Curriculum and Education: A School Tailored to its Students
From the very first meeting of administration and members of the labor movement in the sitting room of the Deanery, women in industry pushed for a program that would expand beyond the bounds of what might have been considered necessary for those continuing education; they hoped for a residential program that would improve overall quality of life, rather than simply teaching the students more about the facets of industry or providing vocational skills for jobs. Most students had little to no time for anything but their jobs and responsibilities in the household in their day to day lives, they argued, and it was essential that the Summer School encourage recreation and subjects other than Economics.
It is no surprise to any member of the Bryn Mawr community that the students of the Summer School embraced the culture of student self-governance prevalent throughout the College’s history. During the School’s first session in the summer of 1921, committees of students were brought on to help refine how best to teach women workers in industry. A student body with drastically different needs and wants than the traditional, wealthy young women who spent fall and spring on campus, they were eager to have a say in the makeup of their time on campus. These students helped dictate the future of the program and give a voice to the concerns and requests of the student body. It was decided that the program would be split up into “units” based on roughly equal levels of literacy and proficiency, with students able to attend lessons with and study alongside those who needed the same kinds of education as them. Each class would be taught by a professor, with an undergraduate tutor who would hold sessions to reinforce lessons taught during class time and assist one-on-one. Each student could select electives to take alongside their core course load, and various lectures, speeches, and performances were given over the course of the summer for a well-rounded education. Professors often came from colleges other that Bryn Mawr and were encouraged to teach at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for only a year or two at a time, with the hopes that they would go on to use the experience they had gained to help start workers' schools of their own.
It was this self-directed push that shaped the program into what it became, an interdisciplinary educational retreat for workers, providing an education in everything from English, to Music Studies, to Economics, to Sociology and Psychology, to Personal Wellness, to the Natural Sciences. While negotiation was constant between what was asked for and what could be provided, the Bryn Mawr Summer School was notable for the ways in which it had the resources to provide an education that was leaps and bounds beyond what students were able to receive in evening classes or from their own reading. Progress was driven not by graded assignments or exams, but instead was driven by the confidence of students and the work they were able to do with what they had. The Bryn Mawr Summer School saw its students as something other than a workforce to be trained, and for that, the school flourished.