Empowerment through representation: Diane Price-Herndl raises visibility through literature

Professor Diane Price-Herndl has dedicated her career to increasing the representation of women and diverse groups in academia one book at a time. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF

This story is part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.

During Diane Price-Herndl’s childhood, her hometown of St. Jo, Texas was still racially segregated with many being unable to pursue higher education. Refusing to let her be tethered down by the town’s hatred, her mother, a passionate supporter of civil rights and education, encouraged her to aim higher than her current reality.

St. Jo was known as a “sundown town” in a “sundown county” in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or an all-white community that practiced racial segregation by excluding non-white people through local laws, intimidation and violence, according to Price-Herndl.

Witnessing racism firsthand in a small town and learning from her parents how to respect people no matter the race sculpted Price-Herndl’s youth, she said.

“I was raised to respect all people and to see people as having valuable perspectives whether they were like mine or not,” she said.

“I was so isolated. Racism was a thing I watched on TV and heard people around me express in words, but I didn’t have personal experience of it except as a concept. I now feel that I lost out on a lot by not growing up in an integrated and diverse place.”

Now the Women’s and Gender Studies Department chair, Price-Herndl was the first in her family to attend college at Texas Christian University in 1977.

“The only people I ever met [before going to college] who had been to college were doctors and my school teachers,” she said. “When I got to college, it was like the whole world exploded out in front of me.”

Her years as an undergraduate were a time of exploration of many paths as she tried 12 majors, including music and business, before deciding to pursue English language and literature.

The call to study English came from a deeply personal place, Price-Herndl said. The importance of literature in her life was a primary cause.

“From a very early age, books were my refuge and my friend,” she said.

“I was so curious about the big wide world that I wanted to know more, see more, experience more. Maybe it is better to say reading allowed me to dream.”

Family history was another prominent influence on her passion for English studies. Price-Herndl’s grandparents were migrant farm workers during the Dust Bowl, and she grew up watching her mother work in a cotton field.

Price-Herndl said her family’s professions caused her to understand civil injustices in a visceral way. As an avid reader, these made her sensitive to the plight of historically marginalized women and their writings.

“As part of [the English] major, I came to realize there was this whole world of women writers that people never studied,” Price-Herndl said. “In my college career, I read precisely two women writers, and I was just like, ‘I’ve got to change that.’”

In her work as a professor, Price-Herndl’s work has centered around representations of women in general and as creators of literary work. She said the times when she was able to introduce her students to female writers of color were validating moments in her teaching career.

With her recent scholarship being focused in the medical humanities, utilizing academic writing and teaching to increase the representation of women’s health has been a priority for Price-Herndl’s scholarship.

Writing has been a fundamental aspect of Price-Herndl’s career, as well. She has written a number of books pertaining to feminism.

In her work “Invalid Women: Figuring Feminine Illness in American Fiction and Culture, 1840-1940,” she explored the 19th and early 20th century phenomenon of women writers’ illnesses from a cultural and literary lens.

She is also actively teaching a politics of women’s health class. This, she said, was influenced in part by her battle with breast cancer.

“[In] the last several years since I was diagnosed, I’ve done a lot of work to try to change how people see [breast cancer]. We have all these images of the breast cancer patient from marketing, which is really more about the marketing than it is about the cause,” she said.

“I really want to be about the people who are diagnosed with breast cancer, and how they understand their lives, how cancer changes their lives and how they find ways to explain themselves.”

As department chair, Price-Herndl said she considers her mission to be to strengthen the Women’s and Gender Studies Department through achieving a more diverse campus environment for students and faculty alike.

“One of the things that we tend to do in academia is we focus on who’s in the room by what they look like, but then we often don’t really take seriously their different ideas,” she said.

“[Traditional academia wants] to make everybody conform to the white male standard of things from years ago, and that looks different, but it’s still the same. I don’t want that. I want a genuine, intellectually diverse environment.”

One of the ways Price-Herndl works to achieve this diversity is by creating safer spaces for students in academia. Fostering environments of empathy and care for her students, Price-Herndl said, are of the utmost importance to her.

“Many of our students describe our department as feeling like family in the very best way,” assistant professor of instruction and Director of Undergraduate Studies Tangela Serls said. “I believe professor Price-Herndl’s leadership has been instrumental in us creating a principled, caring and safe environment for our students to grow, flourish and succeed.”

Price-Herndl said that in the classroom, she actively works to understand the individual plights of her students. Her family’s past with education gave her unique insight into the difficulties of being a first-generation college student.

By bringing in more representation in the academic setting, Price-Herndl hopes students going through a similar experience would get the encouragement they need. One of the ways she works to meet this need is by increasing this group in faculty.

“It’s so hard when nobody in your family has ever gone to college and you’re suddenly in college,” she said. “I want to see those people as faculty members.

“I think a lot of faculty want to be [supportive], but they don’t know enough about different backgrounds to understand how to support students. Sometimes their efforts are great, and sometimes they’re a little misguided. I want to help people with that.”

To meet this need, Price-Herndl has taken part in a number of diversity, equity and inclusion-related committees. She chairs the Status of Women Committee, and has been a participant of the College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Committee and the Faculty Success Committee.

Increasing student’s access to academic texts has also been a passion project of hers. Price-Herndl has had a history of making her own work more affordable for students. One of her anthologies, “Feminisms Redux,” was written with the intention of creating a feminist literary course pack for under $25.

Price-Herndl’s work and character has caused her influence to spread outside of the academic setting, as well. Her daughter, Frances, finds her to be a constant inspiration for her own life.

“Her stories of her childhood and her educational experience in grades K-12 has impacted me to seek out ways to improve children’s schooling, such as volunteering for organizations that sell school supplies for much cheaper prices in an effort to make the learning environment as good as possible,” she said.

For Price-Herndl, this sort of consideration is a necessity. USF can only be seen as truly diverse, she said, when it embraces students of every background and status.

“The work that I do for the university … is a very social justice mission. I want the university to be as diverse as we claim to be,” Price-Herndl said. “I want it to really reflect differing opinions, differing backgrounds. I want there to be as much diversity of thought as there is of the kind of ethnic makeup of people.”