors poorly handled the question of equality in race and class, while claiming to pioneer equality for women. However, it is important to feel not only shame at the shortcomings of the past, but also pride at how far we have come, and a renewed sense of commitment to our efforts to continue that progress.

It can be tempting to conceptualize time by viewing oneself as a point at the end of a continuum; the sculpted final result of a long series of changes and refinements. However, by studying Bryn Mawr’s past, I have become better able to understand that this place I love will continue to change, and the Bryn Mawr I know is not necessarily the Bryn Mawr that will continue into the future. Even in my three years here, changes are becoming apparent on various scales. I may return in time to find that it has become a different place, but I take comfort in the fact that there will still be recognizability somewhere—in a building, or in the intellectual fervor of a passing conversation between students, or in the fact that Bryn Mawr will always be a welcoming place for women. Nevertheless, we move forward in recognition of the fact that today is by no means the final iteration. Building on what I have learned this semester, I consider Bryn Mawr to be a gift from the past, an opportunity for growth in the present, and a symbol of accomplishments to be made in the future.