Connie Smith

Quote

The heart of Feminist Studies is summed up through the quote, ‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.

Biography

Connie Smith is a Senior Lecturer in the English, Linguistics, and Communication Department. She has been teaching at Mary Washington since 1970 and currently teaches the Introduction to Women’s Studies course.

Interview Video

Transcript

Interview with Connie Smith

Interviewed by: Megan Whiteaker

Transcribed by: Megan Whiteaker

[Interview #1 November 15, 2010]

1-00:00:05

Whiteaker:

Ok, today is November 15, and this is Megan Whiteaker interviewing Professor Connie Smith [nods] and Professor Smith could you please state your occupation at Mary Washington?

1-00:00:11

Smith:

I am um a Senior Lecturer which is, full time continuing but I am not tenured track I don’t have a PhD. I have a master’s degree.

1-00:00:24

Whiteaker:

Ok, and where did you go to college? And the college you did attend did you have any early encounters with feminist or women’s studies?

1-00:00:31

Smith:

My freshmen year I went to Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. I transferred to the University of Maryland from which I graduated. I then did my graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and no [laughs] I never encountered anything about women and women’s studies.

1-00:00:56

Whiteaker:

Ok, and what did you major in?

1-00:00:56

Smith:

I majored in English.

1-00:00:58

Whiteaker:

Ok, I guess also to add what was your first encounter with feminist studies?

1-00:01:03

Smith:

Um, my first encounter, there was a time when we taught a class called Women and Literature and Dr. Carol Manning had been teaching that class and the chair of the department at the time asked me if I would teach it. And I felt like sure I can teach anything ha ha, and I said yes and Dr. Manning helped me, gave/showed me the book that she’d been using, gave me a copy of her syllabus etc and I started teaching the class and for the very first time ever I read some of those Seminole pieces of literature that you use in Women’s Studies, A Room of One’s own, [Jacob Wolfe?], and etc etc and it blew my mind, it just absolutely blew my mind and the only thing I regret about it is that the material was sometimes very troubling for the students they would feel like they had to have to have talks with their fathers or their boyfriends about what was going on and since the material was new to me too, I didn’t have the background to help them to be able to help them. And that I feel bad about um other than that I enjoyed the course and the literature in the course tremendously and I will continue to teach Women and Literature for quite awhile.

1-00:02:34

Whiteaker:

Laughs, ok, what is your definition of feminist or Women’s Studies?

1-00:02:49

Smith:

Um, one slogan that I really like a whole lot, is “feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” and to me that is really the heart of it along with the other slogan, “the personal is political,” I think those are both very important notions. Um, for me feminism really has to do with improving women’s lives and choices whatever those choices might be, so if a women elects to stay home with her children there should be, [pause] that should be easy there should be affordable day care, you know? It shouldn’t be oppressive and burdensome for a woman to make that choice anymore than it should be for a woman to choose a career and in that case she needs affordable daycare etc. so yeah, I think it’s all about validating and empowering women as people.

1-00:04:09

Whiteaker:

Ok, thank you. And to move on to more about Mary Washington, when did you start teaching at Mary Washington? And have you only ever worked in the English Department?

1-00:04:16

Smith:

I started teaching at Mary Washington in 1970 um Carl Letterby was the chair of the department and he, oh no I don’t think he was at that time, anyway he was in the department he was on sabbatical in Chicago for a year and while he was gone I took his place and we had just moved to Fredericksburg so that was my first experience. I was only filling in so I was only part-time, I mean I was full-time but I was only here for that year. And then the next year I was at Germana Community College under the same kinds of circumstances. And then for a whole lot of years I was here full-time, part-time, not at all, laughs, you know kind of putting together what unfortunately is a fairly typical career path for a woman. I stayed home with my kids, all that. [Um] but now for the last several years I have been full-time here I enjoy it, a lot I think we have a wonderful place to be.

1-00:05:35

Whiteaker:

Ok, and do you think the change from an all women’s college to a co-ed institution did that affect you at all while you were working here?

1-00:05:42

Smith:

It happened pretty much when I came on board so I mean 1970 I think was the first year that it was co-ed um, I don’t think it’s made much difference except kind of in little ways since I teach the Intro to Women’s Studies whether that class has in it any males at all or none makes a big difference in the dynamic of the class. So, right now this semester Dr. Marsh and I are co-teaching it, it’s the first time that has ever been done and that’s been a wonderful experience and we have only women no males in the class at all. So um, yeah oh I did have one young man come into my class-office one time and he protested his grade and I said well, compared to other work in the class that’s a fair grade and he said well yeah but the other work done in the class is done by the women who go to this school and of course they are better at it then the men because we really have to change our admission criteria to get men here and I thought I have never heard that argument from a student before. laughs

1-00:07:16

Whiteaker:

That’s an interesting argument ok, um did the administration when you first began at Mary Washington have any interest in feminist studies?

1-00:07:24:

Smith:

No, laughs

1-00:07:28

Whiteaker:

No, and did any of the English department, the department you worked in, did any of them express an interest in women’s [interrupted]

1-00:7:33

Smith:

I think, the closest thing was that class called Women and Literature. But yeah, I remember distinctly a time that a women’s living and learning center was proposed and it went before the Board of Visitors they had questions, a group got together to address those specific questions and then we were told that the proposal had simply been pulled. And we actually went to talk to President Anderson as a group saying how come and he said no special interests.

1-00:08:19

Whiteaker:

Ok, um I also have to ask how did you run your classrooms. Did you run them how you read about in feminist literature? Did you have just lecture style? Did you have more of a seminar format or more of a student/teacher mutual interaction?

1-00:08:36

Smith:

I think, I did more lecturing certainly way more lecturing than I do now, my class now is very interactive and I hope the students entered that is my goal ha ha.

1-00:08:51

Whiteaker:

Did any of the reading that you had did that influence how you ran your classroom or did you just [interrupted]?

1-00:08:55

Smith:

Oh yeah, not only the reading but the seminars that we have had about Women’s Studies and again Dr. Vassey and Carol Corcoran who put together that proposal for Shev about introducing race and gender studies on campus was very influential and they hosted a number of seminars and we did some readings and discussions that were very helpful.

1-00:09:26

Whiteaker:

Sure, um how do you believe Women’s Studies should be handled as a field? Pause Sorry, I’m Sorry I guess I could say what fields are also more supportive of such a program, supporting Women’s Studies? Do you think one department is more supportive than another?

1-00:09:47

Smith:

So well so far, English, Linguistics, and Communications, is definitely been the most supportive department but as I said the course is being co-taught for the first time and Dr. Kristen Marsch from Sociology is co-teaching it with me and she is on sabbatical next semester but next fall she is going to be teaching the class which I am very excited about actually my chair is a little unhappy with giving up a slot every semester for the Introduction to Women’s Studies and right now Dr. Parker and I are the ones teaching it um whereas there have been other teachers of it in the past but right now we are it.

1-:00:10:41

Whiteaker:

Ok, and do you think the changes in faculty whether be research changes or different teaching interests have changed since you began?

1-00:10:48

Smith:

Oh yeah, hugely, yeah the whole idea of the student-centered classroom has made a huge difference I think in the pedagogy that you find going on, on this campus.

1-00:11:09

Whiteaker:

And you feel your department has very much taken an interest?

1-00:11:10

Smith:

Oh very much yeah.

1-00:11:11

Whiteaker:

Ok, and did the administration affect how Women’s Studies was founded at Mary Washington?

1-00:11:18

Smith:

Well, yeah they were pretty resistant (laughs) at first. Um, and I think we have some allies in the administration right now I know Dr. Mikhalevsky has been very interested in what is going on in the class and has been interested in teaching it particularly with a larger component about gender studies rather than just Women’s Studies-which is you know fine.

1-00:11:52

Whiteaker:

Ok, and did students help generate support for the program?

1-00:11:57

Smith:

I think so, yes in [pause] well it’s been around for a long time and um I think sure students with an interest have actively tried [laugh] to have it installed on this campus as a major.

1-00:12:20

Whiteaker:

Sure, I’m sorry you can continue…

1-00:12:21

Smith:

Yeah, several students have special majored in Women’s Studies but designing a special major and getting it through the curriculum committee and getting the curriculum committee to approve, changes get made, it’s hard, it’s time consuming, takes a lot of initiative, and having it as an actual gender-I mean major on campus makes a huge difference.

1-00:12:49

Whiteaker:

Sure, and do you as a professor in the department do you appreciate the student involvement and their support?

1-00:12:54

Smith:

Oh, absolutely, yeah in the course right now um the president of PRISM is in the course [laughter] a couple of people who are very active in VOX are in the course. I mean there is-that makes a great sense of connecting the class with activities on campus.

1-00:13:16

Whiteaker:

Ok, um who pushed the most for the founding of the program? Was it faculty, students, alumni?

1-00:13:24

Smith:

Oh, I would say faculty actually um because of Dr. Vassey and Dr. Corcoran’s initiative.

1-00:13:33

Whiteaker:

Ok, did you have any input from alumni that you know of?

1-00:13:40

Smith:

Um, not really I mean there are some people who are saying now that they are delighted that it’s finally in place but um I don’t remember much agitation for it from alums.

1-00:13:57

Whiteaker:

Ok, why do you believe the program started this year?

1-00:14:03

Smith:

Oh, that’s a good question. Um, partly because we got the support for it from the administration Dr. Mikhalevsky saying um we think this is a great idea, we’d love to see us come into the twenty-first century with such a major, we will not help in anyway in terms of giving you any money or anything but go for it, and we did!

1-00:14:36

Whiteaker:

Wow, so how did you find support for the program? Financial, I’m sorry.

1-00:14:41

Smith:

Um, [pause] that’s been tricky I mean it really has because about the only paid position we have is for the director. The rest of us who make it happen in our teaching simply get released from some other course so that we can teach this one. The first time I taught it by the way, we had a seminar about teaching the Intro to Women’s Studies the course was actually on the books Dr. Wishner in Philosophy had started it so it was on the books but no one had taught it for a long time and it was kind of dormant so the group again, under Vassey’s and Corcoran’s leadership wanted to revive the course and they had a seminar one summer that discussed teaching the Intro to Women’s Studies and the goal of that group was to come up with a common syllabus. At least the outline of a common syllabus and then of course everybody looked around the room and said somebody has to teach it and I said well I will. Um, and so I was the first one to offer it and I had the word feminism in pretty much everything we did um and a lot of the students who had signed up for the Intro to Women’s Studies didn’t want anything to do with feminism, so as soon as they saw that word they dropped the class um so about half of the class dropped. So then across campus other students went ah, feminism [laughs] and came and added so the class stayed full and I learned my lesson. The next time I taught it the first thing we discussed was feminism and the negative stereotypes of it so that people wouldn’t flock to drop it and in fact it worked and nobody dropped the class.

1-00:17:12

Whiteaker:

That’s funny that was great um so I guess you had volunteered to teach the course was revived, this year how or I guess when you all were building the program how was it decided who would teach the classes?

1-00:17:24

Smith:

Well as I say at this point, Dr. Parker and I have been teaching Women’s Studies because of the problems we have had in this department with Linguistics and the death of our beloved Christina Kakava? Um those problems have not freed Dr. Parker up from having to teach a lot of Linguistics so I am a logical person to teach it and since I have taught it before it makes sense. I mean there are a whole lot, I mean there are some changes I would like to make, I would like to do a better job, I would certainly try to incorporate more gender studies into the class um but with four writing intensive classes that is hard.

1-00:18:22

Whiteaker:

Yes, Um so when you all were deciding who would teach the classes overall you had volunteered uh did you all have to attend any seminars? Or was there anything you all had to meet collectively to decide how the program would run?

1-00:18:36

Smith:

Well as I said we had come up with a common syllabus so the idea was to follow the outline of the common syllabus and I confess I was pretty ignorant about a lot of things um, when we got to talking about incorporating a unit on gays I said oh, can’t we just say alternate lifestyle and they said no [laughter] no we can’t because no one can so its been a huge education for me, very eye opening experience and I’ve enjoyed it.

1-00:19:17

Whiteaker:

Ok, and could you explain how the name for the program was chosen? Did you all think the administration would be more accepting of the program if it included both in the title both women and gender?

1-00:19:29

Smith:

Well, I think gender studies is now a field, I don’t think it had been established as it’s own field before but more and more if you just look at the books on my shelf a number of them have the title gender, gender studies, gender basics, and you know as consciousness has expanded I think that’s just sort of natural.

1-00:20:02

Whiteaker:

Ok, um do you believe that there should be a race/gender intensive requirement?

1-00:20:11

Smith:

Yes

1-00:20:11

Whiteaker:

Ok and how do you think it would affect the program if required?

1-00:20:16

Smith:

Well, I think more students need exposure to the ideas that they get from a race/gender intensive course um we used to have the requirement of course now we don’t and everybody says its ok cause every course covers that anyway but I don’t believe that.

1-00:20:40

Whiteaker:

Ok, is there anything you would like to add before I get to the conclusion? About you experience at Mary Washington, how it’s changed since you first began here?

1-00:20:49

Smith:

I, don’t think so I think I’ve covered pretty much all I have to say.

1-00:20:54

Whiteaker:

Ok, um and then what do you think the impact of Women’s Studies will be at Mary Washington if you look towards the future?

1-00:21:00

Smith:

I, hope of course like everybody involved with the program that it’s going to be a significant impact, we’ve already got eight majors in this is the first year that it’s been offered so I again think it will grow pretty fast. I know that the program hopes to establish a kind of leadership program in the dorms so that incoming freshmen who are interested in Women’s Studies or gender studies or both will actually live together as well as study together and that will become kind of a cohort that will go forward. So the hope is that it will grow.

1-00:21:52

Whiteaker:

Ok and have you all any involvement I guess in the master plan for Mary Washington in discussing how you all…

1-00:21:59

Smith:

I’m afraid I have been ignoring the new master plan [laughter] pretty much I mean I am sorry to say that but it’s really true and you know I believe that it’s up to our director Allyson Poska to make sure that our program gets recognized and I think she’s doing a great job. She’s been given a budget for example to allocate that budget in many different ways to support many different kinds of speakers and events so that the name Women and Gender Studies gets out there so that’s good.

1-00:22:44

Whiteaker:

Ok, I guess what are you all involved in on campus outside of the classroom? You touched on the allocated budget what else are you all involved in?

1-00:22:53

Smith:

Oh right you mean, you all being?

1-00:22:57

Whiteaker:

Uh, the program professors I should say

1-00:22:58

Smith:

Oh the advisory committee for example? Cause I am on the advisory committee um you know again we try to support things that the Women’s and Gender Studies are interested in the lecture last semester or this semester earlier by uh Thomas Foster on sexuality and George Washington the first brown bag luncheon where Anna Hellbrooks-Folks whose a student, brought a speaker in and that brown bag lunch was really well attended, I’m the faculty advisor for VOX and they always send me e-mails about what they are doing so that’s really good I feel very much in touch. Teaching the Intro to Women’s Studies we’ve been able to Dr. Marsh and I have offered extra credit things like PRISM activities, the PRISM films that they showed, which I went to, things like that.

1-00:24:15

Whiteaker:

Ok, um and since I am a history major I have to ask do you all have any involvement in the Great Lives lecture? Have you all wanted…?

1-00:24:22

Smith:

Oh sure lectures about women often end up on the Women’s History month calendar yeah and the Women’s and Gender Studies program has not been involved with Women’s History month as much as I think they should be but time is a problem no question about it but yeah the Great Lives the figures that are women go on the Women’s History month calendar and the Women’s History month planning committee is another thing I am involved with and that’s kind of fun. This years theme is um Role Call R-O-L-E, Role Call and it’s women’s presence and power in society and we’ve got some really good things lined up the Women and Gender Studies program for example um Mindy Urtchel is also on the advisory committee and under here we’re bringing Hillary Lips who is at Radford University and who does really awesome stuff about the pay gap for example so it all works together.

1-00:25:54

Whiteaker:

That is very impressive for a beginning program um have you all had any alumni support like financial support for your program?

1-00:26:01

Smith:

Not yet, um I really do think that will come uh one of the first Women’s Studies major was a double major with Women’s Studies and German and she’s still in town and works as a therapist and may very well come in and be on a panel for a brown bag lunch and that kind of thing.

1-00:26:26

Whiteaker:

That’s great, um is there anything else you would like to touch on? Through your teachings, um I guess the differences in seeing student perspectives if you have had a male student and female students in your seminar? … Do male students seem perceptive at all?

1-00:26:52

Smith:

It depends, I mean people are individuals some men take the course because they really want to get something out of it, some take the class because they want to play devils advocate all semester and they do [laughs] you know, whatever, since we had that race/gender requirement when I started offering English 206 A which is Global Issues and Literature, when I went to school years ago when something was in English it was either British or American I mean we never heard of the rest of the world, like Canada, India, Nigeria, and the Caribbean, and etc and I thought yikes if I have to teach Global Issues and Literature that at least I can cut it in half so I chose the race/gender designation and taught Women in Global Literatures which is the way I teach the class to this day and when they were looking for freshmen seminars I offered International short fiction by Women so I basically read nothing but women, women writers right now.

1-00:28:16

Whiteaker:

Ok and how do you think the literature has changed from the first literature you read to teach your seminars to today?

1-00:28:23

Smith:

Oh my goodness, well certainly in global issues there is a huge, burgeoning of that field and I think it’s true of Women’s Studies too that more and more of women are writing and getting published and um you know it’s still a little bit frustrating because you will have lists of one hundred best books and they will be almost all male writers and just very few women and uh when we were first talking about Women’s Studies one of the things we agreed was not a good idea was to have token women, the whole policy is known as Add Women and Stir and you know rather than transforming the class into using feminist pedagogy.

1-00:29:22

Whiteaker:

Ok and do you feel that since uh you mentioned your seminar has changed with more student involvement do you think that, that continues to educate you as well?

1-00:29:32

Smith:

Oh definitely, oh my goodness I learn a whole lot from my students and from the reading that I do to prepare for the classes, it’s been wonderful.

1-00:29:44

Whiteaker:

Especially watching it evolve over the years?

1-00:29:44

Smith:

Oh yeah, [laughter] oh yeah.

1-00:29:47

Whiteaker:

And do you have a favorite writer? Or someone that has influenced you heavily?

1-00:29:53

Smith:

Oh man, there are so many I wouldn’t even know where to start um you know as I said looking at some of the Seminole ones, Virginia Wolfe, Kate Chopin, uh Zorneal Horston, Alice Walker, oh and internationally Bessie Head, whom I really love and the students don’t seem to much like her and that just drives me crazy because I love her and [2 additional international authors] just women from all over Annie Wang, Ann Chi Minh, um one of the first books I use in Global Issues in Literature is called A Gallia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes, by the Norwegian feminist [author]  and it was written in the late seventies but it’s a wonderful look at the world because the womb plural wim are the ones who go topless they rule basically rule the society and have all the positions in government and business and all the rest of it they wear slacks and have short hair and they have short names and the men wim stay home and curl their beards and raise the children and take care of the house and are concerned about their appearance and it’s amazing and reading that book is just mind expanding. [laughter]

1-00:31:37

Whiteaker:

I agree, ok um is there anything you would like to add about the Women’s and Gender Studies Program here at Mary Washington?

1-00:31:45

Smith:

Well I just have high hopes that it will be successful.

1-00:31:50

Whiteaker:

Ok, well I think that is it, thank you.

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