Thursday, November 3, 2016

Alison's Final Essay: Love, Students, and Teaching

Brian McGee here.  Today, I am posting Alison's final essay, which has been published in the Fall 2016 issue of the College of Charleston magazine.

By "final," I mean this is the last essay on which Alison worked.  Alison wrote prolifically, of course, and some of her work will be printed and reprinted in the future.

Here's the full text of the essay:

As I write these words, I am terminally ill and in hospice care.  This is likely my final writing assignment.

Instead of writing an essay, I've been thinking of this assignment as my love letter for Charleston.  Not about Maybelle, my daughter, or Brian, my husband -- though you could say I have them both in my life because of my years in Charleston.  Nor is this a love letter about a physical place.  I won't reflect on riding my bicycle through our beautiful campus (well, I didn't really love riding my bike through sudden downpours and Charleston's flooded streets).  And I won't dwell on the long hours I spent in my former basement office at 7 College Way or drinking coffee and eating bagels at every coffee shot on the peninsula, though I took delight in every one of those moments.
Illustration by Britt Spencer. 

This is a love letter for my College of Charleston students, and for my profession.  Love is the right word, I think, because my kind of teaching is about passionate engagement with, and enthusiasm about, ideas, social problems and people.  I couldn't imagine merely "liking" teaching.

You may be wondering, what have my students done that makes me love our time together?  They have studied and strived, although complaining more than a little about the amount of reading and writing and the difficulty of the material.  The excitement for me and for them -- and the passion -- is in growing to understand how difficult material matters and why difficult subjects must be engaged.

Community engagement has been critical to this kind of teaching.  Years ago, some of our women's and gender studies learning-community students traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with women in elected office and women who lead nongovernmental organizations.  More regularly, my Gender and Violence students performed community service with agencies dealing with violence against women and children.  As advocates for victims in the Charleston's solicitor's office or as volunteers with People Against Rape and many other organizations, these amazing students did immediate and lasting good.  For me, teaching them was about bridging the classroom and the community.

Calling them "my students," though, isn't quite right.  Because I learned from them, as they learned from me.  And we grew together as people.

If you were ever in one of my classes, know that I love you now for the risks you took, the challenging topics you weren't afraid to discuss, and everything you did to make yourself -- and me -- a better person.

I am sorry, so sorry, that I will not teach and learn from College of Charleston students in the decades to come.  I won't be meeting any more classes for the first time in the Robert Scott Small Building or Maybank Hall or the Education Center.

However, I do leave the College knowing the beauty of my profession.  I leave knowing the great good that can be done when teacher and student are emotionally invested in learning and in the hard work of changing their world for the better.  I also leave knowing that faculty like Claire Curtis (political science) and Marguerite Scott-Copses (English) and Caray DeLay (women's and gender studies), and so many others at the College, are all that is good and right and wonderful about professors and their profession.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Guest Blog: Baxter, Waiting

Note: This is a guest blog written by Eliza McGraw, Alison's friend.  A shorter version of this essay was read on Eliza's behalf at Alison's funeral.  The reader was another friend of Alison's, Christy Burks.

I am heartbroken not to be with you all today, but wanted to share some of my thoughts about Alison.
Alison and I met in graduate school at Vanderbilt, when we were 21, and we stayed close all these years, so I have way too many stories I could tell. I can see her so easily: Alison laughing and holding her hair back, Alison reading with Baxter, her giant white shepherd, draped across her lap, Alison singing with Maybelle.

Maybelle with Baxter.  Baxter died in 2009.

I know that among so many other things Alison was an extraordinary activist, speaker, mother, and teacher. But here's what I want to say: she was an exceptional, inspired scholar. We are lucky to have what she gave us, but we are also going to miss the body of work that she would have produced, and be the less for it. She wasn't finished, and now there's going to be an empty space on the bookshelf. I just know she had a lot left to say, and to write. 

Alison's work always showed a certain kind of expansiveness, a willingness to reach for a more complex theory or idea. She didn't shy from elucidation but she wasn't didactic. While she wrote the first drafts she questioned everything, but in the final versions of her articles or books, her reasoning was sharp, assured. Her mind was everquesting, thoroughgoing. She had an enviable ability to hone ideas without overgeneralizing, fortify concepts without repetition.

Also: Alison was so generous. She sometimes credited others with what I would have to point out were actually pretty original conclusions. In her acknowledgements for Out In Public, she informed readers when my book was coming out. (For those of you who never read the acknowledgments: that's not typical.)

I visited Alison earlier this summer. We'd stopped talking about work by then. Instead, we leaned back on another shared constant: our animals. We took a walk to see some ducks she had grown fond of, and coming back from visiting the ducks, we started talking about our favorite animals. Many of them are gone, and we got onto the topic of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which describes people who lose their animal companions as "severed." In one of the books, these people reunite with their animals after they die. (Right now, I am imagining Alison telling me I am veering too close to plot summary.)

Anyway, Alison said she liked that idea, and while I also liked the thought that she'd see Baxter again—that somehow, Baxter was waiting for her, chin on paws—it was all too much for me and I started to cry. Alison cried too, and we walked along like that, two crying people, for a little while. I said something else about the Dark Materials series. Alison listened. Then she said, slowly, "But, you know, there are some pretty serious problems with those books. The women in them, that mother. . ."

Alison was a scholar to the very end. She wouldn't simplify and she wouldn't boil down. She could love the quote—cry over it--and still see its problems, turn the text over in her mind, consider all the angles, refuse to commit to one. I laughed, standing in the hot street, holding onto her arm, my tears falling, and Alison laughed, too.

She's always been ahead of me.

I miss her so much.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Additional Information about the Funeral

Brian here, with information for those attending Alison's funeral tomorrow at the Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale St.), or hoping to watch online. 

Parking.  Folks attending the funeral have the option to park at the Queen Street parking garage or the Majestic Square garage, where normal parking charges will apply.  Those affiliated with the College of Charleston may choose to walk the short distance from campus.  There is no parking available at the church.  Additional parking questions should be addressed to church staff.

Seating.  While the Unitarian Church has a large and beautiful sanctuary, we have planned for the possibility of a large congregation.  Overflow seating will be available, if needed, at Charleston Day School, which is conveniently located directly across the street.  The service will be streamed live for viewing in the overflow space. 

Childcare.  Childcare will be available during the service. 

Reception.  A reception will follow the service in Gage Hall, which is located next door to the Unitarian Church. 

Online Viewing.  We have arranged for live video streaming of the funeral at 

The webcast will begin a few minutes after 3:00.  Viewers who open the webpage before the webcast begins may need to refresh the page to initiate the stream.  Please be patient if there are technical challenges. 

Alison’s family is deeply appreciative of the love and support we have received in the days since Alison’s passing.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Guest Blog: Alison's Time

Note: This is a guest blog by Brian McGee, Alison's husband.  

To share a life with Alison Piepmeier was to be constantly aware of her uneasy relationship with time.

Alison’s unaffected brilliance, which she wore as casually as her Star Wars tee-shirts, was enough to assure her professional success.  On the strength of intellect alone, Alison had the ability to stand out in a crowd of the smartest and best-educated people on the planet.  And she did.

But wit and erudition weren’t sufficient to make her the enthusiastic presence, the cheerful dynamo so many of us came to adore.  Often, it was Alison’s anxious awareness of the passage of time that provided the abundance of energy she channeled so effectively to teach, to serve her community, to mentor students – and always, always, to write.  It was Alison’s anxious awareness of time that frequently had her finishing tasks and moving on to the next challenge hours or days before deadlines. 

For Alison, doing more was always the goal.  Spending more time with students in need.  Creating a more just and inclusive campus and local community.  Writing more articles.  Spending more time with her family and friends.  Organizing more learning activities and adventures for Maybelle. 

Alison seemed to do everything, and she did everything well.  Always, though, she wondered if she was doing enough, even as she wrote books, journal articles, columns, and blog entries.  Even as she taught, parented, and seemed to go and be everywhere in Charleston. 

Of course, a brain tumor, surgery, and chemotherapy changed her relationship with time.  Alison now had to sleep more, live with the constant possibility of a seizure, and take medications at the right time.  She had to organize a life in which she relied on a bicycle as her primary transportation, because for several years her condition prevented her from driving a car.  (Happily, she was able to drive again in her last few years.)

More fundamentally, Alison had to confront a steady drumbeat of reminders about her own mortality.  She had to live with the ability of medical professionals to predict however imperfectly, the most likely dates of her demise.  For Alison, memento mori was no gentle warning about a distant future.  Tempus fugit

Focus was never Alison’s problem, but nothing was quite so focusing as her physician’s affidavit stating that she had 6-12 months to live.  Nothing was so anxiety-inducing as the realization that she had to prepare for her daughter’s life after her own death. 

As she approached the end of her own time, Alison was magnificent.  She remained an engaged parent, even as her physical abilities noticeably declined.  She also wrote, and wrote well, and wrote movingly, even in her final weeks of life. 

We all wanted, desperately, for Alison to have more time.  No one deserved time more than she, and, if given, no one would have made better use of it.  But no one who knew what she accomplished would question what was done in Alison’s time. 

There was no better physical evidence of Alison’s relationship with time than the cheap watches she constantly wore.  A publicity photo many of us have seen of Alison shows her wearing an all-black, plastic watch that cost $12.  More recently, she wore a slightly more expensive Timex.  The luxury of a $25 watch was permitted only because I bought it for her. 

Alison's watch.  She never, ever set the date.
Alison wanted her watch to be plain and functional, preferably with a glow-in-the-dark setting.  And her watch had to be waterproof, because Alison desired never to take it off.  Alison needed to maintain her constant communion with time, a need that a cell phone couldn’t satisfy.  In the shower, or at 3:00 in the morning, Alison always could measure time’s passage against her goals for the week and the demands of her schedule. 

In her final days, Alison slept constantly, and peacefully.  She opened her eyes only a few times a day and was never truly awake. 

But I wasn’t surprised when the slumbering Alison occasionally lifted her left arm and turned it, very deliberately, as if to consider the patch of untanned skin where her watch should have been. 

Even as her time on Earth ended, some part of Alison could not leave time be.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Obituaries, the Funeral, and Chewbacca

Today's Post and Courier carries an obituary for Alison.  ABC News also ran a story about Alison.

The funeral will take place on Friday, August 19, at 3:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale St.).  A reception will follow the service at the Church's Gage Hall, which is next door to the Unitarian Church.

Alison loved the UU faith community, which supported her so wonderfully during her illness.  We thank Rev. Reed and the entire Unitarian Church family for all they have done for Alison, Maybelle, and me.

Here's the family-approved obituary, which includes information for donations to the Alison Piepmeier Scholarship Fund.  If you have expressions of sympathy for any member of the Piepmeier family, you are very welcome to use the comments section below:

"College of Charleston professor and writer Alison Massa Piepmeier of Charleston, SC, 43, died August 12, 2016, six years and many treatments after being diagnosed with brain cancer.  

"Piepmeier was born and grew up in Cookeville, TN, where she attended Tennessee Tech University.  She earned a doctoral degree in English from Vanderbilt University, where she taught for several years.  Piepmeier came to the College of Charleston in 2005 as the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, a position she would hold for the next decade.  In that role, she successfully led the effort to create a separate academic major in Women’s and Gender Studies at the College of Charleston. 

"An accomplished scholar who had recently focused on disability studies, Piepmeier published two books, one edited volume, and many academic articles. She was a guest lecturer or scholar at several universities and was a former officer of the National Women’s Studies Association and a former president of the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association.  At the time of her death, Piepmeier was conducting research on the high incidence of abortion for fetuses with a risk for Down Syndrome. 

"In Charleston and nationally, Piepmeier was a frequent media commentator on social justice and on disability.  Her columns and academic research were featured in leading print and online news outlets, including the New York Times. 

"Piepmeier was best known in Charleston for her column on Southern feminism in the Charleston City Paper.  Her final column, in which she acknowledged her imminent death and expressed thanks for her “beautiful life,” was widely read online and led to stories at and the website of Us Weekly

"The online magazine Charlie recognized Piepmeier in 2014 as one of the 50 most progressive people in Charleston. 

"Piepmeier is survived by her daughter, Maybelle Biffle-Piepmeier; her husband, Brian McGee; her parents, Lee and Kelly Piepmeier of Cookeville, TN; her brother, Trey Piepmeier, and his partner, Olivia Miller, of Greensboro, NC; her brother, Aaron Piepmeier, Aaron’s wife, Mary Piepmeier, and their daughter, Margot, of Greensboro, NC.

"A Memorial Service will be held at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, 4 Archdale Street, Charleston, SC 29401 on Friday, August 19, at 3:00 p.m.  A reception will follow in the Church's Gage Hall. 

"In lieu of flowers, Piepmeier requested that gifts be made in her memory to the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, 66 George Street, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina 29424, or at  These gifts will help establish a scholarship in Piepmeier’s name."

P.S. A gift from her brother, Trey, which Alison adored, was an oversized Chewbacca action figure.  Chewbacca was put in a place of honor in her bedroom while Alison was in hospice care.     
Alison loved Chewbacca and Star Wars.  And her movie boyfriend, Han Solo.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Alison, the Columnist

Alison's long and happy relationship with the Charleston City Paper is now coming to a close.  Thank you, Kinsey, for this lovely tribute.

The Announcement No One Wants to Write

This is Brian, with the post I never wanted to write.

Alison died peacefully this morning, as I kissed her and stroked her cheek.  Her parents and older brother were here and were able to say goodbye.

Arrangements will be announced at a later time.  Services for Alison will take place in Charleston.

I thank all those who have loved and cared for Alison and Maybelle over the years.  I am grateful to have been a part of the life of this beautiful, loving, talented woman who has forever transformed my life.