Beyond a Politically Correct Gender Studies Program
Luca Pixner '20
The recent change in terminology from “Women’s Studies” to “Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS)” as part of the R-MC curriculum begs two fundamental questions: what curricular adjustments does this terminological expansion warrant, and what are its overall political implications? The global struggle for gender equality is always somewhere near the center of the media landscape. In recent years, the #MeToo movement has sparked renewed debates surrounding sexual harassment, violence and assault; U.S. state Alabama attempted to pass an abortion ban last year and is part of a more recent wave of opposition to pro-choice laws and legislation; last December, India passed a so-called trans bill that legally requires trans and gender-nonconforming people to have genderreassignment surgery (among others); and, in 2018, Hungary banned Gender Studies on a graduate level— nationally.
In light of these events, it is evident that issues related to gender and sexuality are a widely debated and politically mobilizing, and polarizing, matter— whether among friends or family, in popular culture, the Supreme Court, the academy, college campuses or classrooms. The current GSWS program emphasizes its interdisciplinary examination of the social world we inhabit. As such, it seeks to investigate how gender and sexuality manifest themselves in all sorts of scholarly disciplines, most typically the social sciences and humanities. Nowadays, though, feminist and queer scholars are also taking on the STEM disciplines, exploring theories of knowledge and how culture and science inform one another.
GSWS students will thus take classes across sections of R-MC’s intellectual landscape and dip their toes in sociology, literature, philosophy, art, etc. Yet specially-designed GSWS courses are few in number. There is a 100-level intro class and a 200-level “Sex and Culture” course, both routinely taught by Dr. Rodman from the department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology. This interdisciplinary nature of GSWS, however, can also be a source of confusion. At times it is difficult to determine for students and their advisors which courses will count toward the program, and why. Because the list of approved classes is constantly changing, one might question what curricular standards the program follows.
Furthermore, depending on course level and the associated discipline and professor, the level of sophistication in class discussions varies greatly across the program. I felt as though, at times, students throw in a (now) mainstream argument—gender being a social and cultural construction—without taking the necessary time to question what this claim effectively entails. Similarly, students tend to juggle the big words of social and gender theory— patriarchy, oppression, cisgender- and heteronormativity, and so forth—but don’t take their observations a step further. I fear that this recurrent simplification and generalization of such vast ideas leads to a dilution of intellectual thought in mainstream discourse.
Troublesomely, then, this is where accusation of GSWS—broadly, not specifically at R-MC— being anti-intellectual and pseudo-scientific are most devastating: when they seem even in the slightest to ring somewhat “true.” None of this is to say that I disagree with the epistemological foundations of feminist and queer theories. But I do think that there are issues that we must collectively address for the sake of the real-life problems that constitute these theories as well as for the progressive political agenda they support in a struggle for inclusivity.
On a personal level, I want us always to demand thoroughness and complexity in our tackling of course materials. But, more importantly, I hope that the program will fight for the necessary structural ingredients it needs for a sustainable future at R-MC and beyond. For example, the terminological expansion of the program necessitates an updated curriculum: there are maybe a couple of courses that deal solely with human sexuality. Dr. Natoli’s “Ancient Sexualities” in the Classics department is one, but others are lacking. While the interrelations of sex, gender, and sexuality are of great importance, they also deserve more rigorous and idiosyncratic analyses. Taught once in the spring of 2016 by Professor Schechter-Shaffin—ex-director of Jewish life who further taught in Religious Studies and GSWS—a class on queer theory is not required, let alone offered, as part of the GSWS curriculum.
I also believe that—again, despite its interdisciplinary approaches—a core faculty group would be beneficial for GSWS students. With Professor Schechter-Shaffin gone, former head of the program Dr. Rodman having passed on the position to Dr. Scott from the department of English (currently on sabbatical) who then passed it on to Dr. Natoli, one might wonder how GSWS will be handled given theses swift changes in administrative lead. In addition to last semester’s enticing campus program with diverse presentations on various GSWS topics, there remain conceptual issues to address.
We ought to defend the validity and applicability of GSWS—its potential for suggesting alternative ways of organizing our social realities: the family, kinship, reproductive justice, human identity—by strengthening its core foundations on institutional as well as micro, e.g. in-class, levels. I hope that the program’s expanded terminology is not merely a rhetorical move in line with current sociopolitical trends beyond R-MC. It should incentivize further changes to our intellectual makeup as a (still) liberal arts institution and challenge its student to be serious about their engagement with GSWS’s intricate and subversive foundations and future developments.