Hickok transforms Iowa State, leaves social advocacy legacy

Kathy Hickok has been a professor at Iowa State since 1979. For more than 10 years, Hickok served as the chairwoman of the women’s studies program at Iowa State. She retired after the fall semester 2012.

Katherine Klingseis

A book with all of the good deeds Kathy Hickok has done while at Iowa State would be as long as the Victorian novels she loves, or at least it may seem that way when first hearing of them.

In fact, Hickok, professor of English, has done so much since she began working at Iowa State in 1979 that most people, including her children, have lost track of all of her achievements.

However, most of those deeds occurred without Hickok receiving widespread public recognition. Now, as Hickok prepares to retire at the end of the fall semester, colleagues, students, family members and Hickok herself reminisce on all of her accomplishments.

Growing up in the American South

Hickok was born in Kansas, but her family moved to Louisiana when she was five years old. She said moving from the Midwest to the American South was a culture shock for her.

“Even though I was only five years old, I could see the huge differences — the way people lived, the racial issues going on in the American South at that time and the very conservative idea of who girls and women should be that was different than what I had seen in the Midwest,” Hickok said. “It was enough at even an early age to see that where you live might be a huge factor in how you look at life and then to understand that views of life are relative and different to people — that’s the most important insight I gained out of those growing-up years, I would say.”

Hickok’s mother, who was also from the Midwest, influenced Hickok’s views of the world, especially when it came to diversity and acceptance. Hickok said she and her mother were surprised by how little schools and neighborhoods were integrated in the American South in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In school, Hickok was taught a very conventional curriculum, she said. Hickok explained how she learned about viewpoints supporting racism, which were contradictory to her family’s viewpoints.

“It was kind of an education in prejudice and bias against black people, against women, against native people, against gay people,” Hickok said. “I knew that was wrong. My mother knew that was wrong. We agreed that was wrong.”

Hickok found solace under the roof of her local library. She said she worked her way through the library, reading about the world in broader terms than what she had a chance to see firsthand.

“I would read and read, and then I would look and look what was going on around me and make those contrasts and take those to my friends and parents and brother and try to talk them through and understand,” Hickok said.

Hickok explained how she still has mixed feelings about the American South. She explained how she believes the world, including the American South, today is much different than the world was when she was growing up.

“I’d like to think that the writers and the teachers and the activists of the world are the reason why the world is a different place,” Hickok said. “Then, I wanted to be one of those people — the writers, the teachers, activists in the world — in hopes of making the improvements I thought we should make.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

Taking control of her education

Hickok earned her bachelor’s degree in 1968 from Tulane University and her master’s degree in 1970 from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. After receiving her master’s degree, Hickok left Louisiana and attended the University of Maryland to pursue a doctorate in English literature, which she achieved in 1977.

While at Maryland, Hickok realized she could combine her interests in literature and social activism. She explained how she was taking an African American literature course, in which two-thirds of the class was women, and realized there were no African-American female writers on the syllabus.

“We sort of had a little activist uprising and said to our professor, ‘But wait, surely there were women.” And, he said, ‘Well, there may have been. I’m leaving it to you and you and you to go find them,’” Hickok said. “We then took the responsibility of bringing each other those materials that the traditional curriculum had forgotten about or had never cared about before.”

Hickok, who has taught over 40 courses while at Iowa State, believes taking control of their education is the single most important thing students can do to improve their educational experiences. She explained how students should learn information, process that information based on their own viewpoints and understanding and apply that knowledge in their lives.

“I always took what I was offered by my professors, and then I sought this, I created that, I… talked to people to get their input to make something new and even better out of it. And, that is the way in which education changes the world,” Hickok said.

Expanding women’s studies programs

After graduating from Maryland, Hickok began teaching at Stetson University, a private university in DeLand, Fla. She said the school had no women’s studies program when she began teaching there.

“I was able to take what my fellow graduate students and teachers had created, and I started the women’s studies program there, which is still there this day, I’m happy to say,” Hickok said.

In 1979, Hickok was hired by Iowa State to help with the women’s studies program. She said she jumped at the chance to help the program because it was her chance “to bring it all together.”

“I really appreciated the way Iowa State gave me the opportunity — and Ames, Iowa, too — to take what I found so fascinating, so important, and have all these different avenues to share it and promote it and find colleagues and study and learn and teach,” Hickok said. “That’s really why I stayed at Iowa State. It’s because at every moment when I saw there was something new and important to be done and I could do it, Iowa State said, ‘Do it.’”

Hickok, who served as the chairwoman of the women’s studies program for about 10 year, said the creation and expansion of Iowa State’s women’s studies program was met with some resistance, but she said there is always resistance when asking people to share their resources and open their minds. However, Hickok said the resistance faded.

“When you have a lot of people together with the same kind of goal and they want to give their time and their energy, then the resistance should fail,” Hickok said. “I think, yes, there are going to be some people who are startled and maybe dismayed; there were some people who complained and didn’t like it, but not for long.”

Midwestern values have contributed to the prosperity of the ISU women’s studies program, Hickok said. She believes Midwesterns are “open to an ethical understanding of the world and their responsibilities in it and the humanity of their fellow humans.”

Increasing visibility for LGBT issues

In addition to women’s studies, Hickok is also interested in queer studies. In 2005, she and Warren Blumenfeld, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, proposed an experimental course called Women’s Studies 205, or queer studies.

Blumenfeld said the course is a mixture of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender studies and also queer theory. He described how queer theory is “in the realm of critical theory, postmodernist theory” and looks at LGBT issues in different ways than LGBT history and psychology courses.

Hickok and Blumenfeld co-taught the queer studies course when the course first began. Blumenfeld said Hickok’s strengths as a teacher are her ability to engage her students, her great intellect and her extensive experience teaching. He described Hickok as a “people person.”

“[Hickok] connects instantly with students and they love her,” Blumenfeld said. “It was a joy to work with Kathy because I think we both had strengths and some weakness, and it seemed like my weakness were counteracted by Kathy’s strengths and vice versa. It was a great synergistic experience.”

In addition to co-creating the queer theory course with Blumenfeld, Hickok also taught a course on gay and lesbian literature and worked on a committee with Blumenfeld and other faculty members to develop a queer studies minor or certificate program within the women’s and gender studies program. She also was on the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Student Services Advisory Board and received the LGBTSS Academic Excellence Award in 2008.

“I believe, of all the people at Iowa State University, Kathy Hickok is the one who has created the most visibility for LGBT issues on this campus,” Blumenfeld said. “She is a pioneer. She is my hero. She will be sorely missed, but her legacy will continue.”

Continuing Hickok’s legacy

After teaching forty courses, serving on dozens of committees, winning several prestigious awards and, in general, leaving a dramatic impression on Iowa State and the Ames communities, Hickok is retiring and moving back to the American South. However, Hickok’s legacy will not leave with her, but rather, live on through her students and others she helped.

One of those students is Katy Jaekel, English lecturer, who said at Hickok’s retirement reception Nov. 28 that she became Hickok’s student when she was 18 years old, 13 years ago, and her life has not been the same since.

“What I’ve learned from Kathy can’t be put into words because unfortunately words are oftentimes used to quantify things. What Kathy has given me cannot be quantified,” Jaekel said. “I cannot explain how she has made me better or smarter or more of a full and respectable person, but she has.”

Jaekel then recited a poem titled “The Red Shoes,” written by Anne Sexton, which described how women pass on red shoes to one another. Jaekel said Hickok passes on these figurative “red shoes,” or knowledge, to her students.

Hickok agreed, stating it is her time to step down and to let others carry on her work. And, she believes she has left it in good hands.

“People like me retire, we die, we’re done,” Hickok said. “And, I feel like the students I have taught in the 30-plus years I’ve been here, I know many of them are out there on their own doing their own versions of what I do. That is how the culture will advance to a more humane kind of world.”