- Synopsis: Life Before NIUKeywords: Women's Studies; doctorate; English; international studies; University of Central Missouri; NIUTranscript: PANN: My name is Kelsey Pann. I am here with my narrator Amy Levin. Today is Friday, October 11th, 2019. We are here in the DeKalb Public Library located in downtown DeKalb, Illinois to conduct an oral history interview with Amy Levin for Northern Illinois University's 125th Anniversary Oral History Project. Thank you, Dr. Levin, for participating in this project. I would like to start with a question just about your background. Would you say a bit about your background, your childhood — such as where you grew up in your life before you started working for NIU?
LEVIN: I never lived in the US before I went to college. My father was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. I was born in India. I lived in Italy and Japan before moving to England where I finished high school. I wanted to be a high school English teacher and indeed was for many years. While I was a high school English teacher, I had the idea for a book. I started writing. It was on sisters and literature. This has never happened to me again in my career since. I sent out a chapter to a journal and it was accepted immediately with no changes. So I thought, "This is easy. I'm going to call it my dissertation and get my doctorate." I went to do that. Of course, I found out it was much harder than I imagined, but I completed my doctorate. When I did, I thought, "Well, since I've done all this work, I should try college teaching." That's how I became a professor. I was at the University of Central Missouri for five years before I came here. That's where I got involved with Women's Studies and I was Coordinator of Women's Studies there. I was hired here to direct the Women's Studies program and came in that role as well as being an Associate Professor of English.
PANN: Okay. You grew up in a lot of different places. I didn't know that. Would you say that that have an effect on your goals and your aspirations for your career?
LEVIN: I think it has always made me more aware of different cultures and cultural diversity. So, it has had a profound effect on my career. I think it's also increased my interest in internationalism. In particular, international students.
PANN: What led you to NIU?
LEVIN: Well, the job ad. [laughter] I was ready to move on from Missouri at the time. Jokes aside, there weren't many Women’s Studies positions, especially for people to administer programs open at the time. Ironically, the same job was open at Illinois State and I was offered that too, but I chose Northern.
- Synopsis: Leadership and Different Positions at NIUKeywords: English; Women's Studies; Museum Studies; Coordinator; Director; Associate Dean; Chair; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; National Women's Studies Association; NIU; gender; book; studentTranscript: PANN: Well, we're lucky that you did. [laughter] What different positions have you held at NIU?
LEVIN: Well, in addition to being part of the English department and Director of Women's Studies, I also, at different times, was Coordinator of Museum Studies. I was an acting Associate Dean, the one for personnel and administration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for a year. The last two and a half years before I retired, I was Chair of English.
PANN: You obviously have a lot of experience in leadership positions at NIU across multiple departments. That's really cool. What was your experience being a woman leader in those roles?
LEVIN: Well, it changed a lot over the seventeen, eighteen years I was in women's studies. When I first came in, I was one of the few department heads in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. By the time I left, there was a robust group of us. That changed a lot. I think people became more accustomed to us and that was good. I think, too, that as the Women's Studies program developed and began to include more LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] content, and that program was initiated, that also deepened the commitment.
PANN: You mentioned that as more and more women came into leadership and the programs were developed more, people became more accustomed to women in leadership. What was it like before they became accustomed to it? Was there any difficulty?
LEVIN: Well, sometimes I felt like a token person when I was asked to serve on a committee. It was like, "Well, we need a woman." That was one thing. Sometimes I felt that I had to be the one to speak up. One that I now think is very funny is — I was in a Chairs' meeting for the college. They mentioned that the first Smart Classrooms were coming and they were going to have the Smart Podiums. I got all exercised because they were talking about podiums rather than, as we now know, they're really desks, that they were going to be too high for women, like a lot of podiums were. I wanted them to make sure that, ergonomically, it was okay for women. Now, I think it's just kind of funny, but that was something that I was hot and bothered about.
PANN: You've had the chance to work on many projects over the years within and outside NIU. Are there any that you are particularly proud of, or that you were the most passionate about?
LEVIN: Well, I was involved with strategic planning for the National Women's Studies Association for many years. That was really exciting to see where this organization was going to go. One summer, they asked me to write the assessment document for the discipline that's used for, for instance, program reviews or setting goals, learning outcomes for programs across the country. That's still in use. That was really exciting for me to do. It also fits very much into and out of my work here. That was one thing. I always enjoyed working with students in Museum Studies, which is one of my passions. Those were both exciting to me.
PANN: Why are you passionate about Museum Studies?
LEVIN: Well, I think if I had known or thought of that as a career possibility, I probably would have done it in the beginning, but I wasn't aware of it. I was just beginning to work with museums as part of my research. As I arrived here, the job talk I gave was on museums, the first scenes in museums and British literature. That was sort of me moving into it. I had done children's writing workshops in museums before that, but not research related to it. I think museums are a very interesting cultural space, because they both represent and create understandings of culture, so they're very dynamic. That really interests me. Also, they became very exciting to me because there was a huge gap and that people were doing all kinds of work and research on museums and diversity. Nobody had done a book on gender and museums, so I had the idea that, "We should do this." I went to a conference. The publishers were literally fighting over this idea. All my other books, I was begging to have publishers to have them published. It was like, "Please this is a gap." In 2010, my first collection of — edited collection — on gender museums came out. I have another one coming out probably December, January in a month or two, which is co-edited with one of my former NIU English students, Josh Adair. That's been a fun process.
PANN: That's super cool. You're working with a former student. How did that happen?
LEVIN: Well, he was one of our graduate assistants in Women's Studies when I was there as well as working on his PhD in English. When I was finishing up the first gender book, we assigned him to work with me on the editing. He did a great job and we had a lot in common. We stayed in touch over the years. When I retired, I had a contract to do a second edition of another book I've done, on local museums and local history. I had to do it really fast and I needed surgery on my left dominant hand because I had really bad arthritis in it. I didn't think I'd meet the deadline unless I had help. I asked him if he would come in as co-editor for that second edition, and he did. It was a really good working relationship. After we did that, when I had the idea to do the second gender book, it seemed natural to ask him to do it too.
- Synopsis: Fulbright Scholar Program in BurmaKeywords: Myanmar; Burma; Fulbright; fellowship; US; professor; English; Arabic; freedom; Muslim; Middle East; code; students; Aung San Suu Kyi; RohingyaTranscript: PANN: That's awesome. Which achievements in your professional career have changed you the most?
LEVIN: I think, overall, even though it was not a single achievement but many years of work, working in Gender Studies really changed my thinking about the world and about gender and diversity and society — radicalized me in some ways. I think that's been very, very important to me. It increased my understanding of social justice and how that works. That was really important. Another thing that really affected me was, I've worked closely with the Illinois Humanities Council ever since I moved here in '95. They asked me to be their first facilitator in the literature and medicine project, which is running book groups in hospitals and other healthcare sites to get personnel thinking outside the box. I got passionate about that too. That's another one of my really deep interests. Thinking about healthcare that way, the people involved, how people are affected by it, that's also really been transformative for me.
PANN: Yeah, for sure. In my research about you, I was looking you up online. In 2013, you had the chance to travel to Myanmar on a Fulbright fellowship and you made history as the first US professor of literature in 30 years to collaborate with universities there. That's awesome. Would you care to share any stories or thoughts about that experience?
LEVIN: Sure. I think I should be grateful to NIU Center for Burma Studies there, because I think part of the reason they selected me was because they knew we had a commitment to the country as a university. I was riding on their coattails a little. Richard Cooler and Catherine Raymond, who've headed it, have both been wonderful influences. I think the other reason they picked me is I offered to do US Women Writers for Graduate workshop. I think this is hilarious still. I was told that the Department of Education there picked it because they thought it was not a politically-sensitive topic. I arrived two weeks after Obama's second inaugural. The first work I presented was Richard Blanco's poem for the inaugural. Here we have a poem by a gay Latino author, and that's what I start with. It pretty much went that way for the remainder of the workshop. At the very beginning, the students were very shy and they were always looking things up. I had to break my rule about not using your phone in the classroom because they were looking at translations of words. Many of them had never heard a native English speaker before and nor had their professors. That was really interesting that here are these people who are master's students or university professors teaching English and you've never heard a native English speaker. You're just relying on books and TV and movies, most of which have been censored. That really affected how people came to me. Their knowledge was very partial. For instance, I had students who thought we still had slaves in the US. That was very different. I had to teach a lot of history at the same time. What I found as we went along is that the students really opened up. Many of them were actually sitting on very liberal tendencies. They had coded ways of telling me things and I had coded ways of telling them things. I would say, "Maybe you too have known someone who," instead of saying, "Maybe you believe," such and such. That always made things safer for them. The last day of the workshop, I gave them a writing prompt. It was based on a poem about Arabic. The poem was by Naomi Shihab Nye. There's a line, "Until you speak Arabic, you will not understand." I said, "Let's make this, 'Until you understand Myanmar language, you will not understand,' and I want you to fill in the blank." The one that touched me the most was the student who wrote "freedom," because so much of my experience there was learning about what freedom means to us, and what we have in the way of freedom, and what they had. The rules were changing every day. For instance, when I arrived, there was no Western soda pop there. By the time I left, they had Pepsi and Coke. When I arrived, I was told that the press would be interested in me as the first US professor in so long. Whatever I did, I must not allow them on campus. The last day of my teaching, I was supposed to meet someone for an interview who wanted a photo of me with building in the background. We made elaborate plans to meet right outside campus. The building would be in the background, but I wasn't actually on campus. I came downstairs to meet the person. Lo and behold, they'd let them into the building. That was the first time. Every day, the rules were changing. That was really — it was both at times challenging but also exciting.
PANN: What was the political landscape like there, having to “code” with students?
LEVIN: The Army officers who'd rule the country had pretty much given way to Aung San Suu Kyi then. She was just coming in. She has tightened up too. I can honestly say I no longer really support her because she has been committing genocide and her government has against the Rohingya. I met many Rohingya while I was there. One of the other really transformative experiences I had there is one of the ESL teachers I've met through the American embassy said, "Are you free Saturday afternoon? I have some people I want you to meet." I said, "Sure." She said, "Take a taxi downtown to this address," and I did. There I was. In the backroom of a lawyer’s office was a group of thirty Muslim women, who are the minority, and they wanted to talk to me. Most of them didn't speak English. This woman had to be the translator. Contrary to all the stereotypes, what did this group of women who range from lawyers, doctors, people whose families were in refugee camps, it was a complete mixture, they wanted to talk about the closeted lesbians they knew, and how they supported them, and about collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian women and occupied lands in the Middle East. That was also just really interesting to me.
- Synopsis: Politics and Activism at NIUKeywords: Politics; political landscape; Betsy DeVos; underfunding; enrollment; Common Core; Women's Studies; LGBT Studies; Black Studies; diversity; equity; sexismTranscript: PANN: Yes, that's amazing. Moving back to the US — during your twenty-four years here, so far, a lot has changed in the US political landscape. To what extent do you believe modern politics do or do not affect student and faculty day-to-day livelihood?
LEVIN: Well, in Illinois, we've been tremendously affected by politics and the underfunding of universities. I've seen NIU go from a very well-funded institution with high enrollments to one that is really scraping by and has much lower enrollments. The universities I know has been affected by state politics every single day. In terms of national politics, I've also seen changes.
For instance, our teacher cert programs were really affected by the Common Core. It's coming and it's going. They were also affected by Betsy DeVos and the state's insistent on the park program and testing and park spelled backwards, and I'm going to be honest about this, is "krap." That's what I thought of it. It was the lowest common denominator. Yes, we've been influenced very much.
PANN: How does NIU--
LEVIN: There was one other way we've been influenced politically, now that I think about it. When I first arrived, when we offered the first courses, there were special topics courses in Women's Studies on LGBT Studies. I remember the state legislator complained to the provost's office. Now, those courses are pretty much taken for granted.
PANN: With Women and Gender studies, how has the program itself changed over the years as people are getting more open-minded, accepting the field is much more diverse than it used to be?
LEVIN: Well, the focus when I first arrived was on what we would now call cisgender women, primarily. We were increasingly inclusive of women who identified as lesbian and gay men. For a while, there was a separate LGBT Studies program, which was coordinated primarily by Dr. Swanson, although other people were involved as well such as Brad Peters in English. Eventually, that program was re-brought into Women's Studies, which became the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. The program has been increasingly inclusive of transgender, non-binary gender, LGBT questions and issues and courses. As this has become more inclusive, I think it's also brought in more diverse theory. It's also increased its commitment to racial and ethnic diversity, and connections to other programs across the university. For instance, I used to always do a program on my favorite African-American authors for the Center for Black Studies during Black History Month, so we would connect across.
PANN: How has NIU's commitment to diversity and equity changed over the years?
LEVIN: Well, when I first arrived, one of my assignments was to work with the multicultural task force, which offered a summer institute that faculty could take. The purpose of that was to increase diversity in the curriculum across the university of all kinds. Over the years, that also evolved. There were almost, I think, two hundred courses that were transformed over the years to be more diverse. That was really quite a considerable change. The faculty, even though they would only transform one course while they were in the institute, often changed other courses. I learned a tremendous amount from the other people in those groups. That was one of the other evolutions.
PANN: How do you think that that applies to the challenges that women, LGBT people, and people of color face in positions of leadership, and as students, at the university?
LEVIN: I think that there are both new and different challenges. For instance, I think it's still a challenge to be trans on campus. I think if you're gay or lesbian, there's greater acceptance. I think there are still microaggressions and that becomes more difficult, because they're less visible. That is another question that the university is constantly addressing. I also did a tremendous amount for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics on every level. I think that's become a little easier. For instance, among the faculty associates in Women's Studies, we used to joke that half the female faculty in the College of Engineering were our associates. Well, there were two out of four. [laughs] It really wasn't a very great number, but those units are really trying to become more inclusive and have more female faculty and staff. That makes it easier for the students, too.
PANN: How do you think that seeing diversity reflected in faculty and staff, the university changes the student experience?
LEVIN: Well, another example is the chair of computer science when I arrived told me once that the only problem for women in computer science and the sciences was where to leave their purses in the labs which, of course, now we would all think is hilarious. Now, there's actually people like Reva Freedman in computer science and there was Penny McIntire advising students. Students have role models of faculty who are engaging and competent. That's great. I think there's a better understanding, too, of what their needs are.
PANN: With the purse thing, are there any instances of sexism that you faced in the workplace?
LEVIN: Yes, there have been many in my lifetime. Some of them were very direct and others weren't. One of the things I learned, for instance, with one of the deans we had is that sometimes I would bring up ideas in chairs’ meetings and this team was just never very excited about them. I learned that if I went to male chairs and I have a meeting with them like this, one-on-one sometimes, and I got them excited about the idea, then they bring it up and I'd cheer along.
Indirectly then, the idea would gain more — what do you call it? More force. It was likelier to be successful. Although I didn't like having to do that, that was a strategy I sometimes used if something was really important to me. My first instance of activism in the college was — Sue Doederlein was an assistant dean. She was the only assistant dean. The other two were associate deans and yet she had the most important work in my mind because she worked with the undergrads. I spearheaded the charge for her to be promoted to associate dean and that happened.
- Synopsis: Students and Activism at NIUKeywords: students; global; impact; international; success; HIV; HIV-positive; challenging; suicide; foster; foster parent; activism; support; feminism; violence; Title IX; shooting; Renegade WomenTranscript: PANN: That's amazing. You've obviously had the chance to impact a lot of lives during your time at NIU. Are there any interactions or relationships, specifically with students, that stick out in your memory?
LEVIN: Many. [laughter] That's a hard one. There were so many wonderful students I've worked with. I don't even know where to begin. I have students who are teachers. I have students who are attorneys doing gender work. I have students who've written books. I have students who work with museums. I have a student who's one of the top people in human resources at Amazon now. She's having a global impact on family-friendly policies and things like that for Amazon. They've all affected me in many ways.
PANN: Do you keep in touch with a lot of your students then?
LEVIN: Many. Facebook is wonderful for that, as email. For instance, I did an article with that student who is now at Amazon, probably twenty years ago, on the National Women's Studies Association strategic planning process. A consulting company in Washington, DC that does diversity consulting justice, we asked to see it. I emailed her and told her and I said, "Are you still doing consulting? Because if they asked for that, this is more your area than mine." I haven't heard back yet. That would be an example. I'd love to put former students up for awards.
PANN: What is it like seeing former students so widespread, so successful, globally?
LEVIN: Well, I knew they could do it. It's wonderful to see it, but I knew they could do it, so I'm glad for them.
PANN: What have you learned about yourself or the world around you from your students at NIU?
LEVIN: That the world is complicated and changing. One of my favorite students ever was actually never formally a student at NIU. He was a student of mine in Missouri. He applied and was admitted to the NIU master's and English program, but the reason he was coming is he had been at the University of Missouri working on a master's. After his second sexual encounter, he discovered he was HIV-positive. They were interviewing him for the campus newspaper in Missouri. He came out about that in the interview, and they pulled his assistantship two days later. This was in the late 1990’s. Because he lost his financial aid and they charged him tuition for that semester, he was in debt. They wouldn't release his transcript, so he'd be fully admitted to NIU. Even though he moved here and he'd been offered the assistantship, he could never officially enroll. It was this catch-22. His T-cell count took a nosedive. Here he was. He couldn't get student help, student health aid. He couldn't officially be a student and get his stipend, and he was here. He was a brilliant student, just brilliant. He was also the first HIV-positive person that the DeKalb County Health knew HIV — I forget what the name of the person was, but they were their liaison for the community had to work with. We learned all this new stuff. One of the things I remember is that Piyos Pizza at the time had an all-you-can-eat pizza special. Since this kid had no money, we went once. If you had even one slice off a pizza, you could order another. We ended up sending him out of there with about fifteen pizzas, so he had food. I think neither of us ate pizza for months after that, but it gave him free food. I had to take him to the DeKalb clinic. The doctor there for infectious medicines, they couldn't take him because he couldn't pay. We had a grad student take him to an emergency room and drop him off, so they couldn't kick him out. We all learned all these things. This young man ultimately published a book that's widely cited on disability and race. Unfortunately, he did commit suicide in 2009 or 2010. The end was very sad, but he contributed a lot and we all learned from him and his connections to NIU and DeKalb.
PANN: Are there any other challenges that you've seen students face that significantly impacted you?
LEVIN: I was a foster parent for a while and that student ended up coming to NIU. Seeing how someone who'd been in the foster system managed it in NIU was also an experience I learned from. One of the things that was interesting was, there was a class on orphan lit and he was invited to speak about it. He wasn't officially an orphan. The faculty members still referred to him as illegitimate because his parents weren't married. We did do some managing up or teaching up there because other students who were also in his situation, I think, also found that a bit unnerving. We did some teaching upward. I learned from that. I also learned other things from that situation. For instance, this young man had, I think, trouble understanding the difference between love and intimacy because his family situation had been so unstable. To try to explain that was different and how families work. And other students, I think. There were many situations like that. I was always learning from students.
PANN: You talked a little bit about activism earlier. Are there any particular stories or events about being politically active at NIU or outside?
LEVIN: Well, my students were always active. I remember one that actually scaled the parking structure to put up a feminist banner. I think the police were called that time. They were always doing amazing things. I had students who protested the Latino and Latin American Studies Center because they felt it wasn't political enough about immigration. I had students who protested speakers on campus. There was lots of activism. My own activism was usually through groups like the multicultural task force. A lot of it through the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. For instance, I worked on the lactation room policy. I worked on the maternity policy there, parental leave. I worked on stocking policy there. Those were things that I was all part of.
PANN: What impact do you think your activism and the activism of your students has had on day-to-day life at NIU?
LEVIN: I think we have some better policies, and I also worked on Title IX. An example there was, this was after the shooting, the campus was a little leery about talking about rape prevention and violence against women prevention because they didn't want to perpetuate a stereotype that NIU was a violent place. Because, overall, NIU compared to urban campuses and a lot of other campuses really has had low violence statistics, I think. I'm not the expert on it, but I have always felt quite safe in DeKalb compared to, say, when I've lived in New York City or near New York City. There was a group of women that started getting together to push for this education and we called ourselves Renegade Women. I loved being involved in that and I made Renegade Women T-shirts. I still have them. One is in a montage that was made. That was another activist effort and all kinds of things like that.
PANN: How many people were involved with Renegade Women?
LEVIN: There must have been about 30 or 40, maybe even 50. The person who would know is Professor Vasquez.
LEVIN: That was really fun.
- Synopsis: Looking Back and Post-Retirement CareerKeywords: retirement; research; Fulbright; Amsterdam; museum studies; diversity; networks; program; DeKalb; contributingTranscript: PANN: I've never heard of that. It's really cool. [laughter] Are there any other stories about your experiences at NIU that you want to share?
LEVIN: I'm not mentoring other personnel too. Not just students. For instance, there's a woman, Margie Cook, who may end up being someone you interview, who was an undergrad and then a master's student. She was the program coordinator in Women's Studies when I arrived. I felt that every employee of the program should get to have something of their own to build. That's how you mentor. Margie started by working with what was women's alliance and has a different name now, but then she wanted to provide more services for LGBT students. That evolved into this resource center for LGBT students, which is now combined with what was the Women's Resource Center, but that provides services for hundreds of students on campus through her. I was always glad that I just let her run with that. She now is a consultant with a big-time company that does diversity training. Watching Professor Littauer, too, is another one I've just loved. I remembered seeing her book. She asked me to read an early draft of it and thinking, "This is really a cool book." When she finally published it, it has won all these awards. I love seeing faculty grow and develop too and staff.
PANN: What can you share about what you've been up to since retiring?
LEVIN: I am having the research career I always wanted. I have published two books, and I have this third one coming out. I have been able to build my research network by traveling a lot more. I had a Fulbright in Amsterdam in the fall of 2016 or '17. I have to figure that out. Anyway, one of those. I taught what was my NIU trademark museum studies course, which is race, class, and gender and museums to students there. The University of Amsterdam has a really diverse student body. I had a student from one of the islands in Greece where all the refugees from the Middle East are landing. I had a student from Germany and I had students who had been very privileged in Amsterdam. It just was very, very diverse. That was interesting, and seeing what museums in a country that's renowned for its museums are doing to queer themselves was also really exciting. That was wonderful. I went back the following Fall for seven weeks. Now, I'm going in a couple of weeks for just a week this time. Those networks have really fed me. For instance, last Summer, I gave a talk at a conference on queer in museums and archives in Berlin. Now, I know people from all over Europe and I can bring their ideas and thoughts to bear on my own work. I'm still in touch with a lot of students in NIU. I still feel part of the community. For instance, I remain an informal fan of Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honor Society. I go to a couple of meetings a year. I help the students plan going to the conference. I work with Museum Studies people. I visit with junior faculty about their research. Whatever I can do that's helpful, I like. The other thing is, I've begun a new program here at the DeKalb library called Cross-Cutting Conversations on Migration. It’s based on that literature and medicine model. It's a monthly book group on books about migration and immigration. The idea, again, is to get people talking about this really controversial subject, outside the box. The first meeting, we had a minister, some attorneys, some teachers, various people. We talked about a book, which was about a father and son who were separated. The father was in danger of deportation. The next book was about a Latino who'd been a member of the border patrol. That's been really interesting to see. I hope it lasts. It's still in very much a pilot phase, so you may never hear about anything. That's another project I've done. It's my way of contributing to the immigration situation.
- Synopsis: Lessons Learned from Culture and TravelKeywords: culture; learn; Egypt; Amsterdam; travel; connections; research; transgender; bisexual; non binary; identity; coming out; liberalTranscript: PANN: How is the culture different, teaching in different countries and working with people from all across the world?
LEVIN: Well, it very much depends on the country. In Egypt, things, where I also went, were considerably more conservative the way the universities were run and also Myanmar was too. On the other hand, in Amsterdam, they're way ahead of us. It varies and you have to be flexible, and that's something you have to learn, and I think my experiences growing up abroad really help there. I can go with the flow.
PANN: Are there any lessons that you've learned in other countries that you've brought back to NIU?
LEVIN: One lesson is never assume that just because the US is so global in a lot of ways that people really know anything about the States and that, for instance, was the students in Myanmar who thought we still had slavery. Never assume that. When I went to Egypt, people kept asking me to speak for African Americans, which was very uncomfortable for me and inappropriate for me to do too. That was another example. I learned that from being abroad. I also learned to talk more slowly in certain situations. I [laughs] tend to talk to fast for non-native speakers. That's very minor. Those are some examples, I think.
PANN: Why do you love to travel so much?
LEVIN: Well, I think that I inherited that from my parents, to be honest, but I love learning about new places. I love meeting new people, even in the States. It's not just in other places. Those are both very important to me. I think that you understand global issues better if you travel. For instance, right now I'm writing a piece about a group of trans refugees to the Netherlands from the Muslim countries in the Middle East, and that's really not an unusual topic, but one that you have to — I think it helps that I've been both in the Middle East in a Muslim country and in the Netherlands, and that I've worked with a lot of trans people. All of these experiences feed together and help you understand the world and the issues people field. One of these people was horribly tortured, and so writing about it is also an extension of my activism.
PANN: Working with so many diverse people, there has to be a lot of skill and nuance in navigating that intersectionality with so many things going on. What is that like?
LEVIN: Mostly, it's about listening, because if I open my mouth, I tend to insert my big foot, but if you listen and you ask people about their own experiences, A, you're less likely to say something stupid, but also you really learn and you begin to find and commonalities and connections. An example would be — there was a really cool museum exhibit that I wanted to write about in Amsterdam, which was called Transmission. It was about trans-communities in Amsterdam, and I liked it because the curator, Miriam [unintelligible 00:43:18], whose name I just butchered, who's become a kind of friend, really build genuine connections with communities. It wasn't patronizing. It was an oral history project like this one, and I interviewed members of different trans-communities who've been involved about what participating in this project meant to them and how they made them feel more part of the city's history. One of the people I interviewed was a person who exists as a male most of the time, goes by Niko, a male name, but also exists as Coleen, a female, and when I interviewed Coleen about this, Coleen started telling me all about her life and Coleen started asking me questions about me and said, "You just seem comfortable and nonjudgmental." I was just trying to listen. I was learning. "Have you ever thought you were trans or non-binary?" I hear coming out of my mouth — well, when I was a kid, I always hated being a girl, but I always thought that just as I was growing up in a sexist society and I hated being a girl because my brothers got to wear pants and do more fun things, but that instigated a two-year period of self-questioning and identity questioning until finally this summer I found myself coming out as bisexual. That was at age sixty two and finally acknowledging that even though I'm married to the most wonderful man, there are times in my life where I've been attracted to women, and there are times in my life where I feel a little less binary. I actually don't want to dress like a girl as I thought of it as a child. Here was this person I interviewed who has sparked a process in my life that was very important to me.
PANN: How does that feel coming out at your age? Is it freeing, is it scary? [crosstalk]
LEVIN: Well, I still have it come out to a lot of people. I certainly do it as it comes up. Most people who know me haven't really been surprised. I think this is like, "Oh, you directed Women's Studies programs for over twenty years. Why are we not surprised?" In my case, I think it's been more acknowledging what we all felt.
PANN: Were you always open-minded and liberal? Did you learn that or is that something that you had to go and find for yourself?
LEVIN: Well, my parents were always very liberal, and especially my dad being a journalist, for him, I think that was part of where I learned that you have to approach people non-judgmentally or they won't open up to you, and he learned that as an interviewer. He was a very good journalist. I think a lot of that came from them, and I hear stories of things that other kids my ages' parents would never have let them do and my parents did. They'd let us have parties, for instance, without them around when I was in high school. Most people I knew with parents would never, with alcohol, let them do that, and as a parent myself now, I wonder why they let us do that. Anyway, they were very liberal. That certainly affected me, but I have to say I'm now quite a bit more liberal even probably than they were and my siblings are, and then I came on myself. That's just been my own experience in the world. Unfairness was always been an issue in my life, always from the time I was a little child, and I drove my mother crazy if I thought something was unfair, but I think that transformed into a social justice orientation.
- Synopsis: Advice and the Future of NIUKeywords: future; community; friends; DeKalb; NIU; culture; STEM; online; strengths; weaknesses; LGBT; LGBT historyTranscript: PANN: What would you tell someone like yourself coming to NIU for the first time in 2019?
LEVIN: It's a gift. I thought when I came to NIU, it was going to be another small town like the one I'd been in Missouri, which I really ended up finding too tight for me, and that I was going to leave in a few years and not really like it. Instead of now been here just short of twenty five years and I've met some incredible people. I would say be open-minded and listen to people, because their stories are deeper and more complex than they may appear on the surface. You might meet someone who lives out on a farm and who's never left DeKalb, and who might even say something that you think is very conservative, but as you start talking to that person, you might find out really incredible things. Let it happen.
PANN: What would you want them, anybody, to know or understand about the past?
LEVIN: The past is always changing, because we build it from memories, and our understanding of it changes. For instance, one of the things that I've learned about in NIU is that DeKalb has a very complex and interesting LGBT history, and people didn't know that as much when I first arrived, but it's slowly filtering through.
PANN: As NIU continues to evolve, changes need to be made all the time in order to ensure a better experience here. How would you like to see NIU continue to change and evolve in the future?
LEVIN: I would like it to have a larger online presence. We're slow with that, and it’s a way to reach not traditional students more. I think that would be fabulous. I would like to see NIU continue to be a place where students who have not had a lot of privilege feel welcomed. I think that would be great. I think that's always been one of its strengths.
PANN: Are there any other strengths and weaknesses that you think NIU has?
LEVIN: I think we should continue — we were early adopters on STEM, women in STEM, so let's keep doing that. I'm amazed now that STEM Fest is like twenty years old or nineteen years old. I still have the T-shirt from the first one, and Women's Studies had a booth there. One of the things we had was a draw scientist contest which Leslie Rig, who's moved back to Canada, used to do as a class project because students would never draw women as scientists. Then over the years, we discovered more and more students were drawing women, because they could conceive of women in science. That's another thing that NIU was early on that we should continue building on. Last, I think we always see the decline in enrollment as a negative thing, but there are also opportunities around it. For instance, class sizes have dropped. Whatever ways we can adopt that as something positive, let's run with it.
PANN: Do you think that smaller class sizes give more opportunity in some way for students to grow?
LEVIN: Yes, because you get more attention from faculty, they can spend more time on your papers, they can meet with you for longer. I think that's a positive. The residence halls are less crowded. There are shorter waiting lists for things like counseling, not that's what — there used to be, the counseling would be full up for the semester halfway through it. If you needed counseling, that was a problem. There are some positive aspects.
PANN: Do you see yourself staying in DeKalb for the long run or traveling to other places?
LEVIN: Well, I will definitely continue going abroad for part of the year as long as, A, I can afford it and, B, my body will track along with me. We have a very small cottage up in Canada, so we've toyed with moving a little closer. However, since our family's nearby, our children, I think we won't move in the near future. We love our house in DeKalb. We still love the cultural richness of being a few blocks from campus. I don't see us moving right away.
PANN: How tied do you feel to the community and the culture here?
LEVIN: Well, people here have been very friendly to me, and as I said, I didn't expect to like it the way I do. The second day I was here, maybe it was — no, I don't think it was the second day. The first or second time I arrived in a very hot summer, I went to Hopkins Park Pool just to cool off. I apparently was swimming all the wrong way across the lanes, and two women came up to me and said, "My dear, are you new here? This is the way we do it." They were very kind about it and we got to talking, and they invited me out for dinner that very, right away, the first weekend, and they have remained two of my closest friends in the community for nearly twenty five years. That's been my experience, that people here are very genuine and generous and that's made me want to stay.
PANN: Where do you think that kind culture comes from?
LEVIN: Well, where I was in Missouri, people were not like that. Everyone there felt like I got stuck here because of a job market, and I'm better than all of my colleagues. Whereas I think in DeKalb, everybody's had the attitude of we're in this together, let's make this the best possible place we can together. I think that we see that in initiatives, like building a new beautiful library, and that I think has really helped or, building spirit of school or the spirit we saw after the shootings where everybody worked together. That I think really helps, or if someone gets sick there will immediately be a calendar of people to bring them food.
PANN: What else do you think deserves attention during this 125th anniversary year?
LEVIN: There are some awesome new people on campus. Let's keep building on the new people too. Not just people who have been around a long time.
PANN: How do you think we can build on people coming in?
LEVIN: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every student did a oral history when they arrived or when they left?
PANN: That would be amazing. [laughter] Are there any other stories, anecdotes, things you'd like to say-
LEVIN: I can go forever, but I think I've probably kept you long enough, I have no idea what time it is. I can give you a few more. Are there things you're interested in that you'd like me to follow up on?
- Synopsis: Intersectionality and Closing ThoughtsKeywords: race; racism; Women's Studies; Black Studies; microaggressions; diverse; intersectionality; women based calculus section; science; Lisa FreemanTranscript: PANN: I'm interested in a race relations on campus and how that's changed over the years.
LEVIN: Well, there wasn't a lot of overt racism when I arrived. I want to say that, but there were certainly issues and inequities, and an example I will give that I like to give — I don't think this was deliberate. I do want to say that. When I arrived in Women's Studies, everybody told me where the pots of money were hidden, for getting interdisciplinary teaching or getting speaker funds or whatever. There was a new Director of the Center of Black Studies, I think a year or two into my time. When I started talking to this person, it became clear to me that no one had shared that information with this Director. Some people may just say it was an accident. I don't know. It seemed to me like there was some inequity there. I'm not going to call it racism, but I have to wonder. There was resistance to including more diverse literature in certain teacher cert courses. Again, I don't know what the basis was. I was told that we have to include canonicals traditional literature, but I think we would now agree that certain, for instance, African American authors like Toni Morrison are canonical. These were things that needed to be brought up. I got in terrible trouble for saying that once about the teacher licensure program with the Dean that — but I did think so. I think things have changed partly because the times have changed, but you wonder.
PANN: Do you think things have gotten better?
LEVIN: Yes, I do. I don't think they're all the way better, but they have definitely gotten better.
PANN: How do you think in general, not just with race, but also with gender, sexuality, any type of diversity, what do you think is the best way for NIU to improve?
LEVIN: To recruit?
PANN: To improve?
LEVIN: Well, I would say, one, keep doing what you're doing. I think the other thing that's very important is, and I think NIU actually is onto this, is to understand the intersectionality of many of these categories with social class and economic status. Because I have found that so often an issue that is more complicated than it first appears. A student who might not have a textbook might not have the money to buy it. When you yell at them in class, "Why haven't you bought the textbook yet? You're supposed to have it three weeks ago," you're really embarrassing them. That took me a long time even to figure out some of these things, but we need to all be more conscious of it and find ways to understand it. One of the things I suggested after I retired, and I don't know if they're still doing it, they did it as a pilot. I said we had a grant for women in calculus, an NSF grant. I probably wanted the only English professors that literature ones in the country to have had two NSF grants. This one was, we found that women, the calculus was a barrier course for women students wanting to major in the sciences and math. If they didn't pass that, then they couldn't get that major. This grant which I designed with Diana Steele, the faculty member in mathematics, was to have a women-focused calculus section, calculus one section, which was actually taught by a male, because we found that Richard Blacksmith's strategies for teaching calculus coincided most with research on the voice women learn best. It was evidence-based. One of the things we found when we talked to these students as many of them were in families that did not support them. They were first generation college students. They had no money and they couldn't study for exams in a quiet place. Through the grant, one thing that they found were buddies they could spend the night with. Well, my idea after I retired was couldn't we offer dorm rooms, residents dorm rooms or NIU hotel rooms during exam period to students who really at reduced rates, who really needed a quiet place to study? That was the program that was a pilot, and I don't know whether it's taken off or not, Matt Straub would know. It was another idea that was building on this social-economic class question.
PANN: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
LEVIN: I think that the women and science, the second grant we had was to improve the campus climate for female faculty and the sciences. I think that was also important because we did a survey and we found out the resources female faculty were getting versus men, and how they felt, and where there were all boys clubs and departments and things like that. I think that that has helped in recruiting female faculty and retaining them. That was another very, very interesting survey. Interestingly enough, one of the people who from early on was very supportive of this work was Lisa Freeman when she came in in the research office, and now, of course, she's the president. It's been wonderful to see her move from supporting to leading in that way these endeavors.
PANN: I think we're good.
LEVIN: Okay, great.
PANN: Thank you so much.