The Nana Project

When Victoria Brown, L.F. Parker Professor of History, became a grandmother in 2007, she set out to read a history on grandmothers in America — and found there wasn’t one. “There are many books on the histories of motherhood and of being a daughter and a wife, but there’s no attention paid to the cultural and socioeconomic construction of the grandmother,” she says. “This piqued my interest: It’s seldom a historian comes across a topic that is so wholly unstudied.”

Brown has begun to piece together a history herself. Drawing from sociological journals, popular culture, and interviews with women who have witnessed multiple generations of grandmothers in their own lives, she is developing a complex picture of grandmothers’ roles across racial and ethnic groups and throughout the last century. In particular, Brown is examining how the role has evolved due to changing gender roles and economic needs. 

“African-American women have worked outside the home in higher numbers longer than white women, so the role of the grandmother as an at-home child care provider has historically been more important,” she says. “I’m interested in asking the question: Are white grandmothers becoming more like African-American and Hispanic grandmothers in the role they play in the family? Have economic and gender changes altered the role of white grandmothers, across class, over time?”

A Gathering of Psych Majors

Peter Kranz ’63 hadn’t returned to Grinnell since he graduated. An associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Pan American, Kranz wanted to visit campus — and connect with Grinnellians across generations, united by a common interest. He hatched the idea of holding a reunion for psychology majors. “I was wondering what happened with all these folks that had gone through psych in the 50 years since I graduated,” he says. Kranz called Jayn Bailey Chaney ’05, director of alumni relations, to get the ball rolling. “This was the first reunion of any discipline on campus,” Kranz says. “We had no idea how it would go.” 

More than 70 psychology students and two dozen alumni (from the classes of 1963 to 2009) gathered Nov. 2–3 to discuss psychology careers and research. Weekend events included lectures, class visits, psychology journal discussions, alumni-and-student meals, and even a trivia night. Alumni in fields from academia to law to financial planning presented a panel, “What I Did With My Psychology Degree.” Many event ideas came from students, says Laura Sinnett, associate professor of psychology. The previous spring, she asked her research methods class to brainstorm what they’d like to see in a potential reunion. 

Atavia Whitfield ’06, a program development associate at the Boys’ Club of New York, connected with both alumni and students during the reunion. She worked with the Career Development Office to set up internships and has been in touch with students hoping to get an inside look at her work. “One of the students I spoke with at the reunion is planning to shadow me over winter break,” Whitfield says. 

Students found reassurance in alumni stories. “It was a relief to hear that they were once in our shoes and had no idea what they wanted to do with their degree,” says Zoe Cronin ’14. “It was really great to hear that it’s an unfolding, a process to get to where they are.” Graeme Boy ’14 adds: “It was good to see alums who are successfully doing something that interests them and celebrating Grinnell.” 

“This was an opportunity for alumni to network with one another and with students and to have an intensive educational experience around a specific discipline,” Chaney says. “It’s our hope to continue academic affinity reunions in the future.” 

“I contacted some of my friends in other majors to see if they could nudge a similar event forward,” Whitfield says. Cronin enthusiastically agrees. “The students I’ve talked to want this to happen again. I went to almost every session, and I wish I could have gone to more. It was inspiring.” 

Perhaps most striking was a Grinnell identity across generations. “Everyone was very Grinnellian,” Cronin says. “They all seemed to fit.” 

Reflecting on his nearly half-century hiatus from campus, Kranz notes, “I was struck with how Grinnell has kept quality at its core. I was thrilled to see how Grinnell is growing in so many ways, but that curiosity, that intellectualism, is still present.”