Carolyn Hodgson Meyers Rhodes began as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Old Dominion University (then Old Dominion College) in 1965. During her tenure at Old Dominion University, Dr. Rhodes co-founded the Women's Caucus, worked as the Principal Investigator for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Pilot Grant in Women's Studies, co-founded the Friends of Women's Studies organization, and was a Fulbright Lecturer in both Romania and China. She retired in 1990 but remained active at ODU.
The interview is in six parts. Part 1 discusses her personal and educational background, her arrival at ODU in 1965, activism on campus, teaching and curriculum development in the English Department, and some of her research and publications. Part 2 discusses her experiences as a Fulbright Scholar in Romania and China, including being present at the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and events surrounding the organization of the Women's Caucus at ODU and its effects on campus. Part 3 briefly discusses the beginning of the ODU Women's Center and then focusses on the origins of the Women's Studies Department, included the NEH grant, the pilot program, curriculum development, and the first directors of the program. Part 4 discusses the development and activities of the Friends of Women's Studies. Part 5 addresses Dr. Rhodes attitudes and views of feminism. In Part 6, she gives her thoughts about ODU and how it has changed, her life in retirement, and her many projects and activities.
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
WITH DR. CAROLYN RHODES
Digital Services Center, Perry Library
Old Dominion University,
Part 1: March 12, 2009
by Karen Vaughan
Karen Vaughan: This is Karen Vaughan. It’s Thursday, March 12, 2009, and I’m interviewing Carolyn Rhodes as part of the Oral History Program at Old Dominion University. Dr. Rhodes’s career at ODU began in 1965. She taught in the English Department and later the Women's Studies Department. She may be best known for her activism on behalf of women and their status at ODU.
I’d like to begin by asking you to talk about your background: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Tell me about your family and home life.
Carolyn Rhodes: My parents came from contrasting worlds, my mother from the rural south and my father from brownstone Brooklyn. He was traveling as a salesman for the Remington Rand typewriter company and met my mother because she worked as a secretary. They married in 1924, and my father then used an inheritance to start a business in Birmingham, a garage and gas station.
I was born in 1925 and remained an only child. We moved to Queens on Long Island in 1929 when I was four. In those troubled times, my father felt quite fortunate to be given a post at an import/export company in Manhattan. Both of my parents sheltered me from whatever stresses frayed their marriage, so that at age 9, I was puzzled to watch my father moving out. [Click here for a poem “About the Saturdays” by Carolyn Rhodes.]
Soon my mother began full-time office work in Manhattan, and I became a latchkey child, spending afternoon hours on my own, sometimes playing out of doors, but often alone in our apartment reading. Perhaps the painful curiosity I felt about their separation and later divorce factored into my ambition subsequently to become a psychiatrist. As a pre-teen, however, my sense of romance made me wonder how their feelings for each other could change. How could love get lost?
In 1939, I was graduated from P.S. 69 there in Queens. Since the 6th grade, I thought about growing up to be an artist, so I wanted to attend New York’s High School of Music and Art. Instead, my teachers recommended trying out for the intensely academic Hunter College High School. During my first semester there, my favorite subject unexpectedly was biology. My teacher, Mrs. Ruth Lilienthal, became a mentor with very strict expectations. I was fascinated by life sciences. I took field trips with the biology club both to outdoor settings to collect specimens for study and to lectures for adult audiences on scientific topics. And I wrote for the biology magazine and for the literary magazine, and generally took a lot of extracurricular . . . no point in going home! I could have fun with my classmates. Girls at Hunter were encouraged to be ambitious. We had taken competitive exams to enter, and our teachers expected us to meet high standards -- not just for going on to college, but also for choosing worthwhile careers. With no male classmates, we necessarily took leading roles in student government and a wide range of extracurricular activities, such as creating publications and joining clubs, especially exploring subjects beyond our textbooks – language clubs and science clubs. Our teachers emphasized independent thought as well as academic excellence. When we volunteered for projects after school, the teachers could get to know us personally and didn’t hesitate to urge us to become our best selves. Ruth Lilienthal seemed brusque with her students, even irritable with those who pestered her for attention as I did. But she always praised our efforts and applauded success.
After I left Hunter to go to college back in Alabama, she softened enough to let me be dependent at a distance. I wrote her constantly about my courses and my friends and my dates and my changing ambitions. She answered irregularly once or twice a month, sending stringent advice about classes I selected and my grades, which at times were not what she thought I could do. Beyond her comments on my life, she sent me bits of news about Hunter and gradually added anecdotes of her own – plays she attended, books she read, travels, and glimpses of family events involving her husband and her nephews. Across later years after I did graduate work and married, we became friends. We would meet at times when I returned to New York and we wrote letters to each other for over 50 years until Ruth’s death in 1997.
Vaughan: It sounds like you had a good experience at Hunter. You had a lot of good role models as teachers. Were there some qualities or characteristics that you feel you took from them and carried through the rest of your life?
Rhodes: Yes. When people ask me about being interested in activism that really began there. A number of our teachers were kind of left-leaning -- certainly Mrs. Lilienthal was -- and they admired various struggles for justice. I developed an interest, for instance, in socialized medicine. Also, it was wartime, and we were very patriotic and turned out magazines with the ambitions--Since women were then working, it was very easy for us high school girls to see--to relax in the hope of careers.
Vaughan: And, at that point, you were thinking you were going to have a career in medicine?
Rhodes: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. But in a way, you know, like any number of adolescents, I wanted it all. You know, I wanted to write the great American novel [laughter] and find some extra healing cures that others could use, rather than just deal with my own patients. I had these creative yearnings towards poetry and fiction and…. Various mentors there didn’t stop us from having gigantic ambitions.
Vaughan: That’s good. So then you went on to college. Where did you go to college, and what were you… how did your ideas change?
Rhodes: Well in college, first of all I went when I was 17, and college was very relaxed. Other Hunter girls mention this too in their life stories or when they go back for reunions – college is very easy after you’ve been to an extremely pushy high school. And so, you know, I did pottery and I was in school plays and I--In fact I had the lead in a freshman one-act play that they let freshmen put on, though I lost all interest in drama afterwards. It was wartime, and when I got to the University of Alabama, which was my second college after one year at a women’s college, I was dating a lot. There were all kinds of soldiers and sailors on campus learning things, you know taking special courses. And it was quite a whirl. Also, I took a course with a man who was then famous for bringing out creative writers. His name was Hudson Strode, and quite a few of his students went on to write novels. Under his influence, I finally wrote one story after two or three years in class--a year and a half in classes. I wrote one story which he considered good enough to send to the Atlantic Monthly, and I got my first rejection slip. [Laughter.] Edward Weeks, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, came down to speak at my graduation, and Hudson Strode introduced me to him. And you know there was just a lot of flurry and new friends that became lifelong friends that I always kept up with. So, college was extremely exciting. I kept going back to New York for summers, parts of summers. I took some summer courses, some of them by correspondence. And I went back at Christmases, and you know, when I was in Alabama I was writing to people in New York, and when I was in New York I was writing to people in Alabama.
Vaughan: So, what degree did you end up getting in Alabama?
Rhodes: I got a double major in English and Psychology. During the time that I was a psych major, I became very close to two of the leading professors there [F. Nowell Jones and Margaret Jones] and decided, not having done so greatly--so very well in chemistry-- I decided that I would be much happier being a psychologist -- and, pretty much an experimental psychologist, you know, data -- less interest in clinical, more interest in experimental psychology. So, when I completed my Bachelor’s in 1945, I left Alabama for good and entered graduate school at Columbia University and studied psychology; got back to Manhattan.
Vaughan: Okay. [Laughter] And, continue—tell me about what happened in Columbia.
Rhodes: Well, a couple of years later…. When I went to Columbia, I finally decided that I wasn’t going to lean on my mother any more for support. So, I got a job and I took night classes and still managed to finish my MA by 1947. I fell in love with a fellow graduate student, Ernest Meyers; we married; we moved into student housing – converted barracks left over from World War II. While he finished his courses for his Ph.D. – my MA was done – I worked for a year at Rockland State Hospital, north of the city, administering psychological tests and put my new MA to use. In 1948, my husband took a post at the University of Kentucky. There in Lexington, I worked for the Veterans Administration and gave tests that would qualify men to use the GI Bill to either have training for work or to enter college if their IQ Test was high enough. The University of Kentucky provided us -- you know beginning instructor and still echoes of wartime even though it’s now 1948 -- they provided us with a bit more comfortable rebuilt barracks. We lived there and made friends with other young faculty and traded babysitting after our children were born in 1949 and 1951 – my son Richard in ‘49, my daughter Babette in 1951. After they were born, I sort of stayed home for a while but I joined a lot of things -- writing groups -- and Mrs. Lilienthal was still writing to me and saying “you should be sending things out to journals” [laughter] and fiction and things like that. So, there were small groups of people there who were showing each other their writing, and actually across that time I never sent anything to publishers. I was in a play group making clay, my little pottery and things like that… [Interviewer note: After reading the transcript, Dr. Rhodes wanted to note that she was not the home body that this statement makes her seem. For instance, she shared responsibility for running a cooperative nursery school for 3 years before her children went to kindergarten.]
Vaughan: And then, when did you decide to go back for a PhD?
Rhodes: Well, I wanted to go back for a PhD in Psychology, but there was something then, a very powerful rule, called nepotism. And the only school where I could have gone on in Psychology--I was now thinking what will I do with an advanced degree in Psychology, and teaching was it. That’s what my husband and all his colleagues were doing. And there would have been no way I could have been hired at the University of Kentucky. But we had the children getting on into grade school, and we decided that I should go back into literature. That if I could take an MA in English then I could teach high school and still be with them in the summers and most of the time when they were home from school. So, I went to the University of Kentucky and applied to go to the School of Education, and a peculiar thing happened. There was--in my undergraduate courses I had enough that was close enough that they were going to let me into graduate school. But, they had a course in the psychology of education or something like that at a graduate level that they insisted that I take. And they would not let me substitute an MA from Columbia University for that course, so I signed up for the English Department [laughter] which would mean I could move on to a PhD. Then, it was grim because my husband died the semester, the summer semester when I first went into graduate school. And, uh, I changed my plans and I got some scholarships and I went on for the PhD. By that time it was obvious I really was going into teaching, rather than into anything in the life sciences.
Vaughan: So you did, then, get your Master’s Degree from the University of Kentucky in English?
Rhodes: Yes I did. And, for the MA, which I completed in a couple of years, 1959, I was taking all of the types of graduate level entry courses and linguistics and various periods of English literature and various periods of American literature. When I moved on for my PhD, I needed to decide what my specialty would be -- and that was American literature, particularly the novel. I loved to read them and I thought it would be nice in the future to teach them.
Across those years from ’57 to ’65, while I was getting those degrees, I began to do some teaching and spent one summer teaching foreign students which was my first, my first chance. They were Indonesian students; they were wonderfully bright. And it was a very happy experience. I went to New York one summer and saw their exhibit at one of the world’s fairs. I also did a lot of the kind of English teaching – comp, lowest possible level – that got me a little bit easier about my stage fright so that when I was going to teach full time after my PhD was completed, I was a little less frightened of the audience -- but still pretty much. So, as I did my last year of the chapters of the dissertation-- oh, I forgot to say, the subject I chose was not totally American literature. The subject I chose was a chance to talk about psychology. The title of my dissertation is: Psychotechnology in Imaginary Societies across a big chunk of the 20th century [note: full title is Psychotechnology in Fiction about Imaginary Societies, 1923-1962]. Basically, I wanted to do utopias, but the kind of writing that was being done was mostly dystopias -- 1984 and Brave New World – but [a colleague of] my former teacher, BF Skinner, also wrote a utopia [Walden Two] and he—
What that [my dissertation topic] translates to is images of psychologists in these various fictional worlds and also images of their techniques – mind control and devices that were based on psychological patterns of controlling behavior, really. It was very interesting. When you’re finishing your Ph.D., you’re ready to go on the market and go to the MLA and be interviewed and find a job. In December 1964, I went to the MLA.
Vaughan: Do you want to explain what the MLA is?
Rhodes: Modern Language Association. It is the place where all people in the discipline of English go for meetings in which they interact with colleagues, networking, give papers--but beginning at any change in your career, you go to be interviewed for the possibility of a job. I did some interviews in December with three different schools in the south. One of them was VPI, VPISU – Virginia Polytechnic – and Old Dominion University. With the interview at Old Dominion University, I was a little burned out from all that writing, the lengthy dissertation, covering literally over a hundred books, about 30 of which I featured in the various chapters. So, one of my questions for the department chair who interviewed me, Jim Reese, was “What happens if I never publish?” And, he said, “Well, if you don’t publish, you won’t get to teach graduate students.” And he presented ODU—it was then Old Dominion College – and it was I think 7,000 students, certainly under 10,000. He presented it as a very congenial place, and, sure enough, it was, when I came here. Actually, I arranged my interviews for the Spring break when my dissertation was being typed up and things like that -- Spring break 1965. And the first place I visited was Old Dominion. I was treated wonderfully. I was entertained at the home of Chuck Burgess and met other colleagues. They asked me for my free afternoon, would I like to go downtown and see all the harbor and the major part of the city, or would I like to drive out to Virginia Beach. So I chose that and saw the ocean and I cancelled two subsequent appointments to travel more and be interviewed. I started with a salary of $7,000. If I had gone to VPISU, I would have had $8,000.
Vaughan: So, it was basically the ocean that brought you to ODU?
Rhodes: Well, the ocean, and I just kind of felt that I was ready to relax into teaching -- which of course I had to change my mind later. [Laughter]
One other question that I asked at my interview, rather at the spring interview before I accepted the job, had to do with the fact that my husband, the father of my children, was Jewish. And although they [the children] didn’t have a great deal of interest in continuing or choosing Judaism, I really wanted to be on a campus that was warm to Jews and have colleagues. Sure enough, he mentioned Bob Stern for instance, and I have found subsequently on this campus, to jump way ahead, that there is a Jewish Studies organization on our campus.
Vaughan: When you first arrived at ODU, the campus was quite small. What were your first impressions of the campus?
Rhodes: Well, it was very pleasant. You know, looking back, I realize how long wartime lasted. There were still kind of – what do you call them – odd, dome-shaped buildings that we were having classes in [Quonset huts]. And that was in the ‘60s, right? When I told a friend of-- actually my husband’s family who lived in Richmond where he had, where his father had been an executive of the chemical company -- I told her that I was going to go to Norfolk to have a job interview to work at Old Dominion, and she said, “The laundry?” [Laughter.] I guess in Richmond “Old Dominion” was a laundry. Well I came here and the faculty was very welcoming and the English Department was very sociable, not just to people who were tenure-track like me or tenured and flourishing, but the young people whom you expected, you know, with terminal MAs to come and go within three, four, five years. They had wonderful clubs, and they went out to have Friday afternoon wind-downs. It was very, very pleasant. Some of them were poets. I had interest in all kinds of literature. One of the first things I was invited to do was to give a talk about my dissertation subject at what was called the “Emerson Club” [Rhodes correction: Emerson Forum]. It was very . . . it was what you hear, or so it seemed to me, about the life of the mind and having colleagues who cared about such things.
Vaughan: And so you came here with your two children? Did you have a support system?
Rhodes: Oh, yes, yes indeed. The Dean was then Vernon Peele, and his wife Millie offered to do anything she could to help. I was in really the final throes, defending my dissertation at the time when I should have come down here and found an apartment and been ready to move in August and settle in, and I just didn’t have the time. I had to stay in Kentucky. My mother-in-law came down – Linda Meyers – and Millie took her around and they found an apartment for me. And then later after I settled in, Millie and I were both mad for the ocean and we used to go out and sun-bathe and have some favorite spots and go to the sea a lot, go to the seaside a lot. Other people, Helen Stern, the wife of the famous Robert Stern, took me under her wing and introduced me to people and asked me to parties at her house but mainly the English Department. I gradually also made a point of getting to know people in Psychology and they were fun too. In fact, there was one man in the Psychology Department who was a teacher of Science Fiction after I was. You know, trading back and forth interests.
Vaughan: So, you already alluded to this a little, but tell me what your impressions were then of the faculty and the students.
Rhodes: Well, the one thing about the students that I was not used to and that was very rewarding was the number of returning women – we didn’t have that at the University of Kentucky -- the lack of sports, because at the University of Kentucky you really had to tiptoe around or fight back. The coaches always wanted you to do this or that for the football players -- [Laughter] -- and, you know you had to hold to your standards. So, here it just was more relaxed and I kind of thought it was amusing that I was teaching some classes over in a former high school [elementary school] building across Bolling Avenue and the first place where our English Department offices were was in a building which then was rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt… was for a while the library before we had the current library. And things were just churning along. It was muddy, but I didn’t mind. It was before we had all the landscaping and stuff.
Vaughan: It’s quite different now. Tell me about your early teaching experience then on the university level here.
Rhodes: Well, when term papers began to come in, I called my dissertation director in Kentucky and got a little review. [Laughter.] I felt like a Christian among the lions when I went into the classroom, but you get over that. And the campus soon was getting into the ‘60s, and you know what that was like.
Vaughan: Right. How do you think ODU was affected by the campus unrest that was going on around the country?
Rhodes: Well, by ’67, we had a real slap, a real set of incidents. There was a Students for a Democratic Society branch here, and in March of 1967, they published a pamphlet-kind-of-newsletter article that included a poem by e. e. cummings called “i sing of Olaf.” And it was about a conscientious objector. That poem was printed in its full text, as it is not in our textbooks, with some very taboo language. And the college president and some of the conservative students on campus wanted [the strict interpretation of] the Student Handbook, which says that students are required to behave like ladies and gentlemen, to get some kind of punishment for these students who had printed this.
Vaughan: And, who was the president at that time?
Rhodes: The original president, Webb.
Rhodes: And so it simmered around, and we faculty had the impression that the students who were mainly in charge of printing that would be prevented from graduating. And we were, you know, considerably riled up, particularly the English Department. In fact, I believe the faculty advisor for that newsletter was Leland Peterson, and he was very much on their side.
Well, the whole thing came to a trial in May of 1967 to determine how guilty these students were, I guess. But, at any rate, on May 23 with lots of faculty rallying to defend the newsletter -- and librarians, Ben Clymer talked about the books that printed this, not textbooks, but books that printed “i sing of Olaf” in full and included all the vocabulary. When I volunteered to be a--to give testimony from the perspective of American literature, that this was a meaningful instance of a great writer, e. e. cummings, the students on either side of this trial had a complete set of lawyers. There was a philosophy major who was the main lawyer for defending the people who had done the printing, the students who had put out the newsletter. And he came to my office, which was then in the old science building – we kept moving around – and sort of interviewed me and more or less prepared me for what would happen. And at one point in our little discussion, I needed reassurance – I mean after all this was not language I would use in my classroom. And I asked what the lawyers on the other side might attempt to present me as vulgar or nasty or something. And this third-year philosophy student said to me “Dr. Meyers, I will not let them violate you on the witness stand.” [Laughter.] My office mates burst out laughing. And then the trial went on till – it lasted for nine hours. These events, this and the later Kent State reactions on this campus are very well described in the history of the University called Millennial history [Old Dominion University: From the Great Depression to the New Millennium, 1930-2000] which came out in 2000. So it’s all covered there, but not the little special incidents like the lawyers. The trial ended as a mistrial on the grounds that the charges were not properly drawn. The students who were scheduled to graduate were graduated.
Vaughan: And who was the judge? Was there a judge? Or, was it a jury that voted--that called it a mistrial?
Rhodes: Well, there was a man named Archibald who led the other side, a student who felt that these students should be not part of his school. But I don’t remember who the judge was. I think there was a jury and you know some lawyerish person found these grounds for making it a mistrial. But oh it went on and on and everyone went over there and it was really exciting. Webb Center was open till, I’ve forgotten, midnight or 2:00 am or something? It was quite unusual.
Vaughan: Was there reaction here at ODU to the Kent State shootings in 1970 [and to the Vietnam War in general]?
Rhodes: Oh my, yes indeed, yes indeed. The students and the faculty responded. That was in October of ’69 [Vietnam War protests]. One of the specific things that--well, there were kind of rallies, people staying up all night over in the Art Department, I think it was, with coffee and things like that. But most specifically a decision was made, I’m not sure at what level, but generally all faculty were told that they should feel free on the date of October 15 instead of teaching their classes, they would meet their classes and lead discussions among the students of reactions. And I think that was, as it was meant to be, wholesome and refreshing. However, I had a student in one class – I think he, he was very mature, he must have been retired Navy probably, you know getting a second career starting here at Old Dominion after retiring in his 50s – he said to me “I didn’t pay my fees to hear the opinion of sophomores!” [Laughter.] But, there were rallies on campus, and eventually downtown over 700 faculty and students from ODU and over 800 from Norfolk State gathered outside the Post Office and read aloud all the names [of those who died in the Vietnam War to that point], and many of us went down and read our half-dozen or whatever it was. It was a strong, strong reaction.
Vaughan: OK. Anything else about that time?
Rhodes: Well, by the late ‘60s of course we were all getting much more aware of the possibilities of feminist teaching, and I had to learn – I probably didn’t know what the word meant then – but I learned from younger faculty how to find out what was going on, on other campuses. I was going every—I really enjoyed going to conferences. And I went to conferences in American Studies and this and that. You know, they’re lots of fun and your way is paid and you get to read a paper and meet other people who have your same interests. I had been going to SAMLA every year. That’s the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and they were having a women’s caucus. And I started taking part in it, I don’t know exactly when, by the late ‘60s. And eventually I took offices in it and things like that as we moved on. Here, by 1969-- Well, let me tell you separately [later] about feminist activism on this campus. Let’s go on with my teaching career.
Well, I was teaching American lit standard courses -- they were new to me to teach because I had only done composition teaching -- and, as I told you, getting involved with some of the stirrings of the times. Eventually, as we moved on into the ‘70s, student activism led to a very lively group of students setting up something they heard about at other colleges and universities called a Free University, which meant they urged—they went around and sought, they looked for volunteer faculty members who would teach courses that were not in the curriculum. And, because my dissertation had sort of inadvertently required me to read a lot of science fiction because there were some excellent dystopias that counted as science fiction and there were some science fiction writings which were pure science fiction which were also pictures of future societies that got into my dissertation. So, some students knew about that and they asked me to teach a course in science fiction. So for the Free University, with, you know, no pay and no credit but students who really wanted to be there and students who could help, I mean they knew these books better than I did. But they wanted to hear what each other thought. You know we did standard people – Heinlein and Asimov and things like pure science fiction – very little overlap into my field of utopia/dystopia.
Vaughan: OK. So, in the Free University, the students weren’t getting any credit either?
Rhodes: No. And they were fitting the time in, and they were making the schedules.
Vaughan: OK, all right. So you taught the first science fiction course in 1975, then, as part of the Free University?
Rhodes: I think the Free University was in the late ‘60s.
But, you know, we had in those days, topics courses, where you could even advertise on campus if your dean didn’t catch you. [Laughter.] And these would be maybe 200-level courses, and you could teach what you thought was exciting. And so there were very good textbooks of science fiction and I was going to the Utopian Studies Society’s meetings every year, and I developed a science fiction course [for credit]. Soon, I decided it would be much more meaningful to teach it team-taught, and I had a colleague in the Physics Department who found a wonderful textbook of future orientation realms of science, you know DNA and travel, space travel really to the moon and so forth. And so I found matching stories in collections of science fiction, and we did a team-taught course called Science Fiction, Science Fact.
Vaughan: Who was this faculty member?
Rhodes: Marchand, Professor [Donald] Marchand. I also took some courses, like from Professor Copeland that revved up my science knowledge a little bit.
Vaughan: Tell me . . . So was that the first topics course that you taught?
Rhodes: In a way, yes. I don’t recall the exact dates. But I think it was later, actually shortly after my father died I think in ’78. A friend of mine, who was a professor in Sociology, and I realized that there were courses around the country on death and dying. And we developed one here, as a team-taught course. It was you know it sounds odd to say, very popular. We structured it with Mackie Hamilton [Marion B. Hamilton] finding all the presenters who were from the social sciences – we used a lot of guest lecturers. We had good textbooks: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and a British woman’s book on death in America [Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death]. But I would bring in people from Arts & Letters, like Fay Zetlin to talk about images of death in the arts, and I could do the images of death in literature myself, especially . . . One of the most momentous things we taught was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And Mackie would find oncology doctors and funeral directors and others.
Vaughan: Were these courses offered through the English Department then, or…
Rhodes: No these were interdisciplinary courses. And they were offered through the Humanities. They had a Humanities title. And I, as I later went on to deal more with feminist courses -- we’re jumping ahead a little bit here – I taught feminist utopias, further on, and let’s think of whatever interdisciplinary things that I did -- oh, even later, autobiography courses – male and female autobiographies. I called it first “When Women Tell,” if it was just women, and then “When Men and Women Tell.” So those were all courses which actually I was more credible teaching because I had a Master’s in the social sciences, in Psychology.
Vaughan: And, so, as far as the curriculum in the English Department – were there any changes that you initiated during your time at ODU?
Rhodes: Well, in the English Department and in many other departments, across the ‘70s a great many of us, large numbers of us, were struggling to see that the choice of textbooks would become much more multicultural. And it really was a kind of a battle to get your course descriptions changed to suit these textbooks. And even advanced courses like Nineteenth Century Novel or Twentieth Century Novel to include some writers who represented other than white males. Women had been somewhat in novel courses, because there had been great women novelists. But, you know, not in the selections of poetry and other things done decade by decade as many of those textbooks are. So, you know, we had meetings about that. Gradually also the textbooks changed enough so you didn’t have to shop around to find a textbook that included multicultural things.
Vaughan: But that was something that was important to you and so you pursued that.
Rhodes: Right, right. And that’s a long stretch of time. Actually there was a policy in the 1970s which made me very happy teaching. This ended -- I don’t think it happens anymore – but when you had taught for a certain length of time, you were given a chance to structure a topics course within the English Department, and I earned that. It was a case of waiting your turn – twice -- and they were the most wonderful courses. They were really peak experience classes. The first one was of the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson. And some of those students remain my friends a long, long time. And the second one I decided among novelists to do a compare/contrast of Cather and Steinbeck. And there were lots of things to say about the treatment of nature, the awareness of social problems, and then just your really basic literature techniques and skills in characterization and theme and things like that.
Vaughan: And, so, obviously teaching became a passion of yours. In 1976, you were named Teacher of the Year, and there are a lot of students who remember you as one of their best teachers. And you’re telling me that you have kept in touch with many students. So that’s a real honor, I would say. Can you tell me what made you a good teacher, or if you’d rather be a little more modest, what do you think makes a good and effective teacher?
Rhodes: Well, the things that I was rated highest for on student evaluations, which we did very industriously across those years, were knowledge of the subject and I just loved most of the things I taught. And, if I didn’t really like something I was teaching, I considered it a challenge to keep the students from knowing that, to read the scholarship, and to present them in the most interesting possible light. And, the second thing that the students had, maybe almost equally, was—one of the questions was: enthusiasm. I was always rated very high for enthusiasm. So, there were also aspects of teaching besides really knowing and liking what you were teaching or being willing to work it up and enthusiasm for whatever assignments you gave them, and accessibility. I think all teachers would agree on that. But then too in my own awareness, there are some things that students really can’t notice that meant a tremendous amount to me – the fun of constantly redesigning courses and developing curriculum with fresh and new courses, which is the fun of keeping up with the trends. Not just in solid, respected scholarship, but in say the popular culture journals and other things which some of my colleagues would put down, but that I enjoyed very much. It’s great to introduce new writers who are just developing.
Vaughan: In addition to your teaching, you’ve also published quite a bit.
Rhodes: By 1968, just three years after I got here, I was tenured, and that doesn’t happen in later years. [Laughter.] The academic profession got more and more competitive and sometimes to get a promotion, you had to have publications, even as an instructor. But, those two or three years showed me that if I wanted to be respected among my colleagues, I should publish. So, I took a chapter of my dissertation and published an article called “Intelligence Testing in Dystopia” of which the most lengthy treatment went to Kurt Vonnegut, who really did use in his book Player Piano a lot of emphasis with the world being a meritocracy where intelligence testing mattered a lot. So, there are a lot of advantages in publishing. You can speak with more authority. Later on with the feminist things coming along, even more important because women’s studies is not considered a reputable part of academia by some scholars. I never got published in Signs like some of my colleagues in the most prestigious one, but I published in feminist things. So, after that chapter revised from my dissertation, I began to do some small pieces on, say, Tillie Olsen, which was psychological in the sense that in her novel Yonnondio, she showed the “speed up” system -- it’s actually in real life, and I was the one who got this on record -- an actual situation, invented by a psychologist, a time and motion study man, named Bedaux – B-e-d-a-u-x. In her book, Yonnondio, the people don’t know that – I doubt if she knew it. They just keep calling it the beedo system – b-e-e-d-o. So, that was the nature of my little publication, clarifying that. So, I began to use some feminist perspectives in both the science fiction things that I wrote--. My favorite among those was a story by James Tiptree Jr., who is actually a woman, named Sheldon. And, it was a story about the dangers to women of moving through the world without a protector at her side. Wonderful story. And then later, most momentously among my publications, I began to gather and edit the entries for my reference book, First Person Female American.
Vaughan: And when was that published?
Rhodes: That was published I think in ’80 . . . yes, I think so. It’s an interesting background that will lead us into talking about feminism and that. The novels that I was teaching in standard courses were both survey courses where you might perhaps touch on something like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, in American lit, Maggie: a Girl of the Streets and a number of others. The great theme, even by women writers, was seduced and abandoned – women as victims, particularly as victims of pregnancy, which they then would commit suicide about. [Laughter.] Oh, I shouldn’t be laughing. But, it was so predominant. Whole books were written about the fact that—the depiction of women in novels, even by women writers, was negative in that way.
Well, as we got into having some feminist courses, we were very interested in letting the young women who were studying – actually they had to know there were realms of victimization, but there were also plenty of women as winners. You didn’t find that so much in fiction. So, I began to realize that in autobiographical writings, the women who had made great accomplishments, whether dancing or deep sea study or any field, any field – there’s more than you think, of women who have reached some level of expertise and respect – Rachel Carson, for instance. Nobody is any greater in the early breakthroughs she had in seeing the harm to the environment and the critters of poisons and things. So, I felt that we needed to get accessible to teachers of women’s studies these writings which they could use to counterbalance fictional pictures of women as, say, devouring mothers, you know they weren’t . . . Here’s a phrase that was around at the time: pictures of women -- and there were whole anthologies of it -- as “sad, mad, and bad.” You take any image of women, like the mother, and she can be so totally self-sacrificing that it’s a burden to her students [correction: her children], or she can go crazy – and there were books like that – or she can be bad, she can be a devouring mother, you know. And the same for any other category of women – there was an awful lot of depiction of women in negative roles. So, I really got eager about this – women in positive roles.
Once I made up my mind and had a proposal of the kind of things we wanted to do, which was put out a reference textbook in which each entry would begin with summaries, précis sort of, some a little longer, of the autobiographical writing of a woman of achievement or notoriety, but mostly achievement. And then followed by -- whichever contributor (I had over 200 contributors) would work it up -- her review of, her listing of, whether there was any scholarship about this autobiography and then to evaluate that scholarship -- because some of it was very patriarchal and condescending or whatever, dismissive -- and then whatever further she wanted to say about it… Well, we had some male contributors too, even from my own campus here; you didn’t have to be female to write an entry for First Person Female American.
It was useful when it came out. I mean there was another reason it was useful besides making these autobiographies accessible to teachers, particularly of introductory women’s studies, but you know anywhere, journal courses things like that. A special usefulness that made the book be adopted somewhat or bought by a lot of libraries around the country…. The major study of the lives of American women was being done by Radcliffe and being published by Harvard, I believe, Notable American Women. In order for a woman to be treated, surveyed, scholared in this massive book of access to information about women, she had to have died by 1950, in the first volume which was then out, or the first set of volumes, three volumes. So, here we were trying to teach in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we didn’t get much help on the lives of women who died after 1950. Women tend to live a long time, and so my book was useful as a finder’s device for what was available first in her own voice and then in some commentary about women who were alive then. And, so, it was subsequently outdated because Radcliffe people and Harvard people, 25 years later, put out another book and have continued to put out books. And, they are far more detailed sources – I mean, they will tell you where a woman’s papers are filed or something like that. But it was useful there when we had the surge of introductory women’s studies courses where you needed some interesting examples of writing by women that were true and that were either achieving or feisty or [laughter] – not the images that we were then getting in literature.