Fernald made the remarks in a lecture at this year’s Arts and Sciences Faculty Day on Friday, Feb. 5 at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.
In her talk, “Choice and Change: Modern Women, 1910-1950,” Fernald examined the lives and works of five women: Virginia Woolf, Vira Brittain, Jessie Fause, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Margaret Wise Brown. She noted how like them, many young people’s lives can follow “a rather ordinary social script and then, somewhere in adulthood, take a left turn.”
It was no coincidence that each of the women came of age during a time of extraordinary changes that included women’s right to keep their own earnings and the right to vote.
As a teacher, Fernald said she is interested in the role that narrative plays in helping students understand their choices and their ability to change.
“We tell young people ‘You can be whatever you want to be,’ but again and again we see how conditioning limits choices,” she said.
When Fernald speaks to students of adventurous decisions made by others, like Syvia Townsen Warner’s decision to provide medical support during the Spanish Civil War, she notices her students’ heads go down as if to say, “I could never do that.”
Fernald said that most of the women she spoke of achieved their dreams, though many of the characters they created emphasized the struggle to do so. But she said the point of teaching through narrative is to allow students to dream a bit longer, even if some of their dreams seem impractical.
“We narrow choices for ourselves, so what we want as teachers is for students to keep things open as long as possible, even if we have to be aware of things like the need to get a job,” she said.
At a reception and dinner following the talk, Awards of Excellence were given to faculty members who help students navigate their dreams alongside practical decisions. Their contributions were touted in the many student comments that were read aloud during the award presentations.
The Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching went to Associate Professor of Psychology Rachel Annunziato, PhD, who one student said “normalized my fears.” The award for Undergraduate Teaching in the Social Sciences went to Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies Amy Aronson, PhD, who is “born to teach.” The Award for Undergraduate Teaching in Science and Mathematics went to Assistant Professor of Chemistry Amy Balija, PhD: “You can tell she loves what she does.” The Award for Excellence Undergraduate Teaching in the Humanities went to Frank Boyle, PhD: “The Man.”