WOMEN'S STUDIES ON THE EDGE A DIFFERENCES BOOK
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4274-8
Chapter One THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF WOMEN'S STUDIES
There is today enough retrospective analysis and harangue concerning the field of women's studies to raise the question of whether dusk on its epoch has arrived, even if nothing approaching Minerva's wisdom has yet emerged. Consider the public arguments about its value and direction over the past half decade: Is it rigorous? Scholarly? Quasi-religious? Doctrinaire? Is it anti-intellectual and too political? Overly theoretical and insufficiently political? Does it mass-produce victims instead of heroines, losers instead of winners? Or does it turn out jargon-speaking metaphysicians who have lost all concern with Real Women? Has it become unmoored from its founding principles? Was it captured by the radical fringe? The theoretical elite? The moon worshipers? The man-haters? The sex police? Perhaps even more interesting than the public debates are the questions many feminist scholars are asking privately: Why are so few younger scholars drawn to women's studies? Why are many senior feminist scholars, once movers and shakers in the making of women's studies programs, no longer involved with them? How did women's studies lose its cachet? Is it a casualty of rapidly changing trends and hot spots in academe, or has it outlived its time or its value in some more profound sense? Does it continue to secure a crucial political space in male-dominated academia? What is the relationship between its political and its intellectual mission?
I want to consider a problem to one side of these questions that might also shed light on them. To what extent is women's studies still tenable as an institutionalized domain of academic study, as a circumscribed intellectual endeavor appropriate as a basis for undergraduate or graduate degrees? Given the very achievements of feminist knowledge about foundations, identities, and boundaries over the last two decades, what are the intellectual premises of women's studies now? What are the boundaries that define it and differentiate it from other kinds of inquiry? These are not abstract questions, but ones that issue from the very real conundrums currently faced by those of us in women's studies. Consider the following examples from my own program, one that is formally strong and robust with its five full-time faculty, two hundred majors, and introductory courses that annually enroll more than seven hundred students (and hence reach nearly one quarter of the undergraduate population of the university as a whole).
In the early 1990s, women's studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, undertook that frightening project of self-scrutiny known as curriculum revision. What brought us to this point is itself interesting. For a number of years, we had maintained a set of requirements for the undergraduate degree that comprised an odd mix of the academically generic and the political, requirements that were not coined all at once as a coherent vision of a women's studies curriculum, but rather had been pieced together in response to various and conflicting demands as the program developed. The generic: students were required to take a three-term sequence consisting of "Introduction to Feminism," "Feminist Theory," and "Methodological Perspectives in Feminism," a sequence marked by category distinctions notably at odds with the expansive understanding of theory, the critique of methodism, and the challenge to a meaningful divide between the humanities and social sciences that are all putatively fundamental to feminist inquiry. This meant that quite often our first project in these courses was to undo the very distinctions we had given ourselves, thus repeating our founding rebellion against disciplinary distinctions, this time in our own house. The political: the only other content-specific requirement for the major was a course called "Women of Color in the United States," in which students gained some exposure to the histories, literatures, and cultures of Asian American, African American, Latina, and Native American women, and white students in the course learned to "decenter themselves" while women of color spoke.
This strange combination of genres in the curricular requirements schooled our students in the isolated intellectual (and putatively nonracialized) character of something called theory, the isolated (and putatively nontheoretical) political mandate of race, and the illusion that there was something called method (applied theory?) that unified all feminist research and thinking. Most of the students loved the experiential and issue-oriented introductory course, feared theory, disliked methods, and participated somewhat anxiously in the "Women of Color" class. Hence, most women's studies students regarded the requirements as something to be borne and the major as having its rewards in the particulars of the elective courses they chose or in the feminist community of students the major harbored. Moreover, the limited and incoherent nature of these requirements as a course of study meant that our students were obtaining their degrees on the basis of rather impoverished educations, something women have had too much of for too long.
But what happened when we finally sat down to revise the curriculum is even more interesting than the desires symptomatized by the existing curriculum-in particular, the desire for disciplinary status signified by the claim to a distinct theory and method (even as women's studies necessarily challenges disciplinarity) and the desire to conquer the racialized challenge to women's studies' early objects of study by institutionalizing that challenge in the curriculum. In our curriculum revision meetings, we found ourselves completely stumped over the question of what a women's studies curriculum should contain. Since, in addition to trying to produce a curriculum that would express the range, depth, and problems occupying women's studies scholarship, we were also trying to address faculty frustration about students not being well enough trained in anything to provide rewarding classroom exchange in the faculty's areas of expertise, we focused intently on the question of what would constitute an intellectually rigorous as well as coherent program. We speculatively explored a number of possibilities-a thematically organized curriculum; pathways that roughly followed the disciplines; more extensive requirements in each domain of feminist scholarship that the faculty considered important-but each possibility collapsed under close analysis. Each approach seemed terribly arbitrary, each featured some dimension of feminist scholarship that had no reason to be privileged, each continued to beg the question of what a well-educated student in women's studies ought to know and the tools with which she ought to craft her thinking. We also found ourselves repeatedly mired by a strange chasm between faculty and students in the program: a majority of our majors were interested in some variant of feminist sociological or psychological analysis-experientially, empirically, and practically oriented-or in studies of popular culture. Yet not one of our core faculty worked in sociology, psychology, community studies, communications, or film/video. Many of our students wanted to think, learn, and talk about body image and eating disorders, gender and sexuality in the media, sexual practices, intimate relationships, sexual violence, how children and adolescents are gendered, and survivor identities ranging from alcohol to incest. Our five core and three most closely affiliated faculty were trained respectively in American literature, American history, Chinese history, English literature, Renaissance Italian and French literature, Western political theory, European history, and molecular biology. As feminist scholars, we have clearly strayed from the most traditional boundaries of these fields, just as we have learned and taught material relatively unrelated to them, but even this reformation of our training and scholarly orientation could not close the gap between the students' interests and our own.
If the practical project we set for ourselves in revising the curriculum was running aground, certainly we were in the grip of an important historical-political problem. Why, when we looked closely at this project for which we had fought so hard and which was now academically institutionalized, could we find no there there? That is, why was the question of what constituted the fundamentals of knowledge in women's studies so elusive to us? We were up against more than the oft-discussed division between "women's studies" and feminist theory, the political insidiousness of the institutional division between "ethnic studies" and "women's studies," a similarly disturbing division between queer theory and feminist theory, or the way that the ostensibly less identitarian rubric of "cultural studies" promised but failed to relieve these troubling distinctions. And we were up against more than the paradox that the disciplines that have been so radically denatured in recent years are also apparently those that we cannot completely do without, if only to position ourselves against them within them. We were also up against more than the dramatic fracturing of women's studies as a domain of inquiry during the last decade-the fact that contemporary feminist scholarship is not a single conversation but is instead engaged with respective domains of knowledge, or bodies of theory, that are themselves infrequently engaged with each other. And we were up against more than the ways that this decade's theoretical challenges to the stability of the category of gender, and political challenges to a discourse of gender apart from race, class, and other markers of social identity, constituted very nearly overwhelming challenges to women's studies as a coherent endeavor. We were up against more than the fact that many of the intellectual impulses originally formative of women's studies have now dispersed themselves-appropriately, productively, yet in ways that profoundly challenged the turf that women's studies historically claimed as its own, especially the terrains of sexuality and of race.
We were up against more than any one of these challenges because we were up against all of them. And together, they called into question the quarter-century-old project of institutionalizing as curriculum, method, field, major, or bachelor of arts what was a profoundly important political moment in the academy, the moment in which women's movements challenged the ubiquitous misogyny, masculinism, and sexism in academic research, curricula, canons, and pedagogies. Indisputably, women's studies as a critique of such practices was politically important and intellectually creative. Women's studies as a contemporary institution, however, may be politically and theoretically incoherent, as well as tacitly conservative-incoherent because by definition it circumscribes uncircumscribable "women" as an object of study, and conservative because it must resist all objections to such circumscription if it is to sustain that object of study as its raison d'être. Hence the persistent theory wars, race wars, and sex wars notoriously ravaging women's studies in the 1980s, not to mention the ways in which women's studies has sometimes greeted uncomfortably (and even with hostility) the rise of feminist literary studies and theory outside of its purview, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and cultural studies. Theory that destabilizes the category of women, racial formations that disrupt the unity or primacy of the category, and sexualities that similarly blur the solidarity of the category-each of these must be resisted, restricted, or worse, colonized, to preserve the realm. Each, therefore, is compelled to go elsewhere, while women's studies consolidates itself in the remains, impoverished by the lack of challenges from within, bewildered by its new ghettoization in the academy-this time by feminists themselves.
If uncertainty about what constitutes a women's studies education is a persistent whisper in all undergraduate program development, it positively howls as a problem at the level of graduate training. Since our program has regularly been invited by our administration over the past decade to submit a plan for a graduate program, we have struggled repeatedly to conjure the intellectual basis for a Ph.D. program in women's studies. In what should the graduate student in women's studies be trained? What bodies of knowledge must a women's studies doctoral candidate have mastered and why? Which women should she know about and what should she know about them? Which techniques of analyzing gender should she command and why? Ethnography or oral history? Lacanian psychoanalysis? Quantitative sociological analysis? Objects relations theory? Literary theory? Postcolonial criticism? Neo-Marxist theories of labor and political economy? Social history? Critical science studies? There is a further question: who are we to teach these things simply because we are interested in feminism and feminist analysis from our own scholarly perspectives?
The unanswered question of what women's studies is also manifests itself in day-to-day concerns about what may count as a women's studies course and who may count as an affiliated member of a women's studies faculty. Almost all women's studies programs rely on faculty and curricular offerings in other departments, both because they are too small to do otherwise and because of the proud interdisciplinarity undergirding the intellectual project of women's studies. But if political devotion to the cause (once the main criterion for who is in women's studies and who is not) no longer serves as the measure for what constitutes a women's studies course, what does? Must such a class be focused solely or primarily on women? (What of feminist courses on other topics, such as feminist science studies or studies in masculinity, and what of nonfeminist courses concerned with women?) Must the class be taught from a feminist perspective? (What counts as such a perspective and who decides?) Is it a class that potentially contributes to feminist theory and research? (Don't most well-conceived courses in the social sciences and humanities potentially make such a contribution?)
For many women's studies programs, the difficulty of deciding these things leads to some strange curricular formations: Chaucer taught by one faculty member may count for women's studies, but not when it is taught by another; "Introduction to Sociology" does not count, but a course called "The Chicano Experience" does; philosophy courses on phenomenology are excluded, but courses on Saussure and Derrida are included; "Early Modern Europe" taught by a feminist historian counts, but "Modern Europe" taught by a nonfeminist does not; similarly, Lacan taught by a lesbian feminist semiotician counts, while Lacan taught by an avant-garde art historian and filmmaker does not; an anthropology course called "Queer Political Cultures" counts, but one called "Peoples and Cultures of the American Southwest" does not. And then there is the endless petitioning. A student wants to know if her invertebrate biology course, in which she focused intensely on biological discourses of mating, might count-and why not? Another student wonders whether he can include his history of political theory courses-and what better background for grasping the antecedents of feminist political theory? A third student complains that her "Psychology of Women" course, listed as a women's studies elective, mostly trafficked in unreconstructed psychological behaviorism and was not feminist at all. Yet another petitions to have her passion for psychoanalytic feminism certified as legitimate by letting her count all her studies in Freud and Klein as part of her feminist education. Especially given the strange routes by which most faculty arrived at women's studies, and given the diverse materials we draw upon to vitalize our own research, who are we to police the intellectual boundaries of this endeavor? And how did we become cops anyway?
Excerpted from WOMEN'S STUDIES ON THE EDGE Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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