Feminist Studies action projects

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Feminist Studies action projects

Service, Activism, Creativity

by ELIZABETH ANN SANDERS on Monday, September 19, 2011 - 3:08am

A visitor attending the final week of Estelle Freedman’s Feminist Studies 101 course might not recognize the class: rather than a traditional lecture, the students stand in Freedman’s place. For this final week, the students take the helm and present their final “action projects”. Rather than testing her students’ knowledge, Freedman asks them to apply it.

Feminist Studies 101 introduces students to feminist scholarship by following the emergence and evolution of feminist thought and by examining contemporary feminist issues. Though discussion in small groups has been an integral part of the class since Freedman began teaching it in 1989, the action projects are a much newer component.

About a dozen years ago, Freedman and a colleague visiting the program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity discussed the use of small groups in their classes. “She said that doing a project [at the end of the quarter] helped groups to cohere, and provided closure to the groups,” says Freedman. So, Freedman tried it out – requiring that each small group complete a project at the end of the quarter, but leaving it very open-ended as to what those projects were. Students could attend a feminist event and write a response to it, or even stage their own event on campus.

The first year, Freedman offered groups the opportunity to present their action projects in front of the class. When she received course evaluations, the response was overwhelming — students felt that these presentations should be a requirement, not an option. Since then, the influence of these actions projects on the class structure has grown considerably. Student projects have even become course curriculum; “The Beauty Project,” a film that interviews Stanford students about body issues, is now shown every year.

Though the class is introductory, its reach extends far beyond those pursuing a Feminist Studies major or minor. Students come from all disciplines, drawn by the opportunity to fulfill graduation requirements and by the course’s strong reputation. They engage in the material to deepen their understanding of how feminist thought and issues intersect with their own lives.

Karen Young, class of 2011 with a major in History and Law, took the class to gain a foundation in feminist studies. Like many of her classmates, Young found the class transformative. She later took another class offered by Freedman: the History of Sexual Violence. “From her class, I learned how the law has historically marginalized certain communities and minorities,” said Young, “and how this marginalization created numerous social problems.” As a result, she is currently at law school. “I would like to pursue a career in public interest law,” she concluded, “to protect and help historically marginalized communities.”

Freedman will teach Feminist Studies 101 this fall. Each term, students receive a list of events on campus of possible interest. This year the list will include the Clayman Institute’s fall event, Abigail Disney’s discussion of Women, War & Peace. Disney also attributes her graduate experience at Stanford as planting the seed of gender awareness.

Having this material grow deep roots in her students’ life choices is a nod to the woman whose own actions led to the co-founding of the Feminist Studies program thirty years ago.