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Women’s Studies Rising at City College: Adjunct Leads Program, Inspires Students

From the moment her women’s studies classes begin, adjunct lecturer Patti Ackerman presides over a rolling, 75-minute series of discussions and debates that challenge her students to think about gender and its relationship to other issues such as race and class.

  • How should women and men respond when a popular Hip-Hop artist writes lyrics that appear to glorify date rape?
  • Can Margaret Thatcher be seen as a positive role model for women?
  • When former supporters of environmental activist-turned-entrepreneur Majora Carter slammed her in The New York Times as an opportunist for her role in a controversial South Bronx land deal, was Carter being held to a different standard than men in similar positions who try to get ahead?
CCNY adjunct lecturer Patti Ackerman shares a laugh after her class with sophomore Naajidah Correll.
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Critique, Plan, Dream

Questions like these came up in rapid-fire succession during a pair of her morning classes in April. Addressing the latter question, Dibett Lopez, a senior English major, described Carter as an unfairly maligned hero as she read from a letter she wrote to Carter for a class assignment. Enyyella Gutierrez, a freshman English major, countered, reading from her letter urging Carter, a South Bronx native, not to forget her roots or sell out to corporate interests moving into her old neighborhood. The class applauded both women, swayed first one way, then the other as the debate unfolded.

“This is the only class I have with so much dialogue and so many disagreements,” said Naajidah Correll, a sophomore majoring in English and film. “I talk about the conversations we had in class later on the subway, at dinner and on Facebook. Before I know it, everybody is talking about my class.”

“I love this community of students. They are ready to deal with other complex questions of identity as well as gender,” Ackerman said.

That community may soon be expanding. CCNY’s Women’s Studies Program, which Ackerman has headed since last fall, currently offers an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor. Now, with the encouragement of the CCNY administration and college’s Division of Social Sciences, Ackerman is working on a proposal to expand the program so that students could also major in women’s studies at City College.

New Women’s Center

Under Ackerman’s leadership, the women’s studies program has stepped up its public activities. In November and early December, it organized eight events on ending violence against women – an initiative made more urgent, she said, by the fact that that one in four women will be raped during their years in college. Female students at City College, some of them women’s studies minors, are also starting a women’s center.

“Women students need a place to analyze, process, critique, plan and dream,” said Ackerman, 55, who is pursuing a political science PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Ackerman’s PhD dissertation focuses on aspects of international relations through a feminist lens. In addition to her work at CCNY and her doctoral studies, Ackerman is a senior trainer at the Women Peacemakers Program, based in the Netherlands, and has been the United Nations representative for the Fellowship of Reconciliation for the past five years.

Ackerman collaborated with City College to bring students to give presentations on March 9 during the civil society portion of the annual meetings held by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

“Women do so much to hold up civilization,” commented Ackerman. “Their rights are human rights.”

The CSW’s theme this year has been “Ending Violence Against Women.” Three of Ackerman’s students from a course she taught last fall (“Women, War and Peace”) developed papers they wrote for the class into PowerPoint presentations on topics like the wave of unsolved killings of women in Ciudad Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico, or the wholesale use of rape by rival forces in the long-running civil war in Congo. Ackerman met with the students weekly during the month before their UN visit to help them prepare.

United Nations Visit

For her students, speaking in front of a packed room in a UN-sponsored conference was a unique experience. Nancy Romero, who gave a presentation on femicide in Mexico, said, “the best part was people saying they got something out of that they didn’t know before.”

Ackerman’s classes are themselves a mini-United Nations composed of students from many cultures looking to explore gender-related themes. In her teaching, she emphasizes intersectionality, a concept that describes how systems of oppression (sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.) cannot be examined separately from each other.

“You can’t look at a problem without seeing it from many perspectives,” Ackerman said. While most of her students are women, they also include some men who are interested in questioning traditional gender roles. Next year, Ackerman hopes to teach a class on “masculinities,” which she says will look to “understand, unpack and transform the violent roles that men are not enjoying either.”

A women’s studies major at CCNY, Ackerman says, will allow more students to explore such questions, from their impact on students’ personal lives to conflicts halfway around the world.