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(Inter)disciplinarity and the question of the women's studies Ph.D.

I am of two minds about interdisciplinary doctoral programs in women's studies. Mostly, I oppose them, but second thoughts unravel many of my objections, leaving me to wonder about grand futures and how we might get to them. My ambivalence is rooted in theoretical, pedagogical, pragmatic, and ethical concerns that arise out of the creative interaction between the disciplinary and interdisciplinary aspects of women's studies. From the beginning of feminist reform in the academy in the late 1960s, the claim has been made that women's studies must be interdisciplinary, an insistence supported by the transgression of traditional disciplinary boundaries in faculty research, teaching, and service and in governance structures of women's studies programs. Yet however much their work is informed by interdisciplinarity, most of the people making this claim have been firmly anchored in a discipline, trained and institutionally based in one of the traditional fields that women's studies - in its politics and interdisciplinarity - sets out to transform. This contradiction has been richly productive for women's studies. It also underlies and complicates the issue of doctoral degree programs, all the more so because both disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity are constantly changing phenomena reflecting the evolving nature and function of the academy itself. I want to sketch in the institutional setting out of which I have formed my views, lay out the case against the interdisciplinary women's studies Ph.D., and then raise questions about the limitations of this opposition.


As a well-established and relatively well-funded program founded in 1975, the UW-Madison Women's Studies Program appears to be just the kind of program that would already have or ought to be developing a Ph.D. degree program. The fact that there is no support for such a development in our program is significant in itself, especially in the context of doctoral programs in women's studies currently being developed at similar institutions, such as the University of Iowa and the University of Washington. Compared with many other programs, we have had considerable institutional support from the beginning, a situation that has allowed us to establish a relatively stable faculty base and a broad interdisciplinary curriculum covering the biological sciences as well as the social sciences and the humanities. The program's annual operating budget runs about $550,000, and course enrollments reach about 2,300 per year with another 2,000 students turned away. Fourteen program faculty members have budgeted joint appointments (20 to 50 percent), all but one with a tenure "home" in a department.(1) An additional forty-three faculty are program members and affiliates, serving on committees, teaching or administering in the program on a released-time basis, or teaching feminist courses in their departments, many of which are cross-listed in the Women's Studies Program. The program offers twenty-eight courses of its own, including three interdisciplinary introductory courses, four interdisciplinary intermediate-level courses, a feminist theory sequence, a capstone seminar for majors, a research seminar for graduate students, and a number of discipline-based courses.(2) Additionally, the program cross-lists approximately twenty-five departmental women's studies courses. In any given semester, students interested in women's studies can choose from about eleven to fourteen program courses, eight to ten cross-listed courses, and a substantial array of un-cross-listed departmental courses that focus on women and/or gender. There are about 180 to 200 women's studies majors and an additional 75 students earning certificates equivalent to a minor.

At the graduate level, the program offers a twelve-credit Ph.D. minor in women's studies. There is substantial support and a plan for an M.A. degree, but insufficient resources to develop it at present. Consequently, the program does not enroll its own graduate students; feminist training at the graduate level takes place primarily within a departmental, discipline-based structure. The History Department, for example, offers a Ph.D. in women's history as part of its American history degree, and the English Department offers a specialization in women's writing and feminist literary theory. The university's requirement of a Ph.D. minor has been a boon to the many graduate students interested in interdisciplinary women's studies; at any given time, about forty to fifty graduate students are enrolled in the Ph.D. minor in women's studies. Many students get further women's studies training by becoming teaching assistants and/or lecturers in the program, attending Research Center activities, and serving on committees, learning firsthand the difficult curricular, budgetary, and governance issues facing women's studies programs.

All in all, graduate students who want to become women's studies teachers and scholars can get excellent training at UW-Madison, and they come to the campus in large numbers to do so. But not through a Ph.D. degree offered by women's studies. Why not? And why hasn't this program moved more quickly to establish graduate degrees of its own? There is no lack of commitment to feminism, no lack of academic credibility. The university has been on the whole quite proud of the program's national and international stature, acknowledged through many research and teaching awards. Nor have we faced the kind of factionalization that has hampered the growth of many women's studies programs. The relatively few discussions we have had about instituting a women's studies Ph.D. leave me with little to report - except for the significance in and of itself that such a large, well-funded program has not moved in this direction. Although I cannot speak for everyone, I believe there is general consensus on theoretical and pragmatic reasons for not instituting such a degree.


The pragmatic reasons for not attempting at this point to establish a Ph.D. program in women's studies are material and ethical-both immediate and painfully real.(3) First, I worry about newly graduated students eagerly grasping their interdisciplinary Ph.D. degrees in hand and even more eagerly entering the job market. Who hires a Ph.D. in women's studies? For the most part, not sociology, literature, history, political science, or economics departments. None of the traditional departments is likely to hire a feminist teacher-scholar who is not trained in a "regular" discipline. It is difficult enough, especially in the social and biological sciences, for a feminist scholar to get a job in this time of shrinking markets. Specializations such as women's history, feminist theory, or gender studies do appear in job announcements, but most hiring follows traditional categories for specialization, such as historical period in literary studies or a subfield like international relations, area studies, or constitutional law in political science. Feminists often get their jobs by demonstrating how their feminist work is integrated into common departmental categories. Whatever the acknowledgment and support for women's studies in a particular setting, the overwhelming number of feminist teachers and scholars are hired by and must survive in traditional departmental and disciplinary structures.

The loophole, of course, is the women's studies department that does its own hiring (subject to approval by deans and other higher-ups). But how many women's studies departments are there in the U.S. academy? Equally pressing, how many such departments would want someone with an interdisciplinary degree instead of a Ph.D. in sociology or history or economics with a feminist specialization and some interdisciplinary experience? How many deans or campuswide tenure and promotion committees are eager to support someone with an interdisciplinary degree? And although the number of departments that serve as tenure homes (especially 100 percent tenure homes) for women's studies faculty is slowly increasing, this number still remains very small.(4) The most common administrative structure for women's studies still overwhelmingly relies entirely or partially on traditional departments for the hiring and tenuring of faculty. Most such programs have a small budget that supports a faculty coordinator, an administrative staff, and one or two interdisciplinary courses that supplement departmentally funded courses listed with (but not controlled by) the program. Less common than these programs but more common than departments are those women's studies programs (like my own) that have joint-appointment faculty whose tenure resides in home departments. Such programs have more substantial budgetary and curricular independence, with significant input in hiring and tenuring; but even in these programs, faculty must fulfill the needs and expectations of their home disciplines.

In sum, the hiring and promotion patterns for feminists in the American academy today are such that it would be very difficult for people with interdisciplinary Ph.D.'s in women's studies to succeed on the academic market. I recognize that people have used this same argument against the formation of undergraduate majors in women's studies, asking what kind of a job a women's studies major can expect to find. This issue does not, it seems to me, pose the same kind of ethical problem. Although some people think that a B.A. or B.S. ought to be more narrowly career oriented, the liberal arts tradition of a broad-based education remains alive and well in the United States, and an undergraduate degree in women's studies fulfills this mission just as well as other majors. But Ph.D. degrees in the United States are another matter entirely: they constitute professional training for teachers and/or researchers, much as law school or medical school trains lawyers and doctors. Students invest enormous amounts of time and money in such professional training and have a right, I believe, to expect a job in higher education at the completion of the Ph.D. Women's studies offers no exception to the responsibility of any graduate program to attempt to place its students in jobs. The number of women's studies departments with the institutional independence to hire and promote their own faculty (subject to administrative approval, of course) remains too few in number to absorb significant numbers of job candidates with Ph.D.'s in women's studies. Given the far greater prevalence of women's studies programs that rely on joint appointments or nonbudgeted faculty, I do not believe we can fulfill that responsibility to graduate students as the academy is constituted today if we encourage them to pursue interdisciplinary Ph.D.'s in women's studies.(5)

The second pragmatic difficulty facing attempts to forge ahead with a doctoral degree program is budgetary. Where will the faculty and money to support them come from to expand women's studies, especially at a time when higher education is facing increasing pressure to do more for less? Realistically speaking, how can women's studies compete successfully for a larger piece of a shrinking pie to support the development of a Ph.D. program when there is no strong demand to hire people with such a degree? If the money comes from reallocations of current women's studies budgets, what will happen to existing curricula, especially undergraduate majors, minors, and certificates? Given the breadth requirements for these degrees, how can programs maintain needed courses and at the same time develop a substantial graduate curriculum? What about the mission of women's studies in general to reach a broad base of undergraduate students, nonmajors as well as majors?

Such questions invoke the current budgetary struggles of higher education in general. Although these conditions take shape quite differently in public and private institutions, the academy is facing a period of tremendous transition as we head more deeply into the cyberspatialized information age and the increased competition of a transnational, globalized market system. It is difficult to predict the future funding situations of the research-teaching institutions that produce Ph.D.'s; some question how many will even survive, predicting that research will move off campus, and distance education will replace many residence programs at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Private institutions face increased demands to justify their huge fees by strengthening undergraduate education. Public institutions must negotiate the mine-fields produced by an ever-more hostile voting public and the competing political interests in state legislatures. No women's studies program can afford to stick its head in the sand by ignoring these larger forces that lead to concrete budgetary constraints. Debates about expansion into graduate degrees must take into account the complicated interactions of all these contexts.

The situation in Wisconsin serves as a telling case in point, particularly because we face a more favorable climate for public education than many other universities. The state has a tradition of strong support for the university, did not experience the recession of the early 1990s, and has a booming economy with low unemployment. The University of Wisconsin system has not experienced the draconian cuts that hit university systems like those of New York and California. But Wisconsin taxpayers are in no mood to support expansions in higher education or increases in tuition. As in other parts of the country, backlash against multiculturalism, feminism, and lesbian and gay movements fuels attacks on the university as a hotbed of "politically correct" radicalism, overspecialization, and overemphasis on research. Although faculty despair over increasing student loads and struggle to keep up with their rapidly changing fields, the public often perceives a dire abandonment of the traditional curriculum and an erosion of commitment to undergraduate education. Facing tax revolts, an enrollment bubble of baby boomers' children in the coming years, and reductions in external research support, the university has had to downsize substantially and anticipates increasingly powerful demands for faculty cutbacks and higher teaching loads.

In this larger context, growth for the Women's Studies Program has hit a glass ceiling in spite of strong support from the administration. Growing steadily in size of faculty and number of courses through the 1980s, the program has not been allowed to expand in the 1990s, even with the tenacious efforts of program administrators to make the case for more faculty based on high student demand for courses and a large pool of majors, certificate students, and Ph.D. minors. As it is, we have far too few faculty, a situation exacerbated by their very success and seniority, which has led to frequent leaves for research and administrative posts. It would be short-sighted indeed at a teaching/research institution like UW-Madison to discourage such leaves. Students have access to cutting-edge work in women's studies precisely because the faculty actively engage in research. Moreover, the administrative positions that our faculty hold throughout the campus greatly forward the program's mission to transform traditional disciplines and departments. As a consequence, however, the program has had to hire many lecturers (mostly dissertators) to staff its courses. They have done a superb job, but such staffing patterns are not good for long-term stability. Compounding these problems is the reluctance of many program faculty to teach the interdisciplinary core courses; they prefer to teach women's studies courses based in their home disciplines.

Realistically speaking, UW-Madison's Women's Studies Program faces a very difficult struggle just to maintain what it has. The development of even an M.A. degree program, let alone a Ph.D., seems like a luxury we can't afford without seriously gutting the undergraduate curriculum - and this, in a relatively large and well-supported women's studies program on a campus committed to its research as well as its teaching mission, in a state economically well-off with a tradition of strongly supporting its university. What is the picture, I wonder, at universities where women's studies still faces an uphill battle for academic legitimacy or significant budgetary resources, where feminist faculty are scarce, or where regional economies are languishing?

Enough on pragmatics. What about theory and pedagogical practice? Given sufficient resources, is an interdisciplinary doctoral program in women's studies intellectually viable as the academy is currently structured in the United States? I have grave doubts. This (ambivalent) opposition should in no way be equated with doubts about interdisciplinarity. I am firmly committed to interdisciplinarity in general and to the particular interdisciplinarity of women's studies. Moreover, I have extensive experience in interdisciplinary research and teaching in both women's studies and literary studies.(6) Instead, my doubts center on the admittedly contested and changing meanings of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, the interactive symbiosis between the two, and the place of women's studies within this terrain. The establishment of doctoral programs in women's studies as a form of professional training for future academics requires in my view some grappling with how academic knowledge is organized and taught within institutions of higher education.

What is an academic discipline? Michel Foucault's answer in such books as Discipline and Punish, Archaeology of Knowledge, and The Order of Things taps the negative connotations of "discipline" to define it as an institutional organization of knowledge characterized by a discursive system with regulatory, coercive effects that confine knowledge within certain sets of limiting boundaries. Within this view, disciplines function ideologically and are subject to the transgressive acts of those who refuse to be confined to or excluded from the disciplinary guild. I prefer a locational approach that acknowledges the potentially positive as well as negative effects of knowledge boundaries.(7) The word's resonance with systematic, sustained, and highly skilled labor, even craftsmanship, is as significant for me as its association with punishment. Academic disciplines not only regulate and certify but also enable expertise and depth of knowledge.

In agreement with Foucault (among others), I furthermore stress that academic disciplines are not static essences inscribed in the heavens with some a priori, Platonic rightness (or wrongness) of fixed being. Instead, as somewhat arbitrary categories for organizing knowledge and inquiry, they are cultural formations with historically specific conditions of origin, expansion, change, transformation, decline, and demise - all processes that necessarily engage the power relations of the academy, itself an immensely significant institution within the larger society for the production and dissemination of knowledge. As such, I regard an academic discipline as a form of intellectual work with the following minimum components: (1) a specific focus of inquiry and commonly asked questions; (2) an ever-expanding body of knowledge open to challenge and change; (3) a specialized discourse fostering advanced work and communication; (4) methodologies specifically related to the focus of inquiry and broadly related to shared research strategies in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, or creative and performing arts; (5) a collective body of scholars and teachers trained in - and training new generations in - the discipline; (6) professional organizations and societies; (7) an institutional base within the academy; and (8) relations with institutional organizations outside the academy for funding, disseminating, and regulating knowledge.(8) In sum, academic disciplines do establish boundaries, functioning as a form of professional guild. In advancing the development of some knowledge, they close doors to other kinds of knowledge. As boundaries, they should be transgressed. But to be transgressed, they must exist.(9)

What then is interdisciplinarity? Within a Foucauldian framework, interdisciplinarity represents resistance to the policing effects of disciplinary regulation. This has led some to regard interdisciplinarity as the panacea to the academy's coercions. Although I agree that disciplinary boundaries must continually be crossed, my locational approach addresses the changing specifics of interdisciplinarity and recognizes its limitations as well as its benefits. Interdisciplinarity is as much a cultural formation subject to change and politics as disciplinarity. As a form of intellectual, methodological, and institutional hybridity, interdisciplinarity depends for its meaning upon the prior existence of disciplinarity. As a kind of umbrella category, interdisciplinarity refers to various forms of disciplinary transgressions and the mixing of disciplines. But like debates about hybridity in general, there is considerable disagreement about whether interdisciplinarity involves a mingling of disciplines in which differences are retained or an integrated fusion of different disciplines into something entirely new. The term "multidisciplinarity" often appears in reference to the combination of different disciplines that remain distinct, and the term "interdisciplinary" is often used in a more specific sense than its umbrella meaning to indicate fusion.(10)

Motherhood, for example, is a topic in women's studies that demands interdisciplinarity in its broad sense. A multidisciplinary approach might bring together feminist biologists, psychologists, historians, art historians, political scientists, sociologists, literary critics, and economists to shed different disciplinary lights on aspects of motherhood. An interdisciplinary approach (in the narrow sense of the term) would attempt to integrate the knowledge of the different disciplines so as to develop an understanding of motherhood that no single discipline could produce on its own. Complicating the distinction is the question of whether individuals are attempting to be interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary or whether a team of people is working collaboratively to produce the integrated knowledge. The challenge of integrating or combining disciplines is different for individuals and groups, and the issue is of vital importance for women's studies curricula, faculty, and degree programs of all kinds.(11)

Where does the debate about doctoral programs in women's studies fit in this shifting terrain of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity? No one questions the imperative for women's studies to be interdisciplinary, although people advocate various forms and conditions of its interdisciplinarity. The issue is whether women's studies programs or departments should take primary responsibility for training future scholar-teachers in a field spanning the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts or whether such training should remain predominantly in the disciplines, supplemented by interdisciplinarity and bonded throughout by feminist theory.

The crux of the matter, I believe, lies in the debate about whether women's studies is itself a discipline or an interdisciplinary field anchored in existing disciplines. In short, can and should women's studies exist as a separate body of knowledge and methodology, relatively autonomous and encompassing the disciplinary components I have outlined? Or does and should it exist only in sustained and interdependent dialogue with bodies of knowledge and methodologies in existing disciplines? Compounding the complexity of this question is the increasing interdisciplinarity of many traditional disciplines as concepts of specialization reform on the changing landscapes of knowledge. For those who see women's studies as a discipline, the formation of doctoral degree programs in women's studies is a logical next step and a professional necessity. For those who see women's studies as an interdisciplinary field that feeds off of, juxtaposes, integrates, and fuses the more specialized inquities within existing disciplines, doctoral programs in women's studies pose serious intellectual and pedagogical problems. The paradox here is that advocacy of a broadly interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in women's studies actually rests upon the premise that women's studies is a new discipline deserving and needing to train and certify its own specialists. In contrast, the belief that feminist scholar-teachers should continue to get Ph.D.'s in traditional disciplines remains rooted in the view that women's studies should combine interdisciplinary feminist perspectives with discipline-based knowledge and methodologies.

The part of me that sides against doctoral programs in women's studies has its center in a number of reservations about their intellectual and pedagogic viability at this time. First, I am concerned about the contradictions inherent in training graduate students to do something that faculty themselves do not and may not even want to do. On the current academic landscape, the construction of a Ph.D. program in women's studies as a discipline involves drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches to any number of topics important to the study of gender. Whatever its specifics, a women's studies doctorate would require students (if not faculty) to cross existing disciplinary boundaries and bring to bear on the study of gender the foci, knowledge, and methodology of the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and the arts. Most likely, the curriculum would be largely multidisciplinary, with an array of feminist courses anchored in traditional disciplines supplemented by a smaller number of interdisciplinary seminars in feminist theory, methodology, cultural studies, or special topics. Most likely, the faculty would continue to have a home discipline while the graduate students would not. Faced with a largely multidisciplinary curriculum, students, unlike their faculty, would have no grounding in a traditional discipline. In graduate training, this constitutes a serious anomaly. Faculty would be educating students to do what they themselves could not do and might not even want to do, however much they broaden their original disciplinary training through selected engagements with other disciplines.

Second, my experience with interdisciplinarity in all its forms leaves me committed to the notion that it is most successful when it emerges out of a firm grasp of the knowledge bases and methodologies of at least one of the existing disciplines. It is one thing to develop a strong home base which one enriches and challenges with ideas and methods from other areas; it is another thing entirely to be interdisciplinary from the get-go, combining a little of this and a little of that into a form of intellectual bricolage. If the danger of disciplinarity resides in potential overspecialization, the danger of interdisciplinarity rests in potential superficiality. Disciplinarity offers depth but also insularity; interdisciplinarity offers scope but also rootlessness. Each counters the excesses of the other. I prefer a symbiotic relationship between the two, with each reining in the limitations of the other. Moreover, the brilliant breakthroughs that interdisciplinarity potentially achieves often depend upon this symbiotic relationship. As Marianna De Marco Torgovnick writes, "Interdisciplinary study works because people from one discipline are not routinely bound by the same assumptions as people from another. They do not necessarily share the same blind spots, focus on the same things, or think about problems in the same way....In other words, interdisciplinarity brings with it the benefits of defamiliarization."(13) In these terms, interdisciplinarity results either from a collaborative process where people from different disciplines interact or from a form of individual intellectual travel away from one's home discipline. The latter involves forays into other disciplines for theory, methodology, and/or information that the researcher brings back for its capacity to challenge and shed light on disciplinary knowledge.

Such borrowings and adaptations have characterized women's studies from the beginning. The problem doctoral programs in women's studies raise is that their interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary curricula would leave students without a disciplinary home from which to travel, exposing them to the dangers of breadth without depth. The counter-argument, of course, is that women's studies is itself a discipline, a boundaried territory of knowledge training and certification on its own. Although I agree that women's studies already has a number of disciplinary components, I am not convinced that it has yet defined a distinct body of knowledge or methodologies, spanning as it does nearly all the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts. The problem is not that there is not enough but that there is too much knowledge and too many methodologies in women's studies to draw clear enough disciplinary boundaries upon which to design a degree program.

The "too-muchness" of women's studies, produced by the explosive and still accelerating knowledge revolution accomplished by academic feminists in the past thirty years, produces my third set of reservations about doctoral programs in women's studies. I do not believe it is feasible for faculty or students to become sufficiently proficient in women's studies at the advanced level across the four broad divisions of knowledge. When women's studies began to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I used to read every book that appeared. By the early 1980s, because of the sheer mass of good material getting published, I was unable even to read all the feminist criticism in literary studies, let alone keep up with feminist theory produced across the disciplines. And by the 1990s, I can't even keep up with all the feminist criticism on twentieth-century literature in English, my special field. Feminist criticism - now composed of numerous subfields - has grown remarkably in both the quantity and complexity of its knowledge since the early publication of books like Mary Ellmann's Thinking about Women or Kate Miller's Sexual Politics. Its striking interdisciplinarity encompasses not only feminist work in other areas of women's studies but also serious engagement with other disciplines and with interdisciplinary fields like cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and multiculturalism. This explosion of knowledge in feminist literary studies is replicated across the disciplines to greater and lesser degrees depending on disciplinary resistance to feminist inquiry. How can a doctoral degree program in women's studies foster even minimal proficiency across the divisions of the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and performing arts when each of the fields within these divisions has proliferated into so many subfields? The feminist knowledge revolution is so broad ranging in scope and so deep in its complexity of debate and discovery that even an introductory acquaintance across the divisions is a major challenge. I fear that the attempt to design a Ph.D. program that draws on knowledge from all four divisions would result in insufficiently rigorous teaching and learning.

The extent and complexity of discipline-based women's studies knowledge goes hand in hand with the growing sophistication of methodologies used to produce it. In the early 1970s, I not only read everything published in women's studies, but I also could understand it. This is no longer the case. Advances in discipline-based women's studies have depended in part on feminist scholars becoming ever more proficient in the methodologies of their home disciplines. This does not mean that feminists have always adopted such methodologies without modification; often, the feminist questions they bring to their home discipline fundamentally alter methodological aspects if it. Nonetheless, the methodological divides across the divisions are enormous, particularly between quantitative and qualitative approaches. Feminists who do survey research, for example, must acquire highly complex statistical tools for data analysis. Feminists in literary studies must be familiar with a dazzling array of strategies for reading texts, many of which are founded in dense, philosophical discourses. Such feminists may well share a certain core of feminist theory that shapes some of their research questions, but they hardly share a common methodological language and can barely understand each other's research. Such methodological chasms make the design of an interdisciplinary women's studies Ph.D. very difficult, if not impossible.

Moreover, common methodological practices within women's studies itself, combined with the effects of the feminist knowledge revolution, intensify the problems of training doctoral students at a sufficiently advanced level. These practices center around different forms of contextualization that exponentially compound the scope of what must be learned in order to produce and teach cutting-edge feminist work. The first such contextualizing practice entails an interactive critical analysis with traditional disciplines. From the beginning, women's studies has brought feminist questions to existing knowledge and methods as a way of producing new knowledge. Thus Joan Kelly famously asked if the European Renaissance was equally a "renaissance" for women, challenging conventional assumptions of historical periodization and social change and laying out an influential methodology of disciplinary engagement for feminist historians.(14) To have done so successfully, she and the many feminist historians doing revisionist work had to be thoroughly conversant with their own subfields within history and with historiographic methodology in general. Such disciplinary contextualization, pervasive in women's studies, requires extensive knowledge in aspects of a person's home discipline that appear to have little to do with women. In literary studies for example, feminist critique early on focused on the absence or trivialization of women writers from literary tradition. The archaeological recovery and revisionist readings of women writers have been thoroughly influenced by feminist theory and by feminist work in other disciplines. But feminist critics have also adapted the sophisticated and rapidly expanding strategies of reading texts that are de rigueur in literary studies. They have also had to contextualize women's writing in relation to that of men. The very success of the feminist knowledge revolution has depended to a great extent on creative engagement between feminist theory (often informed by interdisciplinarity) and existing disciplinary knowledge and methodology. This kind of dialogic practice requires the extensive training within an existing discipline that would be impossible to achieve in a broadly defined doctoral program in women's studies.

Supplementing this kind of disciplinary contextualization has been the expansion of feminist practice well beyond a focus on women to incorporate both the gender system in general and systems of alterity based on race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, geopolitics, age, and so forth. Early recognition of the androcentricity of knowledge led to the analysis of gender as a system that constructs male as well as female identity, thus broadening the scope of women's studies considerably within disciplines to incorporate the place of gender within larger cultural formations. Pioneered especially by women of color, lesbians, and Jewish women, theory and scholarship recognizing differences among women forcefully insisted on another form of contextualization requiring vast areas for study within existing disciplines. The need to complicate the categories of woman and gender by understanding their co-implication with other systems of alterity compounds the problems of disciplinary coverage and methodology. It is not enough to know about women within a single discipline; it is also necessary to know how systems of racial, ethnic, class, religious, national, and sexual stratification and privilege interact with gender In short, the knowledge revolution in women's studies has meant the expansion of women's studies far beyond the boundaries of gender alone. This multifaceted analysis is difficult enough for feminists to achieve at the advanced level within a single discipline; to do so in all areas of women's studies is impossible.

Given all these dimensions of the knowledge revolution both within women's studies and, as a result of women's studies, within the academy in general, what might a doctoral program in women's studies look like? What would be the focus, content, and methodologies of graduate courses for students with an undergraduate foundation in women's studies? A Ph.D. program ought to reflect a cumulative curriculum and pedagogy, where more advanced work builds upon and extends what is learned at the undergraduate level. Just as history, psychology, or sociology graduate students have learned some of the basics of their discipline before they move on to more specialized work, so Ph.D. candidates in women's studies should have had considerable undergraduate preparation in interdisciplinary and discipline-based women's studies, so that graduate work would not repeat the undergraduate major but go well beyond it.(15)

The paradox of the knowledge revolution in women's studies however, is that its "too-muchness" could all too easily produce "not-enoughness" at the graduate level. Because women's studies has become such a vast and multidimensional field, graduate courses (whether discipline-based or interdisciplinary) run a serious risk of superficiality and repetitiveness because of the sheer mass of ground that needs to be covered. A graduate course on motherhood, to invoke my earlier example, might have space on the syllabus for just a taste of perspectives across the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts. It would be difficult indeed to make such a course go beyond what students might have learned in an undergraduate course. The exception to this would be courses in feminist theory, which I can easily imagine being more advanced than undergraduate courses-in both depth and breadth. But I do not believe that a doctoral program in women's studies should be a pure "theory" degree. Theory removed from praxis, including some relation to an "empirical" base (whether textual, statistical, historical, biological, etc.), is not in my mind a viable focus for an entire degree program in women's studies.

With the publication of their pioneering collection, Theories of Women's Studies, in 1983, Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein had a dream: the development of an "autonomous" discipline of women's studies not bound by traditional disciplinary boundaries, a new "transdisciplinary" discipline that would have its own distinct knowledge base and methodology. Sandra Coyner, one of the contributors to the volume, envisioned a new disciplinary structure in which "the same person might teach, for example, 'Women in American History,"Psychology of Women,"The Family,' and a Women's Studies survey or seminar."(16) Coyner acknowledged the impossibility of such a task given the current system of training feminist scholars in traditional disciplines, but in her call to make women's studies an autonomous discipline with its own Ph.D. training, she nonetheless assumed that such breadth of inquiry and methodology is possible at the advanced level. Yet her list of sample courses shows that her own utopian vision retains the disciplinary boundaries produced by discipline-based feminists. The list also reveals the sheer impossibility of a single individual's being able to research and teach - or be trained as a student at an advanced level - in such an array of fields.(17) As Coynet shows, the theoretical foundation of a Ph.D. program in women's studies depends upon the assumption that a single individual - whether student or teacher - can become sufficiently proficient in content areas and methodologies across the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts. I think this is an impossible and not even desirable dream. Echoes from Moby-Dick haunt me: "That way madness lies." Or perhaps more to the point: That way, superficiality lies. In trying to know so much, nothing is known well. That way, burnout lies. In trying to cover so much, the women's studies teacher or student self-destructs, a superwoman burned to a crisp by impossible demands.


What I have argued so far doesn't sound very ambivalent. It sounds downright hostile to doctoral degree programs in women's studies. But I do have second thoughts. Ever since ever, my habit of mind has been to oppose what is in favor of what might be, to trust the desire to change, and to distrust the impulse to stay the same. I don't want to be a nay-sayer, and (like many feminists of my generation) I am haunted with the fear that a combination of academic success (personal and institutional), aging, and sheer burnout might increasingly erode the rough edges of women's studies' early brilliance and pioneering radicalism. And so, I can't help resisting my own arguments against the development of doctoral degree programs in women's studies.

What troubles me is how much my argument is based on the way the U.S. academy, with its territorial divisions of knowledge, is currently structured. I worry about being captured in the discourse of the present in the United States through a failure of imagination, an inability to think more broadly about future possibilities. Maybe I cannot break through old habits of thought enough to imagine how advanced work in women's studies could be done in a way that does not depend so directly upon engagement with a traditional discipline. Perhaps it will be our women's studies students - those whose undergraduate education has been centered in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary women's studies - who will have the imagination to construct women's studies as its own discipline. After all, their education has been profoundly different from my own-not only my graduate training in the "old" days but also my continuing self-education as an academic feminist. Who knows where these changes might lead, especially given the importance of the unpredictable, the anarchistic, and the utopian?

Greater emphasis on the diachronic, on the evolution of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity in the academy would foster thinking about the future of women's studies in ways that I cannot at this point easily imagine. This requires foregrounding what I have only mentioned before: that all disciplines, including traditional ones, are founded upon boundaries and structures that are products of history, not a priori essences. Relatively new disciplines like sociology and political science appeared interdisciplinary in their formational years at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Women's studies today may be like these disciplines in their early years. Moreover, as Gloria Bowles convincingly reminds us, traditional disciplines today are anything but unified and stable entities.(18) History, for example, is the umbrella discipline for economic, social, intellectual, medical, political, diplomatic, labor, and feminist historians, most of whom are also divided by what part of the world they work on as well. Social scientists have radically different methodologies for getting at an empirical base - from quantitative to qualitative, from documentary to participant observation and ethnography - all frequently coexisting within a single discipline such as political science, sociology, or cultural anthropology. The related methodologies of quantitative social science suggests that scholars from different disciplines like political science and sociology who use these methods might have more in common with each other than they do with scholars in their own disciplines who use qualitative methods. Increasingly, literary studies adapts methodologies and knowledge bases from philosophy, history, sociology, media studies, legal studies, economics, linguistics, psychology, and interdisciplinary fields like ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, and women's studies. The boundaries between traditional disciplines are anything but fixed. Indeed, the frontiers of any discipline are likely to lie at the interstices between itself and other disciplines.

I was astounded by a recent experience on a search committee for dean of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science to learn how legitimate a seat interdisciplinarity already occupies at the academic banquet of knowledge. As one of only two committee members from interdisciplinary units, I entered my first meeting believing I would have to defend the need for candidates to support interdisciplinary programs. My fears were grounded in the experience of twenty years ago, when our arguments for the interdisciplinarity of women's studies often met with hostility and suspicion. In fields relevant to women's studies interdisciplinary work had little legitimacy in the early 1970s, associated as it was with superficiality of content and method, faddishness, and ephemerality. To my surprise and delight, the greatest defenders of interdisciplinary curricula on the search committee were the scientists, who insisted that our new dean must understand that the cutting edge of science has for many years existed at the interface of scientific boundaries. Scholarship solidly within the discipline, they argued, is important and necessary, but it seldom breaks new ground. Their frontiers of knowledge clearly sat in the liminal space between traditional disciplines.(19)

What light, I wonder, does scientific enthusiasm for breaking conventional boundaries of knowledge shed on debates about the future of women's studies? Scientific interdisciplinarity often depends upon multidisciplinary collaboration of people trained in traditional disciplines and is consequently not so very different from what women's studies teachers and scholars have been doing since the 1970s. I am not certain how many scientists would advocate doctoral training that abandoned a disciplinary base; I am quite certain that interdisciplinary science degrees would not attempt to cover all four major divisions of knowledge in the academy. Nonetheless, I wonder if all new disciplines don't begin in multidisciplinary combinations. I wonder, even more heretically, if science hasn't moved ahead of women's studies in fostering the development of new knowledge that emerges rapidly and creatively out of the co-mingling of two or more traditional disciplines. I worry that women's studies, with its need to establish legitimacy in an environment that has often been overtly or covertly suspicious, if not hostile, might be exacting a higher standard of disciplinary rigor than the traditional disciplines. We must guard against being harder on ourselves than the traditional structures we both oppose and work within.

Such historically informed thoughts about the evolution of (inter)disciplinarity in the academy help unravel some of my earlier objections to doctoral programs in women's studies. For one, the anomaly of different training of faculty and students can be answered by seeing the 1990s as a transitional moment. It would not take many years before new women's studies faculty could be trained in the newly emergent discipline of women's studies. The seemingly insurmountable problem of the knowledge revolution in women's studies might be addressed through the formation of new subfields within women's studies. Currently, women's studies subfields are usually defined in terms of existing disciplinary specializations (as reflected in Coyher's formulation). No discipline requires its members to know all the subfields and methodologies within its boundaries; perhaps the new discipline of women's studies will devise specializations that follow intellectually manageable requirements, allowing students to form in-depth programs in such clusters as cultural studies; the arts; qualitative social sciences; quantitative social sciences; or biological sciences. And just as women's studies majors of@en have either double majors or a supplementary area of specialization in existing fields, so too might doctoral programs build into their requirements engagement with traditional disciplines and methodologies. Awareness of the need to balance breadth with depth in the design of doctoral programs could forestall the worst of my fears about bricolage, smorgasbord, and insufficiently advanced curricula. To echo another field of dreams, "build it, and they will come."(20)


My ambivalence about doctoral degree programs in women's studies shakes down to an opposition at this point in time countered by the realization that such opposition may be too short-sighted, and by a genuine curiosity about what efforts other universities have and might produce. I remain deeply concerned about the ethical issues involved in training students for jobs that for the most part do not exist in the academy as it is now constituted. I am all too aware of the financial constraints that hinder bold new experiments and expansions. In the culture wars of today, I am strongly committed to the vital necessity of undergraduate programs in women's studies, and I'm not willing to undermine these programs for the benefit of doctoral programs. The vast knowledge base of women's studies, combined with the markedly different methodologies necessary for advanced work, lead me to question the intellectual viability of broad-based doctoral programs. Although women's studies may well be an emergent discipline, I think that now and in the near future it is still an interdisciplinary field, producing its exciting transformations of knowledge through dialogic engagement and transgression of disciplinary boundaries which, to be crossed, must still exist. Nonetheless, the rapidly changing landscape of the academy may well foster creative reconstitution of knowledge boundaries in such a way that feminists can balance the competing needs of breadth and depth in women's studies for the purposes of doctoral programs. I still feel caught between a tenacious desire for the survival of an intellectually rigorous women's studies within an economically strapped academy and an equally insistent dream that we keep reimagining the formations of knowledge and the structures of the academy. I refuse to give up either.


1. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only departments (not programs) can serve as tenure homes for purposes of hiring and promotion. By design, our program does not have departmental status, but we have recently elected to serve as a tenure home on an ad hoc basis. Program faculty are strongly committed to this structure and to active involvement in their tenure-home departments. As a founding member of the program, I have held a fifty/fifty joint appointment with English since 1975.

2. Six additional "courses" are numbers for directed study and independent research.

3. In focusing on interdisciplinary doctoral degree programs, I exclude from consideration the individually designed ad hoc interdisciplinary degree (sometimes called the "committee Ph.D."); Ph.D.'s in a particular disciplinary area of women's studies, such as the Ph.D. in women's history offered at UW-Madison and State University of New York-Binghamton; concentrations in women's studies in the doctoral programs of various departments; and interdisciplinary women's studies degrees outside the United States, because of the different institutional structures of higher education in other countries. For discussion of different models for Ph.D. degrees in women's studies (particularly the free-standing Ph.D. degrees in women's studies at Emory University, Clark University, and York University), see Ann B. Shteir, "The Women's Studies Ph.D.: A Report from the Field," Women's Studies Quarterly 25 (spring/summer 1997): 388-403.

4. The Women's Studies Quarterly publishes an invaluable list of women's studies programs in the United States, along with what degrees, if any, they offer (reprinted annually in the September issue of PMLA), but this list does not indicate institutional structure and status of faculty. The oldest women's studies department, at San Diego State University, has been joined by such large departments as the ones at Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota. The Women's Studies Department and Program at the University of Maryland serves as the 100 percent tenure home for most of its core faculty, although it has some joint appointments as well as affiliate faculty. Indiana University is moving from program to departmental status and intends to design an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. For discussion of the institutional structures of women's studies programs and departments, see Marilyn J. Boxer, "The Theory and Practice of Women's Studies in the United States," Signs 7 (spring 1982): 661-95; and Women's Studies Quarterly 25 (spring/summer 1997).

5. This is an ethical obligation that many traditional disciplines have not met since at least the early 1970s. The contingencies of volatile job markets, departmental ambitions for graduate education, campus needs for inexpensive and temporary staff, and the strong desire of many to make their lives in the academy - all continue to undermine the ethical responsibility of graduate programs toward their students. Still, the situation for women's studies is qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different.

6. For the Women's Studies Program, I teach three interdisciplinary courses: the introductory humanities course, a course on women and the arts, and the capstone seminar for majors. For both women's studies and English, my teaching and research regularly draw on many disciplines, and I have been engaged in substantial interdisciplinary programming as a Senior Fellow at the UW Institute for Research in the Humanities.

7. By "locational," I mean an epistemology assuming that any cultural formations are historically and geographically inflected by the specific conditions of their embodiment. For my definitions of locational feminism, see "Beyond Gynocriticism and Gynesis: The Geographics of Identity and the Future of Feminist Criticism," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 15 (spring 1996): 13-41, esp. 28-32.

8. To be more specific, examples of a focus of inquiry include the past, change over time, for history; power, government, and politics, for political science. Few, if any, disciplines have a single methodology. Political scientists, for example, may engage in statistical analysis, survey research methods, qualitative historical and/or theoretical analysis; textual analysis and periodization, and so forth. Literary studies incorporates textual exegesis, periodization, historical contextualization, biography, generic analysis, theory, and so forth. Nonetheless, each discipline has a (changing) set of recognized methodologies that constitute a required part of graduate student training. Institutional bases within higher education typically take the form of departments. Outside the academy, they run the gamut of publishing organizations, foundations, and public and private funding agencies.

9. Many thanks to my students in the seminar for women's studies majors and to the gender studies faculty at Lawrence University for challenging me to refine these ideas. I am particularly indebted to artist Helen Klebesadel for arguing that the creative and performing arts should not be subsumed into the humanities but should be recognized as a distinct category at the same level of generalization.

10. For attempts to define these terms, see, for example, Gloria Bowles and Renate Duelli Klein, ods., Theories of Women's Studies (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), esp. 40, 52-54, 56-57, 90, 99. The terms "cross-disciplinary" and "transdisciplinary" also appear with some frequency and even less consensual meaning. Cross-disciplinary usually functions as a synonym for multidisciplinarity while transdisciplinary often suggests a utopian gesture at knowledge which transcends all disciplinary lines or a fundamental resistance to any such boundaries in the first place. For extensive debate about the nature and desirability of interdisciplinarity, see the Forum on Interdisciplinarity with forty-two participants on the topic in PMLA 111 (March 1996): 271-311. For an overview of debates about cultural hybridity, see "Beyond Difference: Migratery Feminism in the Borderlands," in my Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, forthcoming from Princeton University Press in 1998.

11. However desirable, collaborative multidisciplinarity and individual interdisciplinarity in teaching and research are often discouraged because of work-load issues, time pressures, and promotion requirements.

12. This contradiction exists as well for undergraduate degree programs in women's studies, with students having an interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary major that is fundamentally different from the graduate training and disciplinary allegiances of their faculty. This difference poses problems at the undergraduate level-enough so that at UW-Madison, we strongly encourage students to do a double major; students majoring only in women's studies must complete a cluster of courses in another field (the equivalent of a minor).

13. Marianna De Marco Torgovnick, Forum on Interdisciplinarity, PMLA 111 (March 1996): 282. See also contributions by Lillian Robinson, Sara van den Berg, Jacqueline Henkel, Timothy Murray, and Derek Attridge to the same issue (276-80, 284-85).

14. See Joan Kelly-Godol, "The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women's History," Signs 1 (summer 1976): 809-23, and "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 137-64.

15. Of course, some graduate students in traditional disciplines have not majored in their Ph.D. field. In such cases, universities often require that work missed in the undergraduate major has to be made up either before application to graduate school or if after admission to a graduate program, without credit toward an advanced degree.

16. Sandra Coyher, "Women Studies as an Academic Discipline: Why and How to Do It," in Theories of Women's Studies, 60.

17. An updated version of such vast requirements appeared in an e-mail job announcement for an assistant professor in women's studies at a university whose women's studies program is moving from program to departmental status, with plans to institute a doctoral program. In addition to knowledge of "theory and methods related to race, ethnicity, international and cross-cultural diversity," candidates should have "research and teaching expertise related to gender from the range of natural and human sciences, especially those related to: medicine, health, sexuality; gendered technologies (computers, communication, electronic media and information systems); environmental, ecological, regional, or geographic development; and other cognate areas pertinent to contemporary gender studies." (My emphasis.) The "and" instead of an "or" may be an oversight, but even so the range of required knowledge and attendant methodologies is staggering.

18. Gloria Bowles, "Is Women's Studies an Academic Discipline?" in Theories of Women's Studies, 32-46.

19. Confirmation of commitment to interdisciplinarity in the scientific community comes from many sources. J. Rogers Hollingsworth is engaged in a multivolume study of the relation between interdisciplinarity and discovery in the biomedical sciences. New interdisciplinary fields and new disciplines in the making in the sciences include neurosciences, biophysics, mathematical biology, artificial intelligence, cognitive sciences, dynamical systems, and medical physics. Phillip Certain, a chemist and the new UW-Madison dean of Letters and Science, has called for interdisciplinarity across the divisions in his widely distributed document, "Creating a New College," March 1996 ( Recognizing the spread of scientific interdisciplinarity, Judith Allen advocated women's studies interdisciplinarity in terms of the scientific model at the "Conference on Feminism beside Itself," held at Indiana University, Bloomington, March 1995.

20. I allude to the magic-realist The Field of Dreams, a film about the magnetic power of vision to make impossible things happen.

Susan Stanford Friedman is the Virginia Woolf Professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of WisconsinMadison. She is the author of Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (Princeton University Press, 1998), Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H. D. (Indiana University Press, 1981). She has published many articles on feminist theory and pedagogy, narrative theory, women's poetry and fiction, modernism, multiculturalism, and psychoanalysis.
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Author:Friedman, Susan Stanford
Publication:Feminist Studies
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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