Current students reconstruct lives of alumnae in J-term course

February 5, 2004
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of News and Public Information

Sarah Winbigler DeYoung was a little surprised to get a call from Karen Bradley, requesting that she meet with the Maryville College alumna to discuss what life was like for women on campus during the 1970s.

"I don't think of myself as being particularly historic," explained DeYoung, who graduated from the College in 1974. "I'm just not old enough."

But sitting down with Bradley and recounting stories about residence hall sign-in and sign-out policies, sharing a hallway telephone with 20 other girls on her floor and walking from campus to Midland Plaza for groceries, DeYoung said she noticed the current MC student getting a little wide-eyed.

"We spent a lot of time in the library because that's where the information was," DeYoung said of her college days. "We didn't have computers.

"And remembering dorm life – we had no microwaves, no microfridges, no TVs, no telephones in our rooms," the alumna continued. "When I started telling Karen all of this, I realized, ‘Man, this does sound pretty prehistoric!'"

Alumni participants in the oral history project were invited to a reception hosted by students enrolled in the "Women in Society" January Term course.

Focus on women

Bradley just completed a January Term course at the College entitled "Women in Society," in which she was one of 18 students – male and female – who interviewed 18 MC alumni spanning nearly six decades for a class project.

Taught by Dr. Mary Moss, assistant professor of English, the course set out to examine the way in which the concept of "woman" is culturally constructed, as well as the impact gender has on issues of economics, education, health, political policy and personal relationships.

"I think teaching about gender in society is important because gender issues are such hotly contested ones in our culture," Moss said.

January Term, or "J-Term" as it is better known, is a three-week term held between fall and spring semesters. A variety of courses and topics are offered; students choose one. Geared toward experiential learning and utilizing field trips, projects and special presentations, the classes are concentrated, meeting for three hours daily.

In addition to conducting generational interviews, students enrolled in "Women in Society" read books and articles on various topics related to women and discussed issues ranging from the representation of women in advertising to communication between men and women to women's rights.

One of students' first assignments was to watch the recently released "Mona Lisa Smile." In the movie, Julia Roberts plays a young, idealistic art history professor at Wellesley College who tries to convince her smart and talented female students that they can do more with their college educations than get married and have families.

Moss, who earned her undergraduate degree in women's studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said she realized a certain amount of this "ethos" existed on Carolina's campus at the time.

"I became curious about what young women at Maryville College had been encouraged to do during their stay here," she said.

So she added the oral history project involving MC alumnae to her syllabus. Always interested in oral history, Moss said she sees more than the obvious benefit – answers to questions – in gathering people's stories.

"I think [oral history projects] are good ways for people across generations to make connections and learn that each has something important to say," the assistant professor said. "I also think people enjoy telling their stories to others. Storytelling is one way that we build community."

Reconstructing lives at MC

Maryville College registrar and alumna Martha Hess provided names of potential local alumnae to interview. Decades represented ranged from the 1930s to the 1990s. A few male alumni were interviewed as well, Moss said, after students convincingly argued that male perspectives of women from different periods of time could be insightful.

"Students worked in small groups and then as a class to come up with questions they wanted to ask," Moss explained. "They were interested in whether or not their interviewees perceived any gender differences in the classroom, on campus, or in the kinds of programs to which they were directed.

"My students were also really fascinated by the social life on campus during earlier periods, so they asked a lot of questions about that. They also asked where the women's college experiences led them," she continued. "And finally, they asked their interviewees whether they thought women could have it all – career, husband, children."

Each student wrote a transcript of the interview, which will go into the College's archives, and a corresponding analysis. The written analysis involved researching historical perspectives gained from reading back issues of the College's yearbook, campus newspaper and local newspapers, Moss said.

"One of the most interesting responses came from a student who interviewed an alumna who came from a fairly privileged background. In his analysis, he ended up contrasting her story with that of his grandmother, who came from an exceedingly poor household and never had an opportunity to go to college," the assistant professor said. "It was a thoughtful analysis of the way that [social] class affects the trajectory of women's lives."

Celebrations and remaining work

Students built a PowerPoint presentation and compiled a scrapbook of their oral history project." Both were on display Jan. 22 at the House in the Woods, where students hosted a reception for participating alumni and presented each with appreciation certificates.

Jessica Alagna, a sophomore, chats with Ruth Freeman Webb '46 at a reception at the House in the Woods.

At the reception, Ruth Freeman Webb, a member of the College's class of 1946, talked again with her interviewer, Jessica Alagna, a sophomore English/American Sign Language major from New York.

Webb said her experience at the College was vastly different than that of 1930s-era alumnae and even 1950s-era alumnae, too, because of World War II. Concerning rules and opportunities for study, not a lot of distinction was made between men and women because there were so few men on campus.

"A woman in my class even went on to law school," Webb explained, adding that her classmate didn't practice law because society didn't accept it. "She was 10 years or so ahead of her time, I guess."

Charise Bain, a sophomore psychology major from Hartsville, Ala., probably won't have to face crushing prejudices in the workforce when she graduates, but in interviewing Kim Spargo, a 1987 graduate of the College, she found not all is equal – still.

"Going to Maryville College in the 1980s, I didn't experience chauvinism at all. I saw none of that, felt none of that," Spargo said. "But when I graduated, I sure found that in the workplace. It was shocking."

A member of the Lady Scots basketball team, Bain said she believes men's sports – at all levels – usually get more attention. The two compared notes, also, on the standards of beauty to which women have long been held. Fashion magazines that Kim saw as an undergraduate shouted "thin is in!," and Bain said the same is true for the publications stuffed in campus post office boxes today.

Common ground

Moss said students were surprised at some of the similarities and differences in their Maryville College experiences with those of alumni.

"What was fascinating was the range of responses that women gave to the same questions," she said.

Equally fascinating were students' revelations. Karen Bradley was a little surprised to see benefits in some of the rules Sarah DeYoung and her female friends were forced to abide by.

"I was shocked to hear about the strict curfews," Bradley said, explaining that female students of the 1970s couldn't leave their residence halls after 11 p.m. on the weekdays and 1 a.m. on the weekends. They were also required to sign in and out. "I wonder what girls would do now if they couldn't leave their halls whenever they wanted to.

"But I think those curfews made them closer. They hung out together and played cards. That made them closer. I feel close to my classmates now, but I think if we had those kind of restrictions, we would know each other a lot better."

Sophomore Karen Bradley presents an appreciation certificate to Sarah Winbigler DeYoung '74, whom Bradley interviewed for an oral history project.

Bradley and DeYoung found common ground in what their Maryville College education has meant in their lives.

"Sarah came to campus from a different state, and so did I," Bradley said, "and she says being at Maryville College gave her a lot of self-confidence. That's the way it's made me feel, too.

"I didn't know anybody [at the College] before I arrived, and that was a new feeling. It kind of forced me to extend myself and make more of an effort to get to know people. And meeting people from different states and different backgrounds really helped me get to know myself better."

Going into the project, Bradley said she perceived a huge gulf of time between DeYoung's college experience and her own, but after conducting research on what was happening on campus and in the world during that 1970s (especially regarding the women's movement), the gulf narrowed.

"It wasn't such a backward time," Bradley said. "The more Sarah talked about what she and her friends did here on campus, the more I realized that it's very similar to what we do now."

Except Bradley and her friends drive to Midland Plaza.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.