April 10, 2019 by Jean
Last 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.