BERNSTEIN: Not a major problem

The WGS major has social value, but also deserves respect as a legitimate academic pursuit

Last week, Ben Rudgley argued for an end to the Women, Gender and Sexuality (WGS) major. Though his intent is good — he argues that the major “exacerbates the problem it professes to oppose” — his view severely oversimplifies the issue of gender equality and the basis for the existence of the WGS department. There is no ground — academic, social or otherwise — for eliminating WGS from the University’s list of majors.

The main assumption of Rudgley’s argument is that WGS exists primarily to increase gender parity in academia and perhaps, more broadly, in society. This assumption is not entirely incorrect — the social effects of WGS are certainly important — but it completely overlooks the academic value in having a WGS department and major. The belief that this major exists just to increase gender parity is itself an arguably sexist belief; it suggests that a department about gender issues — which encompass not only history but also biology, sociology, philosophy and a whole host of other disciplines — does not have its own intrinsic academic value. As a generality, everything is a subject of legitimate study, and it would be difficult to make a cogent argument that the research done by the WGS department does not add to our academic and public discourse. It is supremely anti-intellectual to argue against the existence of a discipline, and the University prides itself on being an intellectual place.

Furthermore, certain topics in the WGS major simply cannot be absorbed by other departments or be properly addressed by redesigning the curricula of other majors. Courses like Gender-Based Violence and Reproductive Technology are legitimate academic pursuits that do not necessarily fit the scopes of other departments and majors, and eliminating the WGS major would mean robbing University students of these course options.

That said, though much of the WGS major is unique, there is some overlap between the WGS major and other departments, since the WGS major is an interdisciplinary major. This is inevitable, and it is not necessarily a flaw anyway; most majors have some overlapping requirements or material, since that is the nature of academia. A (perhaps unintended) premise of Rudgley’s argument is that an overlap in disciplines is bad, but if that’s the case the University needs to redesign almost every department to address this, which is of course unrealistic and unnecessary.

A further benefit of the WGS major, which Rudgley also fails to address, is its preprofessional value. Removing the WGS major would make the University less competitive, since, in addition to being an academic institution, the University also prepares students for future careers. For students who wish to pursue careers in human rights activism, public policy, managerial positions and social services — to name just a handful — a degree in WGS can be helpful. Eliminating the WGS major would not only eliminate a helpful major for students looking to pursue work in gender-related issues, but it would also deter students looking for a degree in gender studies from attending the University. That is not even to mention what a PR disaster the elimination of the WGS department would be for the University, which only began accepting women in 1970.

Though Rudgley’s main assumption that this major exists only to further gender parity is incorrect, the issue of gender parity is certainly relevant. One ideal benefit of having the WGS major is better representation of women and members of the LGBTQ community in academia and a better understanding of these issues by all students, which has yet to happen. Rudgley contends — and this is a very important issue — that mostly women and members of the LGBTQ community major in WGS, thus preventing the University from increasing gender parity in other disciplines and preventing the messages of the WGS department from getting out to the larger University community. Solutions to this issue would be: to rename the department the Gender Studies department and add classes that more clearly focus on issues pertaining to both sexes; to generally increase funding and expand the department (the opposite of what Rudgley suggests); to increase general awareness of the department among undergraduates; or to require certain WGS courses for all undergraduates. Each of these solutions, though they might also spark debate, would be far better than the elimination of the WGS department.

One suggestion Rudgley makes is that the University create a commission which would examine each department and restructure curricula to better represent male and female authors and perspectives. This would be a worthwhile endeavor and one the University should certainly explore, but to the extent that this commission could reinvigorate existing departments, it still would not make up for the need for the WGS major. We should absolutely try to find ways to make sure classes do more to demonstrate both male and female contributions to each discipline offered at the University, but this effort should not affect the existence of the WGS department, whose aim, as I have mentioned, transcends merely the social issue of gender equality.

That said, majors like WGS do highlight the issue of social equality and help women and those who are LGBTQ better understand the history and theories of these groups, which can empower University students. Furthermore, in addition to fueling that kind of empowerment, the WGS major is an undeniably valuable intellectual pursuit for students. Eliminating it would contradict the academic and social goals of the University.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Tuesdays.

Published March 4, 2014 in Opinion

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