College formal convocations. Dobkins, whose ongoing research focuses on Southern women, writers and readers, and the influence they have on each other, began her fall convocation address with a self-deprecating remark about the “pure terror” she felt at following the prior year’s convocation speaker, who had received a standing ovation by declaring that “timid women don’t leave lasting legacies.” Then, Dobkins promptly welcomed the Class of 2014 to campus with a pure, old-fashioned stem-winder – what one student called an “awe-inspiring” message that not only recounted the myriad accomplishments of strong products of women’s colleges but also outlined for the newcomers to single-gender academia how their educations will be a source of strength in the future.
||fter 13 years at Brenau, Debra Dobkins, associate professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Brenau, inaugurated what some are calling a “new tradition:” showcasing outstanding faculty in addresses at the Women’s
Dr. Debra Dobkins is an Associate Professor of English and has been Director of the Brenau University Writing Center since 1998. She was selected as the 2010 Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Faculty Member of the Year.
Dr. Dobkins graduated Summa Cum Laude from Agnes Scott College, where she also earned her Master’s Degree in teaching English. She received her PhD in Language and Literacy Education from the University of Georgia, and was a nominee for the Robert Park Prize for Graduate Writing in English for “Untold Stories from the Bloody Chamber: Bluebeard’s Other Wives.”
Dr. Dobkins’ interests include modern Southern literature, the South on film, Eudora Welty, Jane Austen and post-structural feminism. She has published numerous articles about writing and teaching.
I WOULD LIKE TO BEGIN today’s address by welcoming all Brenau students for whom this is a first – a first convocation, a first semester of college, or perhaps the first semester back in school in awhile.
To the class of 2014 and all the newest members of the Brenau family, welcome home. To all the other students, faculty, staff and administrators here today, welcome back. I am deeply honored to have been asked to initiate a new tradition at Brenau, and if you haven’t noticed, tradition is a particular specialty of ours.
When Dr. Southerland first asked me to speak today, I had two reactions: I was just thrilled and started thinking of all the advice I could offer and stories I could tell. My second reaction was pure terror when I realized, OMG, I’m not Carmen Deedy.(1) But like our fall convocation speaker last year, I will try to be brief and I will tell a story or two. Today’s address establishes a new tradition of convocation addresses given by faculty scholars, and we all look forward to hearing from Dr. Louise Bauck at the honors convocation in spring.
Convocation is a ritual we inherited from medieval European universities, like Cambridge and Oxford and Heidelberg, and this ritual continues to be enacted in colleges around the world today. At Brenau we participate in this ritual two or three times a year and its medieval pageantry is still evident in our academic regalia, for example. Both as a student and a professor, I’ve always enjoyed convocations for the chance they offer us not only to wear cool caps and very hot velvet gowns, but because they provide a rare opportunity for us to come together as a community. Today, we gather to mark the beginning of the school year, a new season ripe with possibility, and in the spring, we’ll celebrate your many accomplishments.
We can appreciate this venerable tradition and enjoy the ritual of collegiate convocation, but we should also bear in mind the fact that it would have been denied to most of us here today. If we could time travel and were all magically transported to, say, Cambridge University in 1284, the year of its founding, about 90 percent of us in this room would disappear. No women were allowed to teach or study at university. And it only took about 700 years for this to change, as the first women were not awarded degrees from Cambridge until 1948. They did start a couple of women’s colleges in the late 1800s, but women could only study there, not earn degrees. I think this indicates the audacity and vision Brenau’s founders had in 1878 when they decided to educate girls and young women – and in a place ravaged by war and poverty.
We are, in many ways, privileged to be here, and we must accept the responsibility this privilege carries with it. I will echo a reminder that President Schrader offered at the recent WAVE event celebrating Women’s Equality Day: There are still many women – in places here and all over the world – who have been denied basic freedoms like the right to education and the right to say no. Their voices have been silenced, and we owe it to them to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded us and to work to ensure that women’s voices everywhere are given free expression.
During my 12, going on 13, years here I’ve talked with hundreds of students about why they chose the Women’s College at Brenau University. Reasons vary widely. Many students say they visited the campus and fell in love with it. Many say they were attracted by a strong program in their major or a generous scholarship. Some came because their mothers or sisters or aunts or grandmothers did; some say the lack of boys was a major drawback and that they really didn’t want to come to a women’s college while others say the women’s college experience was the reason they came. I vividly remember one first-year student who, after about two weeks of classes and 10 minutes into hearing student stories about why they chose Brenau Women’s College exclaimed, “This is a what? Well, I was starting to wonder where all the guys were.” Equally memorable is the senior who said, “I didn’t choose Brenau because it was a Women’s College, but I stayed because it was.”
Where mind sparks mind
As Dr. Southerland said, I, too, am a product of women’s colleges, having spent nearly half my life in them. And I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything because I’ve witnessed the magic that can happen when women connect with shared purpose. My alma mater [Agnes Scott] often quotes an alumna’s description of it as “a place where mind sparks mind,” an environment in which it’s cool and exciting to be smart together. I challenge you to make Brenau the kind of place where your thoughts catalyze and advance your sister students’ ideas.
Many of us in this room are in the first generation of our families to attend college. Some of you commute, some live in sororities. Some work full time, some are full-time students. Many of you were born and raised in the South, while some of you come from places that might seem a world away. Women at Brenau come from all backgrounds and ethnicities. In fact, women’s colleges have historically educated women who have been systemically disadvantaged. As a 2009 US News and World Report article points out, “Just as women’s colleges originally were founded because women couldn’t go to college elsewhere, many of today’s women’s colleges are surviving – and thriving – by educating specific populations of women who are still underserved” (Calefati 2). Pamela Fox, president of Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, says, “Women’s colleges are ahead of the curve and on the forefront of what women need. We have never been and we will never be followers. We have to create our own way forward” (Calefati 4). Creating its own way forward is precisely what the Women’s College at Brenau has done for more than130 years.
Big favor for yourself
I wonder if you know just how big a favor you did yourself in choosing Brenau Women’s College or the Academy? Multiple studies, including those by Hardwick-Day in 2008 and Kinzi and colleagues in 2007, and national surveys like the National Survey of Student Satisfaction document the advantages of a women’s college education.
- Did you know that women’s college alumnae report higher levels of success and happiness than their peers from coed institutions?
- Did you know that women’s college alums tend to hold higher positions and earn more money than their counterparts?
- Did you know you are more likely to graduate than your peers at coed schools – something we all want desperately – remembering that only 28 percent of women in Georgia have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree?
- Did you know that transfer students at Women’s Colleges report as much engagement as their sister students, when transfers report much less engagement at coed institutions?
- Did you know that by coming to a women’s college, you are significantly more likely to major in science or earn a doctorate or hold a seat in Congress?
- Did you know that you are more likely to improve your self-esteem by studying in a women’s college? Studies show that after two years of coeducational college, women report lower levels of self-esteem than when entering college, but the reverse was true for students in Women’s Colleges, whose esteem increased after two years of education.
- Did you know that you are much more likely to hold a leadership position, to participate in service learning and remain involved in philanthropic activities after graduation?
- Did you know that Women’s College alumnae report spending more time in college on higher-order thinking, collaborative learning and problem solving, analytical reasoning, public speaking, writing and hands-on learning – all crucial skills in the workplace?
In fact, women’s college alumnae report greater satisfaction overall with their college experience – academically, developmentally and personally.
You might also be interested to know that women’s college graduates can take credit for a number of firsts: first women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature, the first women to run as vice-presidential and presidential candidates in the United States, first female secretary of state, the first woman to practice neurosurgery in the United States, the first woman to become a judge in the South and the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. These are the products of a women’s college education.
Brenau has a rich history of dedication to the education and advancement of women. The Women’s College has been the heart and soul of this institution’s identity since 1878. However, it is important to note that it is only one part of the larger university today. We have a number of thriving coeducational programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and I argue that their success enriches us all. Brenau is dedicated to the advancement of all its students – male and female.
Our mission is to foster all students’ intellectual, professional, and personal growth. Brenau women have known for 132 years that being pro-woman does not mean being anti-man. As the mother of a son, I certainly have a direct interest in opportunities for young men, but I also believe that the advancement of women benefits the whole culture – and ultimately improves the future for our children and grandchildren, regardless of their gender.
Southern women, damaging stereotypes
When Dr. Southerland asked me to give today’s talk, he suggested that I tell you a bit about the research I’ve been conducting for the past few years and its relevance to many of you in the audience today. My work focuses on Southern women writers and readers. No region has a richer literary legacy than the American South, and few regions have had a more complicated history when it comes to gender constructs and stereotypes. As Jones and Donaldson point out, “Gender in the South has traditionally been even more constrictively defined and polarized than elsewhere in American culture.”
Damaging stereotypes, particularly of women and their roles, have persisted here with tenacity. Again, this shows how audacious and visionary Brenau’s founders were in 1878. It is no surprise that Southern letters often map the tangled intersections of gender and geography in the region. We know that our transactions with literature are a vital, compelling way to examine the world and our place in it and help us understand how that place in many ways defines the selves we can imagine. Interacting with literature, we engage life’s most profound questions: who are we, where are we and why are we here, what does it all mean and how do we live in relationships with others? Texts can illuminate a multiplicity of possible answers to these existential human questions.
In collecting and interpreting data from a qualitative interview study I conducted with alumnae of my modern Southern literature courses, I employed French philosopher Michel Foucault’s analyses of the ancient Greek ethic of care of the self. This ethic, outlined in Plato’s first dialogue, was predicated upon deliberate, coherent practices intended to cultivate the self as a work of art, to create a self that was beautiful, moral and armed for whatever life might bring. To care for the self, Foucault and Plato said, one must purposefully read and write, thoughtfully speak and listen and actively foster friendships. Undertaking such acts, people might gather, contemplate and share new ways of knowing and being. The goal was to create a self that was wise and noble and helped others in their self-constituting practices. The result was nothing less than self-invention.
If we could time travel and were magically transported to ancient Greece, … But you know the end of that story: We would have disappeared again because anyone born female was excluded from practicing care of the self. This ethic was intended only for men of the upper classes because women and slaves of both genders were still widely believed not to possess souls. I, however, applied Foucault’s analyses of care of the self specifically and solely to women.
What I found in my research is that young Southern women use Southern texts not just to understand their culture and themselves, but to help create the selves they want to be. The women I interviewed found in this literature a technology for self-invention and employed it to practice care of the self. Southern female characters became models for how they wanted to be – or not be – in the world, specifically in the contemporary South.
One thing all the women in my study talked about is how reading in the company of women became a transformative act as they collaboratively interpreted novels, stories, poems and plays. They also spoke extensively about the role of this women’s college in their identity formation. Every woman I interviewed discussed at length the sustenance and support, freedom and power, and lasting friendships she found here.
During my years here, I have seen many women enter Brenau unsure of themselves and then leave as confident and capable leaders. They sometimes come here shy and reserved and depart with friends for a lifetime, with future bridesmaids and business partners.
Physiological benefits of Brenau
Did you know that there’s also a dramatic physiological benefit in these female relationships?
A recent UCLA study on friendship among women made the groundbreaking discovery that “women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight” (Berkowitz). Researchers found that when women encounter stress, interacting with a friend releases a chemical in the brain that produces a calming effect. Men, on the other hand, produce less of this hormone under stress. Multiple studies have found that social ties can lower blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol levels. So the friendships you develop with the women you’ll meet at Brenau will not only comfort and nurture you, but they can literally help save your life. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
When Dr. Southerland asked me to speak today, I did what any good scholar would – I consulted the experts: my students, in this case the women of my EH 103 Oral Communications class. A hypothetical situation, I said: “You have an invitation to speak to the whole student body about whatever you want everyone to know. Think it over and come to class ready to deliver the first few minutes of this speech.”
As I listened to this wonderfully diverse group of lively and opinionated women tackle this daunting project, I was impressed by how their speaking skills and confidence had grown during the semester, and a common theme quickly emerged in their speeches. They all spoke directly or indirectly about the unexpected pleasures they experienced in discovering at Brenau the dynamic power of women united.
Here’s what those smart young women wanted you all to know:
Be fierce in following your passions.
Don’t be afraid to stretch your boundaries.
Be curious about everything.
Try doing things that are hard.
Take classes that challenge you, even if you do have to study more.
Be confident in knowing you are supported.
Deny the negative stereotypes about women through your actions.
Give the lie to damaging myths perpetuated about us.
Know that you are beautiful and unique and have a voice that deserves expression.
And to me they said: Be lively, not boring; talk long enough but not too long; be inspiring but realistic; be academic but understandable. Be serious but entertaining. (No pressure there.) And one student asked, “Are you going to use our ideas?” The answer is yes, Tiffany, but I’m citing you.
This class discovered that together they could imagine new possibilities for their lives. United, they could make their voices heard. The most important advice for life at Brenau and beyond, according to the women of EH 103: Oral Communication: Grow the Sisterhood. Become your best self and inspire your Brenau sisters to do the same.
I will add to my wise students’ advice something I’ve learned from writers like [Eudora] Welty and [William] Faulkner, from philosophers like Plato and Foucault, and from my Women’s College experience: You have the power to create the self you want to be – if you’re willing to approach the cultivation of that self with dedication and purpose and concern for others, if you’re willing to work extra hard, if you’re willing to practice being, not seeming, as the Brenau ideal urges. We can challenge you to lead extraordinary lives, but you must engage the challenge and that isn’t always easy. You must dare to envision the possibilities and pursue them boldly.
One of my favorite Southern writers, Eudora Welty, said, “All serious daring comes from within.”
I challenge you to make this your semester of serious daring, your year of becoming. I challenge you to dare to invent your most authentic, successful and inspiring self.
(1) The internationally acclaimed storyteller and author was so popular as the 2009 convocation speaker that seniors requested she return to deliver the 2010 Women’s College commencement address.