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How to Empower Students in the Intro Course

This discussion of how to empower students and keep them from feeling 
overwhelmed and powerless in the face of their growing awareness of societal
problems took place on WMST-L in September 2005.  Also of interest may be an
earlier discussion, Is Women's Studies Too Negative, which took place on WMST-L
in 1993(!).  For additional WMST-L files now available on the Web, see the
WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Wed, 21 Sep 2005 14:41:39 -0400
From: Jillian Zwilling <Jillian-Zwilling AT utc.edu>
Subject: Empowering Students

I am teaching an intro to Women's Studies course this semester.  In
class we are currently talking about violence and power.  The students
seemed to walk out of class with sense of being overwhelmed and
powerless (i.e. "This problem is so huge, what can one person do"),
does anyone do an activity in their class, or can they suggest an
activity to work with students on feeling less overwhelmed and perhaps
more empowered?  Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

Jillian Klean Zwilling
Department of Theatre and Speech
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
239 Grote Hall
615 McCallie Avenue
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Date: Thu, 22 Sep 2005 13:05:58 -0500
From: "Linda Woolf, Ph.D." <woolflm AT WEBSTER.EDU>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
Hi Jillian,

My students put together a cell phone drive at the university.  They 
collected used cell phones and then mailed them to the "call to protect" 
program.  This program takes used cell phones, refurbishes them, and 
provides them to victims of domestic violence for FREE with service.


I think it is important to stress that it the little efforts of many 
that ultimately leads to change. 


Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D.
President, Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, & Violence (Div. 
48, APA)
Secretary, Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Div. 2, APA)
Professor of Psychology
Coordinator - Holocaust & Genocide Studies,
Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights
Webster University
470 East Lockwood
St. Louis, MO  63119

Main Webpage:  http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/  
woolflm  AT  webster.edu

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's (and woman's) best friend. . . .
Inside a dog, it's too dark to read."
                  -             Groucho Marx
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 13:09:58 -0400
From: Georgia NeSmith <gnesmith AT FRONTIERNET.NET>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
I have a complication to add to this discussion.

I teach a beginning journalism course -- a subject for which class, race,
gender, etc. discussions are applicable but are difficult to insert because
the goals of the course are basic vocational matters, such as learning how
to write a summary lead and use inverted pyramid structure.

I start my class with a discussion of "what is news," asking them to apply
the "news values" discussed by the textbook (e.g., conflict, timeliness,
proximity, prominence...) -- all of which have power issues underlying them
but of course the textbooks never discuss those issues. Unfortunately, my
school does not offer a Mass Comm and Society course even as an elective, so
for the most part they do not get directly exposed to critical perspectives
on the media. 

I also tell them that in order to be journalists they have to be "news
junkies" -- i.e., they have to pay constant, close attention to what is
being reported in the news. I encourage them to look at both corporate and
alternative sources of news, but of course the vast majority of them are not
doing the latter. And alas, many report Fox News as their primary source of

Every term I will get one or several students saying that they don't pay
attention to the news because it is always so bad and -- although they don't
say it in these words -- it makes them feel overwhelmed and powerless.

About all I can do is offer them my take on this -- that I participate as
much as possible in volunteer organizations, even if it is just to sign an
online petition, and that doing so helps me to feel I am doing SOMEthing to
alleviate the conditions we see in the news. (BTW, these students are
scattered around the globe because it is an online course.)

I have to be careful that I do not become "too political" in this course.
There's no way I could assign them to engage in some kind of volunteer
activity, even as extra credit. Journalists are supposed to be "objective"
and part of the professional ethics requires that they not participate in
organizations likely to be the subject of news stories. And though I do have
some space where I can discuss the concept of "objectivity" in the news,
most of the time we spend discussing more basic aspects of writing, such as
being concise, writing in active voice, attributing opinion to sources, and
the like.

So in a way, I feel somewhat powerless myself. I know these students
desperately need some place where they can take a good, hard look at the
conventions of journalism and how they help to reproduce power structures.
But there's hardly a breath we can take to allow it.

Georgia NeSmith

Georgia NeSmith, Ph.D.
Adjunct Associate Professor (online)
Communication Department
University of Maryland University College
Rochester, NY
gnesmith  AT  frontiernet.net
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 12:45:54 -0500
From: "Bevacqua, Maria R" <maria.bevacqua AT MNSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: empowering students
Thanks, Kathy, for these insights. I feel a strong sense of two-ness about
the work of rape crisis centers and other service providers.  While the work
they do with victims is absolutely essential (victims need someone on their
side, and center advocates, in many cases hold law enforcement
accountable) it can also be remarkably disempowering to individuals and
detrimental to the social change you are referring to.

For a compelling book on this topic, see Patricia Yancey Martin, Rape Work:
Victims, Gender, and Emotions in Organization and Community Context
(Routledge 2005).  She investigates the ways in which the actions and
attitudes *rape workers* often result in the familiar *second rape* for


Maria Bevacqua, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Women's Studies
109 Morris Hall 
Minnesota State University
Mankato, Minn.  56001 USA
maria.bevacqua  AT  mnsu.edu
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 17:59:45 -0500
From: "Turell, Susan C." <TURELLSC AT UWEC.EDU>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
Hello all:
I would like to add another thought about having students learn about
self defense, having worked in the area of rape crisis and education
for many years.
It is important that whoever teaches it does so with the perspective
of using it on someone the student knows. Often self defense seems to
focus on stranger assault.  The biggest risk to students (traditional
college age) is someone they know (90% of the time), often on a date.
this is important for two reasons.  First, it is often quite difficult
to have the mindset to use the skills on someone you know.  Second,
the focus on stranger assault that is implied in many self defense
courses perpetuates the myth that the biggest risk is a stranger,
which can have the unintended effect of increasing victim self blaming
when raped by someone they know.  It can also make it more difficult
for victim/survivors to label their experience as 'coercive and/or
assault' and then seek services.
Susan Turell
University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
Professor, Psychology
Coordinator, Women's Studies
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 2005 11:15:52 -0400
From: Claire Kaplan <cnk2r AT VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Feeling helpless and overwhelmed
Students tend to feel powerless because they have not been taught ways to 
act against power.  The first lesson in this is that students need not act 
alone.  Here are a few suggestions:
    * Are there activist organizations on campus that they can join?
    * Can they help organize Take Back the Night?
    * Organize a protest against violence, such as against trafficking or 
on behalf of Korean comfort women?
    * Encourage them to go through training with the local sexual assault 
or domestic violence crisis center.
    * Organize a Speak Up! campaign, to empower students to speak up in the 
face of oppressive behavior.
    * Organize a White Ribbon Campaign for men to act as allies.
    * Give women extra credit for taking a self-defense class (make sure 
it's a good one).
    * Help them stage guerilla theater around campus, in the dining halls, 
on the bus, with informational literature to hand out at the end of the 
    * Lastly, there are ways to learn how to intervene when one is witness 
to abusive behavior.  The MVP program out of Northeastern's Center for the 
Study of Sport in Society has an excellent curriculum for this, and they 
train students.  Although originally designed for athletes, it can easily 
be applied to any group, and any form of oppression.

Claire Kaplan

Claire N. Kaplan, Ph.D.
Director, Sexual and Domestic Violence Services
UVA Women's Center
P.O. Box 800588
Charlottesville VA 22908-0588
ckaplan  AT  virginia.edu
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 2005 12:59:46 -0400
From: Sharon P. Doetsch <spd AT UMAIL.UCSB.EDU>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
yes, i realized this was a problem in my last intro to WS course, too, and 
have been thinking about the necessity to incorporate texts and activities 
that focus on resistance, empowerment, and recognizing women's creativity 
and power.

I'd recommend bringing someone in to do a self-defense workshop, especially 
if the unit is violence against women. There's no subsitute for women 
learning that they can physically resist violence, and it's a great way to 
bring another way of learning into the classroom. Ask your local rape crisis 
center or women's center for recommendations. you can also call any local 
martial arts dojo, though i would recommend looking for aikido dojos 
specifically (speaking as someone who practices aikido, so not a neutral 
source) - i believe there are more women in aikido than other arts, which 
may be because of both of its basis in nonviolence and compassion (the point 
is not to hurt your attacker but to diffuse the energy of the attack) and 
because it's not based on physical strength and speed. women often learn 
aikido more easily than men, i think, because we can't muscle through the 
techniques if our partner is stronger, so we learn to blend with the force 
of the attack and use that energy. it's a great way for women to develop an 
embodied understanding of our internal power and to learn not to be victims. 
there are also a lot of academics in aikido, so you may even find someone at 
your university who could do a workshop for you.

ideally, you would find a woman who identifies as feminist and who does self 
defense workshops for women, children, seniors, and people with disabilities 
(these people focus on moves that almost anyone can do that don't require 
much physical strength. if they work with people with disabilities, that 
usually means figuring out how to adapt techniques to different kinds of 
bodies, which is important if anyone in your class has a disability). if you 
can't find someone like that, you should be able to find women or men that 
work with youth or that have experience doing workshops for women - i'd talk 
with the instructors about their approach and observe a class if possible.

Check out the book _Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's 
Self-Defense_ by Martha McCaughey for good accompanying readings on women's 
self defense. There are also a number of articles on women's organizing 
against violence against women, both historically (_Fight Back!_, which is 
probably out of print but i've gotten it through Interlibrary Loan before, 
or a women's center may have a copy) and more contemporary (check out 
articles in _Dragon Ladies_ and work done by Incite: Women of Color Against 
Violence). You may also want to look at collections of interviews with women 
in martial arts, some of whom talk explicitly about feminism (_Women in 
Aikido_, _Sharp Spear Crystal Mirror: Martial Arts in Women's Lives_ - in 
this one I especially like the interviews with Kathy Park and Wendy Palmer, 
who have been involved with the Prison Integrated Health Program at a 
women's prison in Dublin, California). These texts show a range of women's 
creative responses to violence that don't involve relying on the criminal 
justice system/prison industrial complex (as does the book _Back Off!_ by 
Marty Langelan, which has stories from women around the world stopping 
sexual harassers and is a good how-to book).

i hope that's helpful,

Sharon P. Doetsch
PhD Candidate in English and Women's Studies
University of California Santa Barbara
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 08:16:21 +1000
From: Bronwyn Winter <bronwyn.winter AT ARTS.USYD.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
wouldn't it be useful also to incorporate into your curriculum stories 
of women's resistance - yes i know often that can add to the depression 
because we are defeated/co-opted/marginalised/silenced/punished in so 
many ways when we do resist.  but there *are* success stories, and have 
been throughout history.  *every single* legislative, policy, cultural, 
educational or otherwise practical gain that has been made for women has 
been made *because women have fought for it*.  formal segregation didn't 
end in the US because the government suddenly got magnanimous, it ended 
because the civil rights movement fought for it.

rape in marriage didn't become a crime, or rape of women in war didn't 
get recognised as a war crime, because governments thought it was a 
groovy idea.  it became illegal because women fought for it, and 
wouldn't shut up, and wouldn't allow all the massive forces opposing us 
to beat us.  this has happened throughout history and it is still happening.

only last week in australia, a planned expo in brisbane 'blokesworld', 
with you can imagine what sort of woman-hating exhibits, was cancelled 
following a huge feminist campaign against it.  there are surely 
documented US examples, every day, everywhere, now and in the past.

why not invite speakers from women's services or feminist lobby groups 
to come and talk about how they fight violence and what their success 
stories are.

although, i wouldn't want to be painting absurdly rosy pictures.  we 
live in a world where women are considered less than human, and where 
violence of all sorts against women is a fundamental part of our 
culture.  in such a context, anything that keeps women safe for one more 
day is a success story.  anything that gets women fighting back is a 
*huge* success story.

i am also interested that so many responses to this query on this list 
have been focusing on self defence classes.  while i have no quarrel 
with this as one good idea, it is also an individualistic, self-focused 
solution.  the posts that have talked about reclaim the night or other 
political work interest me more, i must say.  violence is waged against 
us collectively and politically, it needs to be fought collectively and 
politically.  *that*, ultimately, is what will empower students.


Dr Bronwyn Winter
Senior Lecturer
Dept of French Studies 
School of Languages and Cultures
Mungo McCallum Building A17
University of Sydney  NSW 2006

email: bronwyn.winter  AT  arts.usyd.edu.au

Date: Fri, 23 Sep 2005 18:59:28 -0400
From: Jeannie Ludlow <jludlow AT BGNET.BGSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
I agree with Bronwyn that self-defense classes can imply that 
empowerment is primarily individual. I also wonder how helpful 
self-defense classes might be to someone being victimized by someone 
she loves or is in a relationship with (as so many victims of 
violence are). The self-defense classes I've attended seem to focus 
on the "stranger who grabs you from behind" scenario and not to the 
"boyfriend who is not taking no for an answer" scenario. (Of course, 
some people might say that both call for the same response.)

Anyway, like Bronwyn, I think a learning unit on activism is helpful.

A few years ago, several graduate students and I developed a 
curricular unit called "The Community Action Project (CAP)," which 
integrates accounts of successful activism with a mini-service 
learning component into our cultural diversity courses. The project 
requires students to work in pairs or small groups to design and 
implement a service learning or activist activity. I can send a full 
description to anyone who is interested (I'd send it to the list, but 
I suspect it exceeds the length limit).

At the beginning of the term, students often complain that the CAP is 
going to be too hard, too time-intensive, that they don't like group 
work, etc. At the end of each class, I always ask my students to vote 
anonymously on whether I should discontinue the assignment, and the 
answer is a strong no. They often say in their course evals that the 
CAP was the most valuable aspect of the course because it helped them 
understand what it really takes to make a difference.

If you would like a copy of the CAP description from a recent 
syllabus of mine, please let me know. It would be easiest for me if 
you would accept it as a Word attachment; let me  know if you'd 
rather have it in the body of the e-mail message.

Jeannie Ludlow, Ph.D.		jludlow  AT  bgnet.bgsu.edu
Undergraduate Advisor
Women's Studies
228 East Hall
Bowling Green State U
Bowling Green OH 43403
Date: Fri, 23 Sep 2005 20:01:08 -0400
From: Kathy Miriam <kmim AT EARTHLINK.NET>
Subject: empowering students
Dear all,

The feminist self-defense classes in Santa Cruz that I took, and was
an assistant in, was extremly powerful as a mechanism for demystifying
stranger rape. The self-defense class created a context where women
who ordinarily wouldn't have talked about the violence within
normative heterorelations was enabled. This is an incredibly important
pedagogical tool.

I also have problems with offering a menu of options as to how to "get
activist": This begs a universe of questions. Students are not the
only ones who feel disempowered or feel a sense of resignation before
the onslaught of patriarchal, capitalist, racist structures. We need
to rethink activism/action. Believe it or not, the classroom is a
place where some of this thinking can get done. Young people are
crucial to the re-invigoration of social movements. While in some ways
it might be helpful to show them that they can "join up" to
pre-existing organizations.. at a deeper level, with the big picture
in mind of radically altering the "way things are", we are not really
re-empowering these students given the way that most of these
organizations have been digested by "the system" in ways that work
*against* fundamental social change. One example, that I hope is
obvious, is the way that social change has largely been
institutionalized into "service provider" type of organizations. Many
such organizations refuse to discuss feminism--and consider an
explicit discussion of feminism as irrelevant to their function of
supporting survivors.  This is not simply "better than nothing"-- it
is a subversion of feminism, and does not, fundamentally, prevent let
alone stop rapists!. We, as women's studies or feminist studies
professors have not *arrived* at a place we can then lead students
into-- we have a lot to learn and to discuss about the relation
between academic feminism and activism--hey, about women's studies and
*feminism*. This does not mean only, if at all, establishing
connections between our students and existing established forms of
so-called activism. For example, on the issue of sexual violence, we
need to rethink everything about how rape has been defined-- the
stranger rape idea is still very much congealed as "common
sense"--despite all the studies on this-- and in a way that is not
radically disrupted by existing anti-rape organizations.  It is very
much possible- and exciting- to demystify this idea in classes, and
crucial to work with students to imagine new solutions/strategies.
Rape is HUGELY normalized--and i'm afraid, existing anti-rape
organizations are complicit in this-- and students have a huge
awakening when they realize the extent to which their "normal" sexual
relations fit with the criteria for rape.  Everyone should read and
use Lynn Phillips's Flirting with Danger as a stimulus for this kind
of discussion.

Kathy Miriam
kmim  AT  earthlink.net
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 09:24:15 -0400
From: Arnie Kahn <kahnas AT jmu.edu>
Subject: Re: empowering students
  I want to second Kathy Miriam's suggestion of
  students' reading Lynn Phillips' book, Flirting with
  Danger.  I'd also recommend Nicola Gavey's new book,
  Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape.


Arnie Kahn
Psychology MSC 7401
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA 22807
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 00:45:46 +0000
From: Lisa Dettmer <cositas1 AT COMCAST.NET>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
Dear All,

I think this discussion exemplifies a larger problem in Women's
Studies: a large disconnect between the academic world and the
activist world. I agree with Kathy that the classroom should be the
place where re-thinking about activism can occur. But I hardly think
that most professor's are in the position to inform much less
empower students since so many academics are not activists and know
very little about activism beyond what they read in books.  It is
hardly surprising given the fact that the academy rewards professors
based on publishing not on social change work.  Further, the endless
critiquing that is encouraged in the academy without an attempt to
apply these critiques beyond a paper needs to be seriously
challenged. The type of knowledge that is valued and the perspective
that it comes from needs to be completely revamped just as feminist
of color challenged the exclusion of writings by women of color from
the academy because it didn't fall into what was considered!
academic (even though those same texts were later utilized by
women's studies courses for their women of color sections.)  And, I
think that this discussion needs to be greatly expanded and be at
the forefront of NWSA conferences.

In terms of radical movements and organizations that are not simply
co-opted service providers there are such groups especially in other
countries and there are many good films on this and writings as well.
Even the most unfunded grass roots group like the global women's
strike has produced films about women activism internationally that
are most inspiring. For instance, their film "Venezuela: Taking Power"
which is about some of the community organizing women are doing in
Venezuela now is more radical than the work of most of the feminist
groups in the US. If you are interested in looking at the video it is
available at www.globalwomenstrike.net.

lisa dettmer, J.D.
cositas1  AT  comcast.net
Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005 10:42:06 -0500
From: Genevieve G. McBride <ggmcbride AT gmail.com>
Subject: Re: Empowering Students
Another problematic aspect of prescribing self-defense classes is that they
are not necessarily designed for (and can further injure) the differently
abled -- which can add to, among other reactions that you can imagine, a
sense of powerlessness.

Btw, some of us have "invisible disabilities." I was given this advice by
campus and local police -- when I was being stalked by a student -- and I
found no instructors with knowledge of (or willingness to gain knowledge of)
adapting to the differently abled beyond the basic techniques (awareness,
carrying car keys like brass knuckles, etc.) I declined to participate
beyond that level, explained why I had to do so, and asked for options. But
because I did not look disabled, I was treated as uncooperative, given no
other assistance, etc.

A family member also was given this advice in a course, to the point of
feeling pressured to participate in self-defense classes -- although she is
among at least two percent of the population with another invisible
disability, seizure disorder. The result was that she felt further isolated
and fearful of social situations -- and further frustrated with a greater
sense of powerlessness..

And there are many other instances in which we may not be aware, by law, of
students' and coworkers' health conditions if we do not see wheelchairs when
we look around our classrooms. I would say that, since my experience, there
are more options for self-defense classes tailored to women with specific
disabilities -- in some geographic areas, at least -- so instructors
promoting self-defense classes could investigate further to include those.
But that still may not address all the problems and possibilities in our
student and larger populations.

Genevieve G. McBride, Ph.D.
Director of Women's Studies and
Associate Professor of History
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
gmcbride  AT  uwm.edu

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