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Revelations from the Field: Corrigan Puts Theory into Practice

By Rebecca Ingalls
Director of the Freshman Writing Program
Assistant Professor, Department of English & Philosophy

November 20, 2012

Dr. Rose Corrigan’s story of how she came to study what she studies and teach what she teaches is a beautiful answer that should inspire both faculty and students: her work and her teaching are fueled by her “commitment to social justice,” and they aim to make change in the world. It lights her up to talk about it.

Rose Corrigan

Dr. Rose Corrigan

Corrigan, who came to Drexel in 2006, holds a joint appointment as Associate Professor of History & Politics and Law. What’s more, she serves as Director of Women’s Studies, now a thriving program that, thanks to the support of Dean Murasko and the extraordinary efforts of Assistant Teaching Professor David Fryer and the many faculty across the disciplines who cross-list and teach courses for Women’s Studies, has seen “phenomenal growth” over the last several years.

“It’s like we can’t offer enough classes,” she says. “We fill almost every seat.” These seats are now populated by women and men across the curriculum—students with a genuine interest in studying the culture and politics of gender and sexuality, lending to the increasingly diverse intellectual landscape of this university.

In the spirit of Drexel’s emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between teaching and scholarship, Corrigan’s leadership of the program is directly connected to the heart of her research on sexual violence and legislation. Though she has been at Drexel since 2006, Philadelphia was her “adopted hometown” for many years prior. In fact, her previous teaching appointment was at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, but she commuted from Philly because she was deeply invested in her community work with local organizations serving women and girls. From 1992 to 1996, she worked with Women Organized Against Rape. From 1997 to 2000, she worked with Safehouse at the Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County. It was this “direct service with victims of sexual violence” that led Corrigan toward an appreciation of her own experiential learning and a desire to bring it to the forefront of her teaching and scholarship. “[Experiential learning] is transformative,” she says, “Not just for students, but for anyone. Wrapping your head around a concept is important. But from my own experience with working with women and rape, theories look a lot different on the ground level than they do in the classroom.” Thus, Corrigan has worked hard in her research and teaching to inform her study of law and policy with what she has actually seen with her own eyes in the real world.

Unfortunately, she says, the scholarship often doesn’t represent much of the day-to-day work on sexual violence that is taking place in this country. Corrigan’s dissertation work on Megan’s Law, in which she interviewed rape care providers in 18 of 21 counties in New Jersey, made visible to her a related but separate problem. As she was investigating folks’ perceptions of the law, she uncovered their frustration about the state-mandated sexual assault nurse examination (SANE), a medical exam performed on victims that seemed to be creating as many problems as it was trying to address. Says, Corrigan, “The SANE is the gold standard; every community wants one, but my research shows that those exams become a test of victim credibility. Sexual contact can’t prove sexual coercion.” The test, she argues, can “reinforce myths that are really very damaging”: they place the burden on rape victims to “prove” what has happened to them, and they have the potential to “drive down rape reporting.”

As some pesky dissertations are wont to do, Corrigan’s led her to a new project that demanded her attention: her book project, Up Against A Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success (New York University Press, due out in January 2013). “My life would have been less stressful if I’d just published the dissertation,” she says and smiles. “But I don’t regret it. This is a better book.” Talk about experiential learning: Corrigan took two cross-country trips over eight months to gather research on rape crisis centers in a variety of communities: 167 advocates; 112 rape crisis centers; and, 6 different states. The journey changed her perceptions of how urban and rural communities are supporting victims: “It’s not what I expected,” she reflects. “Sometimes people think big cities will do well, but some of the worst conditions were in metro areas. Some rural communities have made better commitments.” She looks back on an interview with a rape care advocate in a rural community in Kansas: “[The woman] said, ‘They can’t get away from me. I see the chief of police at church and I ask him what he’s doing about rape. I ask him at the Rotary Club, I ask him at the grocery store. People hear me asking him.’” In these small communities, argues Corrigan, folks can often make better headway to support victims because they can “hold people personally accountable.” In some urban areas, however, there is less of an opportunity for this kind of personal connection.

So, it would seem, Corrigan’s book is as much about changing her readers’ minds about what they think is humanly possible across communities in this country, as it is about revealing to us the urgency of the problem: rape cases being “dismissed or discouraged by medical and legal personnel,” and the “disconcerting” fact that “the real dangers to our communities are people we know and love and trust,” and not just strangers. She hopes that the book will be a wake-up call to the need for continued efforts in this country to let “real stories” turn into real support, and to change the culture of ignorance around sexual abuse. Corrigan: “Most states have pretty good laws on the books. The problems fall around implementation. It’s not about inherent impossibility, or inability. These are choices we make as a society. What happened at Penn State indicates that, despite our public rhetoric about zero tolerance for sex offenses, we very often as community members find ways to excuse, exonerate, ignore, or dismiss really troubling claims.” The evidence of her own observations, and of the narratives of her study participants, aim not only to support the promise of changing our culture, but also to make a case for learning through doing. Theories are important lenses through which to look at the world but, as Corrigan explains, the “questions that don’t get asked and perspectives that don’t get represented” don’t come to light until a researcher rolls up her sleeves and climbs into the thick of the problem. It’s at the heart of Drexel’s mission, and it’s the invaluable approach to making change that Corrigan offers her discipline, her students, and the Drexel community.