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December 13, 2007

   

Alumna, Professor Collaborate to Create Intergenerational Conversation About Feminism

Dalke
Senior Lecturer Anne Dalke

Since the early days of the Web, Bryn Mawr College faculty members have looked for innovative ways to integrate Internet technology and classroom instruction.

This fall, a class titled "Critical Feminist Theory" has, for the first time, harnessed the Web to allow alumnae to join current students and take part in a course as it's happening. It is being taught by Anne Dalke, a Senior Lecturer in English.

"The course was really Ann's idea," says Dalke, referring to Ann Dixon '83, who provided technical support for the course and is a co-founder of Serendip, the Web site that served as host for the course's online elements.

"The definition of feminism, and what it means to be a feminist, has undergone so many changes from generation to generation that we thought it would be really interesting and rewarding for students to explore ideas alongside women who came of age at different points in the evolution of the movement," said Dalke.

As the concept of the course took shape, the Alumnae Association forwarded a message from Dalke to alumnae to see who might be interested in taking part.

Early expectations that only the most tech-savvy recent grads would respond were replaced with surprise as Dalke and Dixon heard back from more than 50 alumnae whose time at Bryn Mawr spanned the last six decades.

Of the 22 alumnae who eventually joined the 20 undergraduates registered for the course, two of the women graduated in the early 1940s; five participants are in their seventies.

Like most Bryn Mawr English courses, "Critical Feminist Theory" requires students to do a lot of reading and writing. Texts include Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, Hélène Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa," and "La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness" by Gloria Anzaldúa. Students are expected to write weekly responses to what they've read and four more formal papers throughout the semester.

However, instead of giving the papers only to Dalke, students post all the material they've written on the Serendip Web site, where the alumnae can comment and the rest of the world can read it.

"For many students, writing is a private exchange with their professor," said Dalke.  "By posting their thinking on the Web, our students are becoming part of the larger academic debate on these topics. Their postings become windows that others can look through."

This is not the first class in which Dalke has asked students to post their writing online for all to see, an act which she describes as part of a movement to diversify who is the "authority" on any given topic.

"This process of unsettling who counts as the authority is central to feminism," said Dalke.

In addition to posting material on the Web, Dixon made a password-protected podcast of the in-class discussions available to alumnae participants.

"The online discussions were going well, but alumnae still felt somewhat disconnected.  The podcasts were a way for us to try to integrate them more fully into the academic conversation," said Dixon.
Dalke
"Generous Feminism" by Gail Chavenelle '67

Response from students and alumnae participating in the class has been overwhelmingly positive, said Dalke.

"Participation in the course has been wonderful, amazing, immense, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking, life-changing, clarifying, on and on," Mary Belle Frey '57 wrote online.

"This course is the first I've ever attended that seemed actually designed to relate to my life," added Mary Clurman '63.

Gail Chavenelle '67 was so inspired by the class that the accomplished sculptor created a piece entitled "Generous Feminism," which is now on display in English House.

"I feel like the forum component adds a really great dimension to the class and has helped me get more involved in the in-class discussions.  The alum involvement did feel a little weird in the beginning, but has gotten better through discussion and simply over time," wrote a student to Dalke.

"The online component is excellent. I love having the alums and being able to hear each students' words, unfiltered by class discussion," wrote another.

However, some students have had trouble adjusting to the idea of sharing all their work with the outside world.

"Aren't we going to have any place for private conversation?" asked one student when podcasting was first suggested.

There have also been a few technical glitches along the way, said Dixon.

"Before we do this again, we will need to simplify navigation so it's clearer where the postings are. Logging into an account is also a mostly unnecessary step for the alums, who can post just as the general public can on Serendip," said Dixon.

Nydia Palacios '09, a mentor for the Teaching and Learning Initiative, has been monitoring the alumnae experiences and will be assessing the success of the online dimensions of the course when the semester ends.

"Learning how to incorporate the voices of the alums into our conversations has taught me a lot about the limits of my own location," said Dalke. "It's been an exhilarating experience, and I'm looking forward to re-running and refining the experiment sometime in the near future."

More information about "Critical Feminist Studies" is available online at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/femstudies/f07
and about Serendip at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu.

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