Author: Elizabeth Cutler
It’s a major offered at many of Oxy’s peer institutions, including Pomona College and Oberlin College. At Oxy, it is an interdisciplinary major just like Diplomacy and World Affairs and American Studies. The Women’s Studies and Gender Studies (WSGS) Department, however, has faced several setbacks in recent years. The department has not had a full-time faculty member since the 1990s and only three students are currently declared WSGS majors. Those three students are set to graduate this year. What does this mean for the future of the WSGS department?
Music Professor Irene Girton has been the interim chair of the department since 2005. Just as her “home department” is not WSGS itself, many professors teaching courses for the program in recent years have done it “out of generosity,” she said. “We have many faculty on campus who are deeply engaged in issues of gender and sexuality,” she said, so many courses that contribute to a WSGS major or minor are actually housed in departments such as sociology, history, DWA, and politics.
As the plans for the Critical Theory and Social Justice (CTSJ) program came together, the idea of the new program absorbing the WSGS department was supported by many members of the Oxy community. This idea, however, “fell off the table” at some point, Girton said, and has not been re-introduced as of yet.
According to Girton and English and Comparative Literary Studies Professor Jean Wyatt, the department had its proposal for a faculty search approved by the Academic Planning Committee and the Dean’s office, and the proposal now awaits President Susan Prager’s approval. While searches for other departments have begun, the WSGS department waits for a response, even though, as Girton remarked, “at this point in the year, it’s highly unlikely that we [would] have a successful search.”
Prager, who has only been in office for a short while compared to the time that the WSGS department has experienced setbacks, explained the reason for the stalled faculty search request.
“As I looked at the recommendations of the Academic Planning Committee of the faculty for new appointments to the tenure track, I did that in the context of a growing sense on the campus that there is a need for academic planning,” she said. “Since we are currently searching for a permanent Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, a search that should conclude in March, it seemed to me that it would be helpful to have the new Dean involved in future appointments, particularly given that so many appointments had been recently made.”
The challenges that face the WSGS department precede Prager’s administration. CTSJ Professor Elizabeth Chin, who spent five years on the WSGS curriculum committee, said she decided to no longer be involved. “When the plan to integrate WSGS into CTSJ was denied by Dean Chan, I decided to stop contributing to the program because the program was no longer viable,” she said.
One thing that Girton is quick to point out is that the low number of courses listed under WSGS on Course Counts is misleading; it implies that WSGS majors and minors, as well as all students interested in the discipline, are limited to only a smattering of courses each semester. On the contrary, Girton explained, if you look at the course catalog instead of Course Counts, you will see that many other departments offer plenty of classes related to women’s studies, gender studies, and queer studies.
The Sociology department, for instance, is offering a Gender and Society course this semester (taught by Professor Wade, whose specialties include gender studies), and Assistant Professor of Politics Caroline Heldman is currently teaching a course on Gender and American Politics. The sciences, which are often harder to integrate with the humanities, have also gotten in on the action with a new mathematics class this semester taught by Assistant Professor Angela Gallegos.
Heldman is one of several Oxy faculty members who specializes in gender studies. She echoed Girton’s emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of the WSGS department. “It really does pull from very diverse departments,” Heldman said.
But what motivates this cross-disciplinary approach to the study of women, gender and queer studies? Although the program, like many fields at Oxy, has always held the value of an interdisciplinary education in the highest regard, recent issues of institutional support for the program may be to blame for the current state of the department.
After the last full-time WSGS faculty member left in the mid-1990s to pursue employment at another school, the vacancy was not filled. This is largely attributed, according to Girton, to an overall lack of funding that the school experienced around the same time. As the financial situation improved, however, the vacancy still went unfilled.
Associate Professor and CTSJ Department Chair Jeffrey Tobin considers the integration option to be one of only two possible solutions to the current issues facing the WSGS department. Should this occur, then “the augmented CTSJ Department would give Oxy more of a gender studies department than a women’s studies department,” Tobin said.
If the WSGS department were not to be “folded into” the CTSJ department, then Tobin said that the department would need at least three full-time faculty members to “give Oxy the sort of women’s studies department that just about all comparable liberal arts colleges have.” As usual, both WSGS courses would be available and related courses from other departments would also count towards WSGS majors and minors. Either way, Anthropology major Karina Lyons (senior) noted, “we need faculty who will defend and fully support the WSGS major.”
Prager cited the recommendation of merging WSGS with CTSJ as a factor in the delayed decision on the faculty search request. “I wanted to take more time to consider that recommendation . . . with respect to this recommendation, I felt that we might increase our recruitment advantages if the position were not linked to a single department or a particular department,” she said. “I will continue to consider this recommendation.”
Prager also expressed an interest in revisiting the lengthy process of requesting approval for a faculty search. “I also plan to continue my conversations with Faculty Council and with the Academic Planning Council about our processes and about the respective roles of the President and Dean,” she said.
Wyatt, who has been a crucial faculty member for the WSGS department, supports the idea of combining WSGS with CTSJ. “It makes sense to me to house a new gender program in the department of Critical Theory and Social Justice because the study of gender has to embrace race, class and sexuality theories in order to clarify power relations in contemporary society,” she said. Wyatt and Professor Jane Jaquette (Professor Emerita of Politics and a key player in the original establishment of the department in the early 1970s) are planning to offer a class on Literature, Politics, and the Body next year. The class will be listed in both CTSJ and ECLS.
Cross-listing is something that Professor Girton would like to see the Registrar do more consistently because it enables students to see more clearly how they can take courses in a variety of departments to fulfill the major or minor. In addition, it would allow students to see what courses in the WSGS department can count towards other majors and minors.
That said, having to take a high number of non-WSGS courses to complete the major can have its pitfalls. WSGS major Molly McLaughlin (senior) has had considerable trouble. “Signing up for classes [in a range of other departments] is hard because of prerequisites . . . some classes are 200 or 300 levels in areas you’ve never taken 100 [level courses],” she said. “Basically, you end up being blocked from registering [and] have to run around getting permission to override the prerequisite, then try to add, and sometimes by then it’s full.”
also disagrees with the integration idea for WSGS and CTSJ. She feels that the two departments are not similar enough to enable a smooth and logical integration. “As far as I’m concerned, any school calling itself a ‘liberal arts college’ without a WSGS department isn’t,” she said.
Students and faculty alike are passionate about the significance of a strong WSGS department on Oxy’s campus. Heldman said that students should be “major players” in the continuing activism to revitalize the department.
Tobin agreed that WSGS still has a place on our campus. “The role of a women’s studies or gender studies department at a liberal arts college includes making a space for gender and sexual diversity in the curriculum, and bridging the gap between scholarship and politics,” he said.
Making that space rests primarily on hiring a full-time faculty member who can devote his or her time to revitalizing the WSGS department. “WSGS has fallen apart because it has neither a departmental home nor departmental clout,” Chin said. “If the College makes a full time WSGS hire, that person needs to be housed in a department that is willing and able to make a strong commitment not only to that particular person, but to the WSGS program. This means a willingness to make administrative and budgetary support of the program a departmental priority.”
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