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PALKO POV: Back in the Classroom

When I accepted the position as the director of the Women’s Center two years ago, I only had one concern. I knew that the move would bring transitions both personal and professional. I was sure, though, that it would bring new challenges, and, when met, that these challenges would lead to exciting opportunities. The commitment to engaged scholarship at the Women’s Center assured me that these opportunities would include engaging undergraduate students in working for gender justice. When I got the call offering me the position, I contemplated all of the possibilities with excitement – excitement tinged with just a note of trepidation at the thought of stepping away from the classroom.

Until I arrived on Grounds, every fall since kindergarten saw me entering a classroom as either student or teacher – or both during my grad school years. Having taught middle school for several years between my own time in college and in grad school, my mental calendar is firmly set to begin the year in August, end in May, and observe some liminal space from June to August. Some of my concern about leaving the classroom for this position was superficial: would time lag without the rhythms of the classroom? (Ironically, the different weather patterns were much more disruptive to my sense of time passing than losing the classroom rhythm was. In fact, our first year here, we almost didn’t have turkey for Thanksgiving because I was waiting for it to get cold to know it was time to buy it!) 

But more significant was the existential concern: if I wasn’t in the classroom, what work would I be doing? How would I fill my time? What meaning would I find in the tasks that would occupy my days? When I marked my one-year anniversary last July, I was gratified to look back over the year and see what I had accomplished day by day, week by week, academic season by academic season. 

I still missed being in the classroom, though. The couple of classroom visits I made at the invitation of colleagues around Grounds only whet my appetite for a more sustained engagement with students. This spring, my wait was over. As part of ongoing work to strengthen our internship program, we offered a second part to the fall course that all Women’s Center interns take, and I decided to teach it. Wednesdays at 2:00 and Thursdays at 5:00 found me welcoming our interns into the kinds of nuanced, complicated discussions that give me such confidence in their abilities to identify and address the challenges that face our society.

Front Lines of Social Change II

Our semester-long conversation about social change was focused on the body and the power that people exert over others. We studied birth outcome disparities and the role that doulas can play in ameliorating them. We considered the decisions that parents of transgender and gender nonconforming children are charged with making. We explored the impact of climate change on marginalized communities across the globe. We didn’t always agree with each other’s points, but that was ok: Loretta Ross had prepared us for that at the beginning of the semester. In the guest lecture for which we hosted her during the Community MLK Celebration, she proclaimed,

We have to learn to use differences as strengthens, not as problems to be solved because part of the problem I see in the call-out culture is that people don’t understand how to deal with differences. When a lot of different people have different ideas but they’re moving in the same direction, that’s a movement. But when a lot of different people have the same idea and they’re moving in the same direction, that’s a cult. We’re using cult-like strategies, calling ourselves building a movement. We’re putting so much energy into trying to get everybody to agree with us all the way down the line so that they don’t have an independent thought and we indulge in group-think, and then we keep saying we’re failing because I don’t get anyone to join my coalition of one. We’re not building a human rights cult. We’re building a human rights movement. 

Throughout the semester in our classroom, we practiced engaging people with different points of view in substantive conversations about significant issues. The insights our interns shared reminded me just what I value most about being in the classroom: the opportunity to hear others’ perspectives, to test one’s beliefs, and to expand our collective knowledge. 

With my grades submitted and books returned to the library, I can pause for reflection. I’m grateful for the time spent in the classroom this semester. It reminds me that finding out what we stand for, expanding what we know, is an ongoing project. I’m thrilled that some of our students have agreed to share some examples of their work with us. I think these three examples will show you why I enjoyed my time with the interns’ course so much. They freely share the wisdom and insight they have accumulated through their own lived experiences:

  • Seshi reflects on some of our readings about ecofeminism.
  • Peaches has her own take on building the kind of network that serves your academic, professional and personal development.
  • Victoria understands her own experiences with identity by connecting some of our readings to the world she lives in – from UVA culture to pop culture. 

Bemoaning young adults, castigating them for their generational differences and fearing the impact that these differences might have on our society, has long been a popular internet occupation. This tendency may have ebbed a bit in the months since student advocates from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and others who’ve joined them took many by surprise with their self-assured calls for adults to address the issues affecting their communities. In the classroom, week after week, difficult topic after difficult topic, I saw a generation that knows the standards they want us all to uphold, one with a strong vision of what a just world will look like. They are still young adults, and they’re still figuring out the balance between passion and practicality. At times they will push too far or too fast. But this impulse comes out of a desire to serve, to make a difference. They are answering Loretta Ross’s call to: “accept being of service to others… assess why you’re doing it: … do it because you feel a wellspring of love that you can’t keep in.”

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