Looking Back, Looking Forward


April 10, 2019 by Jean

imageLast month, I returned to my former workplace, Gettysburg College, for a weekend of activities to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program there – a program that I directed  through its early years from 1989 to 1999. A Friday evening celebratory dinner and panel discussion was combined with a Saturday conference.

It was a whirlwind weekend for me. I flew down to Pennsylvania on Friday morning, arriving at my hotel in time to check in and get organized before I walked the few blocks to campus for the evening event. On Saturday, I met a friend for breakfast, walked to campus for lunch with other conference participants, was part of an afternoon roundtable discussion designed as a cross-generational conversation, went for a late afternoon walk with another friend, and then spent the evening out to dinner with my former colleagues from the Sociology Department. I left Gettysburg at noon on Sunday to fly home.

The weekend provided a great opportunity for me to look back with satisfaction on the accomplishments of my academic career, look forward to my life as an elder, and to find the points of continuity between the two. After dinner at the Friday celebration, I joined other “founding mothers” of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program for a panel discussion. Among other questions, we were asked to reflect on how our teaching in the program was related to our lives and to activism. I argued that the two essential ingredients for social change are changes in consciousness and changes in social structures. Much of my teaching focused on concerns that grew out of my life experience and particularly on social inequality and social change, and I have always seen my teaching as a form of consciousness-raising that would prepare students to participate in efforts to change social structures.  As I looked out at the audience, I saw several former students who were paying that consciousness-raising effort forward, either by teaching about inequality themselves or by working to bring about change in social structures.

In retirement, I still see my various teaching efforts as consciousness-raising, whether it be teaching about social inequality at the Senior College, teaching Occupational Therapy students about aging and ageism, or raising the consciousness of gardeners about invasive plants. Of course, as my life has changed, so have the issues that engage me. As I look ahead, activism in relation to aging and ageism has become more urgent to me than activism around issues of gender and sexuality. At the same time, the cross-generational dialog at the Gettysburg event reminded me not to focus too much on my own experience. One well-spoken undergraduate at the Saturday conference challenged the elders in the room to move outside our own experiences and our comfort zones in choosing issues to work on and allies to work with – a valuable caution.

7 thoughts on “Looking Back, Looking Forward

  1. Jean R. says:

    What a great opportunity to reconnect with former co-workers and friends. Sounds like it was a fun and productive event for you.

    The challenge for “the elders in the room to move outside our own experiences and our comfort zones in choosing issues to work on and allies to work with” is good. For me personally, I’ve run out of the steam and drive I had when I was younger. So feminist issues that I once devoted time, energy and money on in my younger years I have passed the baton on to those who are now directly effected by those issues. I hate that those issues are STILL issues after all these years, but I have to trust the younger generation to finally get it done. Maybe by redirecting our impulses toward activism in a new-for-us direction people like me can build up another head of steam for helping with a good cause.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, The slow pace of social change can be frustrating, especially in this age when we think that anything that takes more than 10 seconds is slow. It’s helpful to be reminded that when Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, almost sixty years after she began working on the cause of woman suffrage, thirty-four years after she was arrested and tried for illegal voting, and fourteen years before the Constitution would finally be amended giving women the right to vote, her final words were a rallying cry against discouragement: “Failure is impossible.”

  2. Sue McPhee says:

    Kudos, my friend. Can’t wait to talk more about this with you when we get together soon.

  3. Diana Studer says:

    On ageism – one of my weekly hiking companions will be 90 in January.

  4. Dr Sock says:

    Jean, it was interesting to read about your visit to your former campus and chance to reconnect with colleagues and students. In my university teaching and administration career, I also was very focused on positive social change. Although there were times that the work seemed frustrating (3 steps forward, 2 steps back), I too can look back on my contributions and recognize that there were many ways in which I was able to make a difference for students. Three examples from my last position include: development of a centre for for indigenous students, creating resources for mental health awareness and support, and developing a sexual violence policy. The most important thing was to foster an environment where younger colleagues and students would be empowered to carry on the work.


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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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