Women's and Gender Studies: the worst of the worst

When David Horowitz thinks you're the worst, you must be doing something right.

In a recent column (don't click on it--it just gives him more traffic!), he bemoans the sad state of the academy because disciplines like Women's and Gender Studies are now part of the picture. Now everybody's believing that women aren't naturally inferior, and we're trying to teach people that oppression is bad, and all kinds of messed up stuff like that. Back in the good old days, women weren't on the syllabus at all--and in fact, there weren't that many of them in the classroom, either. And then those damn feminists came along and messed everything up!

But the thing I really wanted to say is that his article reminds me of a conversation I had not too long ago with a law school student who is writing a book about Women's and Gender Studies. Very early on in the conversation, something she asked clued me in to the fact that she was writing a book about how awful Women's and Gender Studies is. I got a little anxious, not wanting to be quoted out of context or to say things that could be misconstrued. It quickly became apparent, though, that she had very little idea of what happens in Women's and Gender Studies classes or of how a university operates.

"So," she said, "you're director of the program, so you decide the entire curriculum, right?"

"Not at all," I told her, explaining the long--and fairly boring--process by which individual courses and entire curricula are assessed and decided on by faculty committees at various levels. She seemed startled.

"Well," she tried again, "I'll bet you wouldn't teach a course about how abortion causes breast cancer."

"No, I wouldn't teach that, because no medical evidence supports that claim." That, too, startled her.

She wanted to know if I saw it as my job to convert students to feminism, and I assured her that my job is to encourage students to be critical observers of the world around them and to hone their thinking skills. I told her, as I tell every class, that I don't want my students to leave my classes thinking like me--I just want them to leave the class thinking. My students are never being graded on their politics but on their ability to engage with a range of ideas. I'm teaching them to assess arguments, to weigh evidence, and to consider the consequences of various approaches. By the end of our conversation, she actually seemed to be questioning her aversion to Women's and Gender Studies.

The point here is that she, like David Horowitz, had some impression of the Women's and Gender Studies classroom that doesn't match the discipline as I know it. My classes aren't indoctrination camps--they're spaces of lively conversation, where I value every voice. I encourage my students to address hot-button issues respectfully and thoughtfully. Indeed, the classroom is one of the few spaces where we get to practice having slow, meaningful conversations about issues that get polarized and distorted in mainstream venues.

But if you miss the good old days when the white guy at the front of the class told you what the truth was and all you had to do was write it down and spit it back out on a test, then I suppose Women's and Gender Studies probably wouldn't be your thing.


jaz said...

My undergrad major was chemistry and I started (though did not finish) a minor in Religious Studies.

I finally gave up on trying to convince my friends in the science department that, no, the religious studies teachers were not preaching dogma or proselytizing, they were teaching students to think about how historical, legal, political, social, and other forces shaped religious ideas over time.

"Yeah... but in those classes they try to tell you that evolution is wrong, don't they?"


Quiche said...

"indoctrination camps" -well you know us womenfolk can't think for ourselves, we're "impressionable" -heh, heh.

Great article! Keep messing things up Alison (:

Anonymous said...

The following are from your last two epistles…and you claim to not be biased and/or to not have an agenda…Balderdash!!

“…when the white guy at the front of the class…”

“…whose land the Puritans stole…”

Alison said...

Ah--I never claimed not to be biased. I claimed that Horowitz and others don't know how a university operates, that they have a skewed idea of what goes on in WGS classes, and that my classes are spaces for lively conversation, not indoctrination camps.

Of course I'm biased--there is no such thing as value-neutral knowledge, and every university professor has opinions, values, and foundational assumptions which shape his or her research and teaching. But don't be fooled into thinking what happens on Baxter Sez is identical to what happens in my classroom--if that were the case, it would be far too easy to get a degree.

As for the white guy comment, I hate to tell you, but they WERE virtually all white guys back in the day.

Anonymous said...

So you are acknowledging an anti-white guy and anti-Puritan bias that somehow remarkably shapes your teaching but miraculously falls short of indoctrination. That's absolutely remarkable.

Biffle said...

You're right. Alison truly is remarkable.

Kenneth said...

Brava as always, Alison, but one question: Did teaching critical thinking really only come in with the demise of the white guy hegemony? (And I dance on the grave of the white guy hegemony.)

Quiche said...

Have you seen this:

“The End of America”: Feminist Social Critic Naomi Wolf Warns U.S. in Slow Descent into Fascism

In her new book, “The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot”, Naomi Wolf says the United States is on the road to becoming a fascist society, right under our very noses. Wolf outlines what she sees as the ten steps to shut down a democratic society and argues that the Bush administration has already implemented many of these steps. Wolf is the author of several books including the 1990s feminist classic, “The Beauty Myth."
-from her interview on Democracy Now.

-"Rapunzel" on Zaadz posted this on her blog. If you haven't already seen this or read the book, please see this when you have a free moment.

Thanks (:

Alison said...

Kenneth: I was conflating a couple of different concepts in my last paragraph. I don't think that white guys can't teach critical thinking, or that critical thinking wasn't part of the academy 100 years ago. But the kind of critical thinking I lean toward in my classes is more of the Freirean pedagogy of the oppressed type, which seemed to enter the academy as the white guy hegemony was on its way out.

And Quiche, I've been reading a lot about Wolf's new book, but I haven't read it yet.