EDITOR'S NOTE: Ben wrote a follow-up to this column on March 6. It can be found here.
The academic trend of incorporating women’s studies into the menu of majors and courses offered at institutions of higher learning pervaded the University’s academic governance some time ago. It is not a new phenomenon. It is, however, one that has been subject to little scrutiny because of the political power of calls for equity in treatment of men, women and minorities. The issue should be questioned especially because University funding is continually diverted to a department that only exacerbates the problem it professes to oppose — inequality of academic recognition between the sexes. The logic of such programs is this: for too long dead white men, and their work, have dominated the reading lists and curricula offered at the University, and in order to equalize recognition of women and minorities, a Women, Gender & Sexuality major — and courses focused on the achievements of women and the LBTQ community — are now offered to students. Unfortunately, though, these changes not only make a mockery out of calls for greater equity but also perpetuate the existing structural biases in certain disciplines toward the achievements of dead white men.
Segregating academic offerings
at the University by gender focus only
reinforces the problem — that courses,
in all disciplines, do too little to offer
a holistic approach to treatment of men
and women in history, politics
Courses that deal with women or include women in the title (as many WGS classes do) compromise the integrity of calls for equality in education because they necessarily place emphasis on a single gender’s achievements or role in history at the expense of the other. Reverse biases do nothing to level the playing field. If we’d reject a course entitled “History of Men in the Media” then we must also dismiss the converse. Segregating academic offerings at the University by gender focus only reinforces the problem — that courses, in all disciplines, do too little to offer a holistic approach to treatment of men and women in history, politics or literature.
Furthermore, a reality of the WGS major is that it doesn’t force University students, both male and female, to receive fair recognition of both sexes’ contributions to each academic discipline. If the majority of students enrolled in the WGS major and WGS courses are women and members of the LGBTQ community, how can the people who most need exposure to this alternative, female-oriented education be gaining any new perspectives or insights? Indeed, the single strength of women’s studies — its capacity to enhance recognition of female achievements in every academic field — is exposed only to those students who need it least, which worsens the WGS’s perpetuation of de facto educational segregation by gender. Thus, by teaching its students what they have already learned, the WGS major finds itself redundant and its course offerings should be condensed into their respective fields’ existing departments (“Sexuality, Gender, Class and Race in Teen Film,” for example, should be a Media Studies class) or those which they are already cross listed with. Another solution is to reinvigorate each academic department, and their courses, with a broader, more holistic approach to education. If women’s studies advocates have any basis for their arguments, then a comprehensive change to each department to make their courses, and their reading lists, more inclusive of women would be far more effective. If the University is perceived to have any lingering unfair biases towards old white men, then a University commission would be the best approach. Such a commission might examine each department and — by taking a more comprehensive, school-wide path — would be far better equipped to instill education equity than any major or any classes that are necessarily weighted, both in material and audience, in favor of women.
If the majority of students
enrolled in the WGS major and WGS courses
are women and members of the
LGBTQ community, how can the people
who most need exposure to this alternative,
female-oriented education be gaining
any new perspectives or insights?
I have been struck, however, at the impressive parity of male to female authors at all my classes here across many disciplines and do not believe that much work, if any, has to be done. This is both an organic and designed trend. It is mostly organic because courses whose readings have contemporary relevance tend to draw heavily on the work of women who, more than ever, are at the cutting edge of academia in all fields. It is also, in part, designed as the University’s professors and departments are keen to be inclusive and holistic in their treatment and recognition of women, as calls for equality are not new and have long been a part of mainstream educational philosophy. Even if a commission would be a more constructive, comprehensive approach, it’s ultimately one that the University — a progressive and inclusive community — doesn’t need. As a university, we should place faith in our students, professors and deans by leaving behind dogmatism-fuelled calls for the continued existence of gender-specific classes and the Women, Gender and Sexuality department.
Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint writer.