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Memories of SSU

J.J. Wilson

Faculty, English Department 1968-2004

            I came to SSU about five years in, missing all the fun a temporary campus had to offer, but still the sense of innovation and getting to set up shop for ourselves was prevalent. Everyone’s input was encouraged by dear Amby Nichols in a way we have never seen since in a president, alas! The day I arrived on campus as a part-timer in the English Department, I had hitchhiked in from Cotati where the Golden Gate Transit had dropped me. There was an improvised sign leaning up against the door of the building now known as Ruben Salazar Hall proclaiming “Libery (sic) Closed Today.” I really had to ask myself if I wanted to teach in a school where the gym was the biggest building on campus and the library was closed! Encouraged however by flyers announcing that the famous and elusive religious figure Krishnamurti would be speaking in Ives Hall at noon, I dashed over only to bump square into a quite solid jack rabbit – he moved to his left, I moved to my right, then we reversed the step in a curious Alice in Wonderland dance, until finally we dodged around one another and went our separate ways.

            Krishnamurti was wonderful and my classes were too (friends from those first classes continue to enrich my life and indeed, Liz Murgia just received a huge award for single-handedly, well almost, building the new public library in Eureka). I was a happy camper, feeling sure that I had found my “right place” after three years miscast at a traditional, long-established women’s college in the East.

            Several years later, when I had full-time status but not yet tenure, I had another shock, not like the jack rabbit or the library sign, but one that was to have longer-lasting effects on my personal and professional life. And it all happened at a Modern Languages Association meeting (our professional organization) – kind of tacky to be “converted” at such an obvious site (like finding Jesus because of a T.V. program), but it happened. The MLA can be as boring as any other large professional organization, but every once in a while it gets radical, and this was one of those times. Fueled by the high octane women writers, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, asking us as teachers of literature to look long and deep at the messages we were giving our women students, we all came back to our home campuses with a different way of seeing our curricula, our pedagogies, our politics and indeed our own lives.

            We set about the grueling and rewarding process of effecting changes in institutions and individuals. On every campus, that process was different, but the results had a reassuring similarity: a few central courses given by the registrar the oddly suitable acronym of WOMS and a network of classes with a feminist perspective in other key departments, many of which were student taught under supervision at SSU, using a method brought in during the radical 1960s to have more student involvement in the actual teaching of classes. It worked well for Women Studies because, truth to tell, the excellent and committed students who went through the rigorous selection process to teach as volunteers in our nascent Women Studies program were as well-prepared as anyone else in this new field. The faculty had all been trained under the old dispensations, reading male critics about male writers, etc. Fortunately for me, I had chosen to write on a little known woman writer for my M.A. and Ph.D. – Virginia Woolf; tellingly, my 385-page thesis devoted only five pages to Woolf’s feminism…(Still embarrassing to admit that!). Reading that much Woolf must have helped prepare the soil for the seeds to sprout, of course, and I have continued to learn from her writings and from the community of scholars who have risen up to become her advocates – but at the time she was not in the curriculum, hard as it is to imagine. Indeed, most of her books were out of print.

            So, there was plenty of work to be done, and we got a lot of support from our feminist colleagues on other campuses, learning from one another – even though there was no email, no googling and no Somehow we re-educated ourselves, and our colleagues in other fields were doing the same. Clarice Stasz, then in Sociology, Sandra Walton in the Library, Elaine Bundesen on staff and many others on campus “got the picture.” Without them, I would have been lonely, though a radical student group did allow me to join their discussions, held off-campus in dubious student housing in the dead of night. Wonderful!

            Was there resistance? Sure, and much of it founded. A program with no budget that depended upon student teachers and a secret friend in Reprographics (literally underground in those days and underwater sometimes too, in the Darwin basement) who donated her time to make us visible with graphic flyers describing our almost non-existent and quite unofficial “program.” Doesn’t sound as of it would fly, but thanks to wise administrators like Jim Enochs and Yvette Fallandy who seemed ahead of the often reactionary faculty in many ways, we survived and even thrived. It took awhile to become a line item on the budget and to get umbrella courses in the catalog, but yes, it happened and is still happening, evolving into Women and Gender Studies with majors, minors and even departmental status. Who woulda’thunk?

            Oh, there were crises – when we were discovered using speculums in the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” class to explore our own “inner truths,” so to speak…(that activity had to be moved off campus). When they tried to repossess the telephone and space we had appropriated for the Women’s Recourse Center – we occupied the space and just out and out intimidated them I am afraid, but it worked.

            On too many campuses, feminist activism got faculty in trouble—in some egregious cases causing them to be denied tenure. Here at SSU, it was just the opposite – I was awarded tenure early because of my ardent efforts to change the curriculum. The attitudes of many faculty members were seen as contributing as SSU evolved toward excellence. Gee, I’m glad I was here in those exciting days!