I always start the first lecture of WMS 150: Introduction to Women’s Studies by tackling what seems to be the most obvious of questions: “What is Women’s Studies”? The majority of students sign up for the course with little knowledge of the discipline or what is expected of them. This is not surprising; most high school curricula do not cover the topic, and outside of academia Women’s Studies seems to fall victim to the same misconceptions and abuses that feminism does. Students do usually seem to have a vague sense that Women’s Studies has something to do with feminism, but again, without actually knowing what feminism is, this knowledge doesn’t provide them with much insight. This discussion of “definition” has become even more relevant this semester as WMS 150 has finally been approved as “Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies,” an exciting development that accompanies a faculty vote to begin the process to change the program’s name here at the University of Rhode Island to Gender and Women’s Studies. While courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program will still be committed to investigating women’s experiences, perspectives, and contributions, our proposed name change represents the program’s study of how the social construction of gender and the social relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives (or, as one student suggested on Thursday, our “self-identity” in a gendered world). Our new name also better reflects the ways that Women’s Studies has, and continues to, address issues of ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, along with the fight for social justice and equality.
This question of “naming” has been on my mind for some time, and apparently I am not alone in my thoughts. In the recently published Rethinking Women’s and Gender Studies (Routledge 2012) editors Catherine M. Orr, Ann Braithwaite, and Diane Lichtenstein have compiled a strong collection of essays that address this very question. In exploring the “genealogy” of key terms associated with Gender and Women’s Studies (such as “feminism,” “activism,” “interdisciplinarity,” and “institutionalization”), the essays in the collection not only speak to the changing dynamics of the field of Gender and Women’s Studies, but also asks those engaged in this field of work to consider how “questioning any of these terms lead[s] us to issues we may not want to face, stakes we might not want to acknowledge, conclusions that may challenge us too deeply” (3). It’s a provocative challenge, and one that I hope to purse over the course of the semester, particularly in my instruction of WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action.
With this course, again, I’m brought back to this idea of “naming” as I, along with my students, consider the implications of “feminist thought” and “action.” What can be expected from such a course? My query speaks directly to Orr’s, Braithwaite’s, and Lichtenstein’s concerns, as they ask, “Why, for example is a term such as ‘feminism’ so easily assumed to be a requisite” for Gender and Women’s Studies, and likewise, why do “we repeat so widely and often” that Gender and Women’s Studies “is ‘activist’ yet seldom articulate exactly what we mean, or do not mean, by that term, or how it might function to propel the field in directions that should, at the very least, require further investigation” (2). While the catalog description of WMS 320 as “political thought, analysis, and activism campaigns for women’s rights” offers some direction, it seems to me that true “feminist thought into action” should require some type of active component, while at the same time, interrogate the very assumptions that Orr, Braithwaite, and Lichtenstein draw our attention to. Therefore, in this course I hope to not only have my students engage in their own forms of personal activism, but to push analysis even further into a critical engagement that questions the very relationships of feminism, activism, and Gender and Women’s Studies. That is, what is the value of these terms on their own, and how do they (or not?) contribute to the changing dynamics of Gender and Women’s Studies here at the University of Rhode Island and beyond?
Here’s a copy of the email I sent to the students in WMS 320 welcoming them to the course.
Welcome! If you are receiving this email it means you are currently registered for WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action. I am excited by all the names I recognize on the roster, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you that I do not yet know.
This is my third time teaching WMS 320, and I am extremely excited to be teaching it in a hybrid class format for the first time. I’m also excited about the updates and changes I’ve made to the course, as well as the additional credit opportunity that is being offered. I imagine that this course is going to be very different than any other Women’s Studies course (and perhaps any courses in other disciplines) that you have taken. I encourage you to visit our Sakai site as well as jennbrandt.net for more details. Please do not feel overwhelmed or confused by the outline or requirements of the class. I will explain everything in detail on Tuesday. My goal is to make this class as informative, useful, and FUN, as possible. All you need to bring is an open-mind and enthusiasm; the rest we will figure out together.
Please note that there is a text required for the course. It can be ordered online at Amazon.com, directly from the publisher, or at the URI bookstore. There is a also a copy of the text on reserve at the URI library.
Please email me directly with any questions. I will be in my office on Monday and on Tuesday before class if anyone would like to meet with me. I also encourage you to post on the blog a welcome hello to your classmates and our readers.
Enjoy these last few days of break!
With the semester less than a week away, it’s time for me to finalize my syllabi and get moving with things. The course description and syllabus for WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action are now available. Since I am requiring students in this course to participate and comment on the blog, I imagine that most of the activity here will be related to this course. In addition to undertaking a semester long research project, students will also be using social media to put the “action” into feminist thought. I’m excited to see what my students find and how they relate this aspect of the course with their research projects.
Students in WMS 320 also have the unique opportunity to register for an additional credit by participating in the Radcliffe Institute for Advance Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference on March 30 at Harvard University. Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies students from a number of classes at URI will be traveling to Cambridge to participate events. The Gender and Women’s Studies Program is also in the process of contacting conference speakers about a suggested reading list for students. Once classes begin and the conference nears, I will be posting more details.
This semester I will be experimenting with online tools and social media in the courses I am teaching at the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island School of Design. I will be using Twitter to send my students updates about class, links to articles, and to facilitate classroom discussion. I will also be blogging about my experiences here on this site, and will encourage my students to comment and add to the discussion. While I do not have a specific goal in mind for this site and exercise, I am hoping that it will expand my pedagogical toolbox, enhance the learning experience for my students, and foster fun and creative dialogues. I have no idea how well this will work, but I am excited to see where things go. I welcome suggestions from anyone who has integrated similar technology into the classroom, as well as general thoughts and comments.