How I Got Here

A few of my family members and a few of my teachers – maybe one-fourth of the 50-some who were close kin and the other 50-some who were kindergarten through high school teachers – showed me that we were part of history, that there was diversity in every community, that there was integrity and intelligence in being working class, that small towns were not necessarily the playground of small minds, that networks were everything – and that books and photographs, typewriters and cameras, gardens and front porches, family and friends were were life’s riches to be cultivated.  I’d not be here – in a uni, maybe not even in my own skin – were it not for this band of teachers in my informal learning world.  Informal learning made my brain – family conversations, library books, theater/yearbook/newspaper as extra-curricular activities, my typewriter and camera.

I learned to see that I had support – learning was never what I didn’t have but what I did have in terms of resources and encouragement and opportunities.  Somewhere in there – thanks to one of my older cousins taking nascent women’s studies and ethnic studies courses – I read Adrienne Rich’s “Claming an Education”

The first thing I want to say to you who are students,is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education; you will do much better to think of yourselves as being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of  the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of; to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true. The difference is that between acting and being acted­ upon, and for Women it can literally mean the difference between  life and death.

“Owner” didn’t really settle with me as part of claiming, but saying that I knew something – that I could make a rhetorical claim and support it, that I could take in ideas/information and be changed by (and create change with) what I learned, that resonated with me.  These were opposites of “receive” that I could “claim.”  Overall, undergrad was not unlike US public school – I continued to use the informal learning places to get me through.  Editing the campus newspaper in my senior year and just two classes away from completing a journalism degree.  Instead, I took two political science classes, one from Scott Shrewsbury and one from Carolyn Shrewsbury.  Hello, learning.  I stayed another year – working at the factory where my dad was the line manager to pay my share of the extra expenses.  A major in a year.  The dean’s list each quarter.  Every teacher in the department doing some version/variation of active learning.  An entire department actually modeling – and expecting – conservative and progressive collaboration. And, ya know what, this almost entirely working class faculty thought I should be the teacher I wanted to be – and, wisely, they agreed I wasn’t likely to like being a public school teacher.  College teaching they suggested.  Really?  Really.

I graduated.  Then tried to go away to graduate school.  The going away didn’t happen just then.  Faculty on my campus visits to UWashington-Seattle, UColorado-Boulder and UWisconsin-Madison said “yes, come here…”  And pointed out that if I wanted to learn about feminist pedagogy, then I needed to go back to Mankato State University and work as a graduate student with Carolyn Shrewsbury, who in the US context taught a first Feminist Pedagogies course and published some of the first articles on the topic.  I wanted to study feminist pedagogy – that learning in other ways and learning about the whole of the world thing.  And I wanted to teach English – that writing and reading thing.  I stayed in Mankato.  Became the English department’s first TA.  Co-taught Women’s Studies courses.  Completed course work for two degrees (with teachers in both English and WmSt opting for contract grading, active learning through co-creation of classes and student-developed projects), two masters exams (neither in entirely traditional ways). Wrote two masters theses (neither in entirely traditional ways; one about teachers, one about teaching).  And went to PhD school to study literatures and cultures and histories and theories and educations multicultural at UIowa, where two of my three political science mentors had earned doctorates.  And I supported myself by teaching writing and women’s studies and american studies and sexuality studies courses.  And I encountered in all but two doctoral courses the same traditional teaching methods that quieted me as an undergrad, especially in courses where teachers said they pursued liberatory education.  But I knew all kinds of ways for us as students in those classes to conduct our own informal education outside of the classroom.  And we did – as learners and as teachers.  I taught with faculty and TAs who pursued their creative, wild, respectful, urgent and grace-full active teaching and learning principles.

July 1980 to May 1998.  Twenty years, more or less.  Three graduate degrees.  Teaching fulltime across seven departments and one center for teaching.  Working nearly fulltime throughout the masters degrees at a factory with my dad as supervisor.  Teaching middle school and high school college-bound, first-generation students each summer while earning the masters degrees.  Teaching overload at UMinnesota while writing my dissertation for UIowa.  A host of personal loveliness including living again with my parents for the year before moving to Iowa City, ten years in a partnership, time with the six wonderful kids in my life, settling anew in Minnesota to be nearer my unexpectedly frail parents.

I’m not in either of the places where I thought I could be as a female who liked using her brain to think about learning and politics and people, culture and justice.  And, yet I am.

I didn’t become a senator’s wife (which is what I thought might be the only possible route when I was in 6th grade – role models then were Abigail McCarthy, Muriel Humphrey, Joan Mondale – great role models) nor did I become an education professor (which was my aim when I entered PhD school and turned away from the tenure track job search when my parents became ill).

But I think I have become the educator my grandmothers and parents always expected I would become.  And the teacher I was in the informal high school and college places, where I could practice what I believed about people learning in all sorts of ways I could discover only in learning with them.  That belief: people learn in all sorts of ways and learning that being respected in those ways of learning is how people learn complex problem solving skills needed life long, life wide.  Learning and teaching: the constant dynamic that I and others imaged for my future.  I got there.



  1. I saw this article early in the week but didn’t read it fully until just now – in both US & UK contexts I find myself wondering how many “people like us” are, indeed, actually going to get into schools, to be encouraged to think about school, be “allowed” to follow their own interests in choosing school programs. And the future for grad level work – and choices – seems even murkier. And yet in classrooms I see so much change, so much good teaching happening.

    What will the women reference by the data in this article write 20 years on, I wonder?

  2. Fascinating! Superb life story. The first thing that comes to mind while I was reading it: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”!

    I also liked the fact that you mentioned the mentors. I think there is another meme in there to be suggested 😉

    Throughout my undergrad years there were some people who were not so much my mentors but my academic idols. I still remember my American Culture Lecture, for instance … some people are great storytellers. I can listen to them hours on end. I felt the same kind of warmth reading this post! I admire your courage and your strength.

    Jen and Ilene: it’s a pity about the decrease of women in education. I once heard – and totally believe in – women are the first to be excluded and the last to be benefited in case of crises and abundance, respectively. It’s a pity really, but it’s also the reality.

    I know if I were to start my studies now I would have no chance. Debt is something unheard of in my family. “you can’t afford it, you can’t go” kind of a thing. I think many families today will think the same. Interesting too is another guardian article whose link I cannot find now and which talks about the bursaries not being given to those who most needed… mainly because they are not applying. That is to be expected: if you are unaware of these opportunities (because your family and friends never really experienced the world of HE) how are you supposed to learn about them? It’s a pity that a lot of funding for outreach programmes has been cut. Not creating different channels for people to learn about the opportunities is almost the same as disempowering them!

    I am just glad some educators are committed to do the opposite, i.e., to empower people!

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