Life is full of wonder. And, unfortunately, also full of struggle and heartache. One professor – celebrated across campus as an iconoclastic blogger, columnist and thinker – made public these past few years her battle with brain cancer, garnering national attention as she shone a light on the raw emotions of human frailty and human existence.
By Alison Piepmeier
As I write these words, I am terminally ill and in hospice care. This is likely my final writing assignment.
Instead of writing an essay, I’ve been thinking of this assignment as my love letter for Charleston. Not about Maybelle, my daughter, or Brian, my husband – though you could say I have them both in my life because of my years in Charleston. Nor is this a love letter about a physical place. I won’t reflect on riding my bicycle through our beautiful campus (well, I didn’t really love riding my bike through sudden downpours and Charleston’s flooded streets). And I won’t dwell on the long hours I spent in my former basement office at 7 College Way or drinking coffee and eating bagels at every coffee shop on the peninsula, though I took delight in every one of those moments.
This is a love letter for my College of Charleston students, and for my profession. Love is the right word, I think, because my kind of teaching is about passionate engagement with, and enthusiasm about, ideas, social problems and people. I couldn’t imagine merely “liking” teaching.
You may be wondering, what have my students done that makes me love our time together? They have studied and strived, although complaining more than a little about the amount of reading and writing and the difficulty of the material. The excitement for me and for them – and the passion – is in growing to understand how difficult material matters and why difficult subjects must be engaged.
Community engagement has been critical to this kind of teaching. Years ago, some of our women’s and gender studies learning-community students traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with women in elected office and women who lead nongovernmental organizations. More regularly, my Gender and Violence students performed community service with agencies dealing with violence against women and children. As advocates for victims in the Charleston’s solicitor’s office or as volunteers with People Against Rape and many other organizations, these amazing students did immediate and lasting good. For me, teaching them was about bridging the classroom and the community.
Calling them “my students,” though, isn’t quite right. Because I learned from them, as they learned from me. And we grew together as people.
If you were ever in one of my classes, know that I love you now for the risks you took, the challenging topics you weren’t afraid to discuss, and everything you did to make yourself – and me – a better person.
I am sorry, so sorry, that I will not teach and learn from College of Charleston students in the decades to come. I won’t be meeting any more classes for the first time in the Robert Scott Small Building or Maybank Hall or the Education Center.
However, I do leave the College knowing the beauty of my profession. I leave knowing the great good that can be done when teacher and student are emotionally invested in learning and in the hard work of changing their world for the better. I also leave knowing that faculty like Claire Curtis (political science) and Marguerite Scott-Copses (English) and Cara DeLay (women’s and gender studies), and so many others at the College, are all that is good and right and wonderful about professors and their profession.
– Alison Piepmeier, who came to the College in 2005, was the director of the women’s and gender studies program and an English professor. She passed away on August 12, 2016. Her blog – Every little thing (alisonpiepmeier.blogspot.com) – detailed not only her fight against cancer, but her many scholarly pursuits as well as her everyday interests (which were legion).