What is a feminist? This was the question that senior Shibani Chakrabarty decided to tackle in an independent study project with history teacher Ann Lawson. Even more impressive was her decision to present her work and findings to the Upper School at Community Time. Shibani hadn’t been planning on the presentation, but when Ms. Lawson suggested it, Shibani, “immediately fell in love with the idea. The issue is so close to my heart that I truly believed that I could make a difference.”
“The days leading up to the presentation were some of the most nerve-racking of my life. I went to the beach for Spring Break and discovered that the condo we were staying in did not have a wireless connection. Without WiFi, I could not work on my presentation.” Shibani made a four-hour bus trip to Mobile so that her older sister could drive her home to work on it. As the day of the presentation drew closer, she called one of her friends to comfort her. “He told me ‘Aren't you always saying that you are so much at home at Randolph and that the students are like your family? Then why would you ever be nervous in front of your family?”
The presentation went very well. “I saw Mr. Townsend shoot straight up,” Shibani said, “then all of the teachers were suddenly standing and my friend, Maggie, stood up. Eventually everyone was giving me a standing ovation. I hope that I will never forget that feeling of accomplishment and utter bliss. Several of my friends told me that I was incredibly brave for saying what I did in front of them. Many of them thanked me for finally sharing a message that people should have heard long ago. All of the teachers told me how proud they were of me. While I appreciated all of these complements, I did not take them personally. I viewed them as a step towards the development of feminism. People were ready to hear about women's rights. And I was just the messenger. Still, it was an amazing experience, one I will never forget, and one that I will use to help pursue my passion for political science and international relations.”
At the end of the presentation, Shibani demonstrated that while many may feel ambivalent about the word “feminist,” all subscribe to the basic definition she presented. She hoped that with a better understanding of what feminism is, her peers will be less afraid of the word and will take a stronger stand against the double-standards by which women are judged in society and, according to her survey sample, even at Randolph.
“I love the fact that Shibani was courageous enough to present her independent study work to the entire school community,” said Upper School Head Brent Bell. “She has been passionate about this issue, and I am pleased that she and Mrs. Lawson were able to find the time to explore it more deeply.”
Ms. Lawson first worked with Shibani two years ago when Shibani was a club leader of Anger-Free Politics, the goal of which was to tackle controversial issues with civility. “Looking back, it’s obvious that the same goal informed her presentation!” she said. “Last year, Shibani shared her I-Search paper with Ms. Lawson, who recalled, “We talked about India and cultural differences in general, and about women’s status in societies. At some point, we decided it would be fun to do an independent study of AP Comparative Government with a focus on women’s issues. A key work that I realized would be very appropriate for Shibani was the work she referenced at the start of her presentation – Sex and World Peace by a political scientist, Valerie Hudson (and others). We worked our way through this book and met weekly to discuss it. We ended up just dumping the whole AP Comparative thing and focusing on women’s status globally. This freed us up to look at web resources (like the video Shibani shared) and to explore the academic framework for studying the topic so that we weren’t just talking in a random way about women’s issues. Shibani is very motivated and purposeful, and disciplined in her thinking. When the idea of the presentation was established, Shibani decided to have some focus groups with peers, and I agreed to give a survey to juniors in my US History class to compare what we thought people would say with what they did say.”
“What so impressed me,” Ms. Lawson continued, “was Shibani’s commitment and desire to communicate in a way that would have an impact and maybe even change someone’s thinking. She had a very real sense of how rare and difficult it is to actually cause someone to have a paradigm shift of any kind. She was both realistic and ambitious in terms of what she hoped to accomplish, and I thought she was very successful in extending an invitation to her peers to consider a topic from a new perspective, encouraging them not to be ‘bystanders.’ I am so proud of her accomplishment, it has been a pleasure to work with her – and learn from her.”
Independent study is an option that is open to Upper School students who have developed a specific interest they want to explore in more depth. Dean Ryan Liese sponsored an independent study that Avery Kennedy undertook her junior year, formed, as he said, “entirely out of her interest and the motivation to take responsibility for her own learning. I offered a class that touched on some of those topics, but Avery wanted to guide the direction of her learning in a more specific direction, so she worked with me to create an independent study related to the development of the criminal justice system in the 20th century. We would both come to our meetings with ideas and questions and topics to discuss, but I never dictated what she should be learning or how she should demonstrate that learning along the way. She directed the whole thing, and because of that got as much out of the experience as possible.”
Any Upper School student interested in pursuing an independent study should speak with an advisor, teacher, or dean to talk about the process and possibilities. Once a sponsor has been found, the student will need to write a detailed proposal for the course that includes information about the materials needed and the expectations for work.
“Between independent study options and the Senior Capstone course,” said Mr. Liese, “our students have the opportunity to challenge themselves and be actively engaged in directing their own learning.”
You can watch Shibani’s presentation here. Please note, there are a few seconds missing, where she played this satirical video that was created in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape and made the transition to rape culture in the US and media response to the case in Steubenville, Ohio.