In recent years, Niagara University, like many institutions of higher education across the country, has experienced an uptick in student interest and activism surrounding social justice causes. Students have founded clubs like the Human Rights Initiative, Black Student Union, and Feminism Today. In turn, they have organized film screenings, panels, speakers, and other events in order to raise awareness about social justice issues.
NU students have also worked closely with faculty and staff to help organize and participate in campus events like Take Back the Night and the Fostering Racial and Social Justice conference. This semester, the university’s feminist club organized a self-defense course, hosted an event on sexualization and cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes, and voluntarily decorated donation boxes for a domestic violence awareness event held at the Castellani Art Museum.
Additionally, NU’s women’s studies minor has grown to include nearly two dozen students.
That congruence of factors inspired Dr. Hope L. Russell to apply for – and receive – a grant from the College Committee on Teaching and Learning that would be used to create a course that examines feminist theory and literature. The goal of WMS 350: Feminist Nonfiction, according to Dr. Russell, was to “increase student self-expression, creativity, and personal growth as well as highlight critical questions about the nature of selfhood and the interconnectedness of the individual and the collective.”
“I created this course because I saw a need on this college campus and I wanted to fill it. I saw this need in my classroom, in my office, in student clubs, at campus events, and on social media,” said Dr. Russell, adjunct professor of women’s studies. “I saw that our students needed an outlet for their words and their voices. We ended up coming together each week, coming to feminism, coming to share not only our creative writing but our lives. We came to laugh, and sometimes to cry, and, to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser, to tell the truth about our lives and watch the world split open.”
Each week during the fall semester, Dr. Russell and her students utilized creative nonfiction – both the reading and writing of it – as forms of authentic expression, catharsis and self-actualization. They participated in alternative models of feminist research, scholarship, collaborative learning, and community.
On Friday, Dec. 16, 10 of the students who participated in the course read and/or performed creative pieces they authored during the semester. The topics presented ranged from the loss of a parent to an affirmation of faith.
Dr. Russell, as part of the grant, has been assessing the impact of active learning strategies in the course through surveys and by requiring students to keep a reflective journal on their growth as critical and creative thinkers and writers. She will present her findings at the annual CCTL conference in January.