Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Liberal Education

I graduated from high school early and moved to New York where I spent what would have been my senior year of high school working.  I babysat, worked as a Broadway usherette, and did office work at the Theatre Development Fund. Then one day a letter arrived from my mother that said, “Enroll in college or come home.”  Worried I would have to leave New York, I found myself highly motivated to continue my education.  My roommate, an awesome Cajun chick from Lafayette, had a brochure for Purchase College.  It was a small SUNY school with an emphasis on the arts, and with my well-invested year in New York, I qualified for in-state tuition.  Win/win.  I applied and enrolled sight unseen.
After spending a night in the dorms for freshman orientation, I quickly realized that I was not made for communal living.  Instead, I rented an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and commuted.  I would walk to Grand Central Station, take the train to White Plains, then a bus to Purchase.  Door to door it took 2 hours.  At 18, it seemed like a good idea.

Coming from Alabama, Purchase exposed me to a diverse mix of students from a myriad of backgrounds.  Pouring over the course catalog during registration, my mind was blown. For my freshman seminar I took a literature course called Exploding American Identities, where I was introduced to Latino, Asian, and Native American voices.  There was the philosophy class where I read Kant and Marx and a course on the Psychology of Gender.  Then I begged my way into The Political Economy of AIDS a three hour seminar only open to upperclassmen.  It was the mid-90’s and the AIDS crisis defined our generation.  Hugely popular on campus, it was taught in a lecture hall by Kim Christensen, a favorite among students.  I never missed a class.  She took a topic that was so complex and broke it down in a ways that made it accessible.   She found ways to teach us about the past in a way that resonated in our contemporary world.

There was no formality with Kim, but she didn’t need it to gain our respect and admiration.  Kim was the professor that the students loved, the pied piper on campus who motivated students to stand up and fight back.  Her classes were always full.

The things I learned in Kim’s class have been just as beneficial to me as a writer as the skills I learned in graduate school.  I learned about the balance of power, about the role of women and minorities in society, and the relationship between money and power – all issues that inform the characters I write and the stories I tell.

Kim taught at Purchase from 1985-2010.  A four- time recipient of the Students’ Union Award for Outstanding Teaching, Kim was an outspoken ally.  She also earned the President’s Award for Innovative Pedagogy and the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished College Teaching.  Her research focuses on the intersection of economics and public policy with an emphasis on race, gender, class, and labor.

I eagerly took every class she offered; by the time I graduated I had enough credits for a minor in economics.

There were certainly other dynamic teachers along the way.  I read Aristotle, Ibsen, deTocqueville, bell hooks, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Adrienne Rich.   I lobbied for a seat in a playwriting class, which was only open to drama studies majors, armed with samples of the short plays I had written.  I started out as a psych major, but a brush with behavioral statistics led me to change my major to women’s studies. My mother wondered what I would do with a degree in women’s studies:  I became a writer.

I’ve become an advocate for the liberal arts, especially for young artists.  A foundation in the liberal arts provides artists with a well-rounded education, which then informs the work they create.  Additionally, by providing students with access to the arts we give them an opportunity to engage in the creative process in a way that allows them to not just analyze the work, but to learn by embodying the characters.  Artists, like academics, examine, record, and endeavor to understand the world around them.  Theatre artists must learn to see the world through the lens of the characters they create, which is essentially the goal of liberal arts education. 

It’s been 19 years since I last spoke to Kim.  I was disappointed to learn she had left Purchase, but an internet search found her teaching at Sarah Lawrence.  She was quick to respond when I reached out.  After trying to coordinate schedules while I was in New York, we had to settle on a chat by phone.  Hearing her voice and laugh immediately brought back memories.  I was able to tell her what her classes meant to me, how they shaped my worldview, and informed my writing. 

As I continue to grow as a teacher, I look to the dynamic teachers I had along the way for inspiration.  Kim’s classes not only forced me to step outside my comfort zone, but they also served as safe spaces where difficult topics could be discussed openly.  She wasn’t just a professor; she was also an advocate, a cheerleader, and a truth teller.  Now that I’ve found my way to academia, I see the value in the liberal arts in a new way.  There is a certain excitement when students start making connections between the texts we read in class and the topics they have studied in other classes.  They begin to see the interconnectedness of the world around them.  My goal is to challenge them to take creative risks, think critically, and work collaboratively.  All of these skills will serve them well.
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