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Outsiders within - outsiders without?

Twenty-five years ago, when I became coordinator of a brand new women's studies program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, I never asked myself, "What will women's studies look like in 25 years?" The question simply didn't occur to me, nor, if I may hazard a guess, to most others of us working for women's studies programs. We were too busy developing strategies to obtain more resources, planning and teaching new courses, and promoting our vision of interdisciplinary women's studies to anyone who would listen

It is a measure of our growth and maturity as a field, and our institutionalization in higher education, that today, as we celebrate our 20th or 25th anniversaries, we are asking, "Where will women's studies be in another generation?"

Now that many of the students I teach are younger than my daughter, I have reached a point of confrontation with my own identity as a first-generation women's studies activist. Conversations with colleagues confirm that many of us in my age cohort are exploring the significance of generational changes, both in women's studies as a field and in our students.

Discussions of the "state" of women's studies are appearing more frequently in journals like Women's Studies Quarterly and NWSA Journal. This is a very good trend, representing a more formal and systematic approach to taking stock of our growth and development, in contrast to the casual sharing of information in conference sessions, or between individual program directors. Women's studies institutions do have a history of some systematic data collection, however. Since the 1970s various Feminist Press publications, including Women's Studies Quarterly, have compiled useful information. During 1997-1998, the National Women's Studies Association, in cooperation with the University of Illinois at Urbana, is developing a single database with information on women's studies programs, degree options, courses and faculty.

In a retrospective issue of Women's Studies Quarterly (Spring/Summer 1997), which reprints articles from its twenty-some years of publication, Judith A. Allen, Director of Gender Studies at the University of Indiana, has a provocative, forward-looking essay on the challenges of institutional adaptation facing the field. Some of the themes raised in this important essay provide a framework for the observations I want to make here.

The first major debate about the institutionalization of women's studies focused on autonomy versus integration. But from the practitioners' point of view it turned out to be no debate at all. If our goal was to transform the entire curriculum, the integration side argued, it would be dangerous to allow women's studies to develop into a "feminist ghetto." In practice, however, autonomous programs, or even departments, with a central core of interdisciplinary courses could hardly become ghettoes, since most of the courses taught still drew upon interested faculty from a variety of traditional (mostly liberal arts) departments. Curriculum transformation projects, usually funded by outside grants, have frequently been led by faculty who see no contradiction between transformation approaches and developing distinct women's studies programs. In effect, the debate dissolved into a challenge to institutionalize and coordinate both approaches to creating the new field.

Judith Allen argues persuasively that women's studies programs are not autonomous enough, are too dependent on the good will of other departments and often have their scholarly and curricular authority questioned within the institution. By 1997, forty percent of existing programs were offering majors leading to the BA, BS or other undergraduate degree, but only a handful of these programs are, or function like, autonomous departments, with tenured and tenure-track faculty. Because women's studies curricula are so dependent on the teaching of other faculty who have to answer to their own departments, our programs remain vulnerable to both political attacks (the "backlash") and institutional downturns, Allen argues. (To some extent, all liberal arts departments are vulnerable to these changes in the external environment. The next ten years might show us whether women's studies is more vulnerable or more resistant than we currently think.)

With a few exceptions, the intellectual and administrative marginality of women's studies has not diminished noticeably. At UMass-Boston a few years back, a part-time faculty member teaching a history course titled "Women in Social Movements" was admonished by the history department chairman to teach about the anti-abortion movement as well as the reproductive rights movement, in the interest of "balance." (At the time, the department had nineteen full-time men and two full-time women, and had largely ignored or resisted the new scholarship on women and gender.) The original course proposal for "Women in Social Movements," created by a founder of the women's studies program in the 1970s, didn't include a variety of movements - radical to conservative, feminist to anti-feminist - but focused specifically on progressive social movements. The chairperson apparently felt that the women's studies-affiliated faculty member didn't have sufficient authority to define the boundaries of her own course. As the NWSA's 1991 report, "Liberal Learning and the Women's Studies Major," also points out, our field still has to rearticulate its goals, its domain of scholarship, its very rationale, each time programs request faculty lines or other resources.

Some women's studies scholars have argued that our institutional marginality has followed, in part, from our own definitions of our field or discipline. In a Summer 1992 Signs article, Alice Kessler-Harris (citing the work of Patricia Hill Collins) assesses the "outsider within" perspective feminist scholars take with respect to the traditional disciplines, observing that "The institutional parallel to the outsider within perspective is the outsider status of women's studies within an institution that has its own rules and regulations." She wonders whether women's studies programs' collective, more democratic practices have undermined our credibility in hierarchically organized institutions, and she attributes some difficulties to the challenges of maintaining a double identity as both "activist-based" and "institutionally located." Institutional constraints, such as the need to teach large sections, may clash with our transformative pedagogical goals, for example. Or the pressure to act more like conventional departments may weaken our commitments to interdisciplinary and multicultural perspectives.

Judith Allen makes a good case for adopting strategies strengthening women's studies' position within the academy by abandoning the formulation that women's studies is the "academic arm of the women's movement," with its primary loyalties to women or groups outside the "corrupt" academy. Instead, she argues, women's studies' academic activities are a crucial form of cultural politics, and women's studies practitioners must take seriously our working contexts - institutions of higher education. Her provocative argument that women's studies ought to become more like other academic disciplines in structure, in developing its professional organizations, and in creating national standards for scholarship and curriculum, will, I hope, generate helpful rather than acrimonious discussions.

Allen poses the question: What is the particular "domain" of women's studies scholars' expertise? More eloquent writers than I have been addressing this question for two decades. I want to argue that regardless of how we conceptualize the relationship of academic women's studies to the women's movement, one part of our domain of expertise has to be feminism, both the topic and the perspectives. If feminism is a central topic, then women's studies practitioners who identify with feminism need to maintain and renew connections with the women's movement, to continue to view ourselves, in some sense, as the "intellectual arm" of the women's movement.

I first argued this in a piece published in the WSQ in 1982 (and reprinted in the same anniversary edition as Allen's article). One thing I had in mind then was that our research agendas ought to be inspired in part by the needs of women's organizations and the status of women in society; another objective I saw as important to the "radical vision" of women's studies was remaining activist on campus, in concert with groups and programs with common experiences of discrimination and invisibility.

Today "radicalism" seems like a vague and outmoded 1960s and 1970s term, no longer very useful or appropriate for those of us who have been working as professionals within institutions for several decades. 1 still think it is possible for women's studies to have a radical vision of change, both inside and outside the university; what I have acknowledged for some time now, however, is that the work I have done in my program over the last two decades has been directed more toward strengthening its institutional basis than toward maintaining formal connections with the organizations that make up our women's movement. We wanted to sit at the university's table and bargain from the strongest position possible. A lot of people have continued to see us as marginal, a very few have actively tried to undermine us, but we have done our best to adapt to those challenges. How many other women's studies faculty directors feel this way?

I suspect that many women's studies practitioners, whatever their New Left, civil rights, antiwar, or women's liberation movement origins, and however fervently they endorse a connection with the women's movement, have often felt more effective in the work of institutionalization than in the work of connection with the women's movement, even as we have stated a commitment to this latter goal. I know I have.

Allen is convinced that we could have done a lot more if we had focused more exclusively on institutional demands, rather than try to maintain the dual identity of academic and activist. Maybe she's right. Feminist movement ideology may have put an unconscious brake on working toward institutionalization. But the perceived fragility of women's studies programs is not, in my view, the result of a (conscious or unconscious) attempt to maintain an "outsider within" stance, or to connect with the women's movement outside of academia. The diversity in size, configuration and authority is understandable given the great diversity of institutions in higher education in the United States. My educated guess is that our field has grown haphazardly because faculty, staff and student founders took advantage of structural and political opportunities as they presented themselves. Institutional factors - resource availability, or presidential support, or simply numbers of feminist faculty - rather than the limitations of feminist ideology, have shaped program development.

Student satisfaction is also a measure of the institutional strength of our programs. Women's studies has been a leading force for effective, student-centered teaching. At the same time, we, like other liberal arts fields, face questions from students about the relevance or significance of a liberal arts education. In the 1980s, we assumed that our students wanted to evaluate their own experiences - in families, in educational systems, in the workplace - in terms of feminist conceptual frameworks provided by the instructor, by the structure of the syllabus and the selection of readings and assignments. But is this what students today actively seek or appreciate when they enter the women's studies classroom?

I recognize that it is a somewhat tenuous business to generalize about "expectations." Yet we do it as we attempt to understand how the changing society affects our students. Many young women now in their twenties do not identify themselves to their peers as feminists, even if they do sympathize with many of the goals of organized feminism. National polls and countless magazine articles attest to this, as do the informal polls we instructors often take in our introductory women's studies courses on the first day of class. Yet these same young women take our courses, even major in women's studies, perhaps in greater numbers than do self-identified feminists.

While I don't expect to give up my feminist goals for women's studies, I do have to remind myself that for student-centered teaching to be effective, I must have a good understanding of my students' viewpoints and needs. I am trying to listen to their voices rather than lament the fact that they are not like my generation. After all, how could they be?

Our students at UMass-Boston, for example, are very concerned about the increasing costs of their education. Our classrooms contain a very diverse group of women students, a minority of whom identify as feminists, but almost all of whom have a vocational purpose in seeking a BA degree. A significant percentage of them are relatively recent immigrants or international students - a growing trend. Many liberal arts majors feel uneasy or apologetic about their lack of specific career goals; others are pursuing certificates, in addition to their majors, in areas like Addiction Counseling, Criminal Justice, or Gerontology, because they have a particular interest or see a vocational opportunity there.

My students ask me: What can I do with women's studies? How will women's studies help me find meaningful employment? Even as I defend the value of a liberal arts education, I no longer find it enough to say that they can do with women's studies whatever they can do with other liberal arts majors, or that the personal benefits of understanding how power relationships function in society and culture are immeasurable, and required in all settings.

Can we transform and strengthen our undergraduate women's studies curricula so that they contain more explicit and coherent elements of feminist preprofessional and leadership training, within the context of (mostly) liberal arts courses? In some minor ways our program and many others are already doing this. We require our majors to take a six-credit Internship Seminar in which they learn to apply feminist analyses of, for example, public policies, advocacy organizations, or the labor market to problems in their workplaces.

For example, Stephanie Riger's "Challenges of Success: Stages of Growth in Feminist Organizations" (Feminist Studies 20 [1994]) helped one student understand the discontents at a local battered women's shelter where she was an intern. Another student, working at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, used Elizabeth Higginbotham's study, "Black Professional Women: Job Ceilings and Employment Sectors," to appreciate the structural sources of conflict between black and white professional women (Women of Color in U.S. Society, edited by Maxine Baca Zinn and Bonnie Thornton Dill, Temple University Press, 1994).

Our students are also expected to develop knowledge, skill and attitude learning objectives; for each of these categories we explore what characteristics make an effective advocate or leader. We've hoped that women's studies graduates will be women who try to "make a difference" wherever they are working, when they are raising children, when they interact, or intervene, in discriminatory settings. Why not make these goals more explicit in our teaching, and then develop readings and assignments that emphasize how women have been and can be advocates, leaders and change agents?

In our curriculum, for example, courses about media, women writers, Native American women, or public policy that include the theme of women's leadership could have assignments which focus explicitly on the abilities that constitute leadership. A media course can emphasize written and oral communication skills; a public policy course can analyze the elements of persuasive position papers or successful legislative advocacy.

Women's studies curricula can educate students in the skills and abilities that employers find lacking in so many col-lege graduates: communication skills, the ability to deal with conflict and diversity, initiative, persistence - in short, leadership. Leadership institutes for women have begun springing up at small colleges and large universities; Rutgers University and Agnes Scott College in Georgia are two examples. We can recommend these to our majors, but for many the cost or time will be prohibitive. Instead, programs could draw on the curricula of leadership institutes to add an explicit leadership development component to the women's studies major. Couldn't this development of leadership capabilities in women be seen as one part of our domain of expertise, as one way to materialize our commitment to feminism, in teaching and research, even as feminism changes over time in ways we might not have anticipated?

This is not intended to be a prescription for everyone teaching women's studies; instead, I see it as one element that can be added to our discussions about where we are going in the next 25 years. But the successful institutionalization of women's studies ultimately rests as much on our ability to inspire students to develop their capabilities for achievement as it does on professional recognition and authority in the world of academe.
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Title Annotation:women's studies programs in schools
Author:Froines, Ann
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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