Women's and gender studies (major)

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I tend to think of the Women's and Gender Studies program as one of the university's best-kept secrets: a tiny department that is both intellectually rigorous and attentive to its undergraduates. Probably the greatest strength of the program is the fact that it is interdisciplinary. For students who are self-motivated and who might be reluctant to sequester themselves in the particular methodologies of any given department, the program offers the opportunity to explore the many resources of the university without losing focus; the organizing principle of feminist analysis allows wide-ranging explorations to cohere in productive and sometimes unexpected ways.

Coherence cannot be guaranteed, however; women's studies demands considerable commitment on the part of the student. Women's Studies is, technically speaking, a program rather than a department; it is administered under the aegis of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, a body whose function on campus is essentially to forge connections and encourage discussion between various constituents-- faculty, graduate students, undergrads, activists--who work on gender-related issues--including gay/lesbian and queer theory--in many different disciplinary contexts. The tremendous advantage of this system is that faculty become involved with the Institute due to conviction rather than compulsion; no one has to work for the Institute, rather they choose to do so because they work on gender and are committed to ensuring an institutional home for such work. Generally speaking, faculty get excited when undergrads express interest in the issues that interest them, so there tends to be a palpable sense of intellectual camaraderie, community, and mutual gratitude with faculty once you've been involved with the Institute for a few years. (Indeed faculty frequently outnumber students at Institute events.)

The notable disadvantage of this system is its built-in instability; because women's studies doesn't have departmental status, it can't grant independent tenure. Thus the Institute has relatively high faculty turnover; when the many assistant profs who sustain it cannot get tenure in their departments and have to leave the university (as is often the case with young, progressive faculty), the undergrads feel the effects (for example, I wrote my thesis under the direction of my long-time advisor/mentor...long distance to Chicago). Although occasionally frustrating, this serves something of a useful purpose as a kind of extra-curricular practicum in the dynamics of academic realpolitik. As a remedy to this problem, the university has granted the Institute several senior positions to be shared with departments; they have recently hired Alice Kessler-Harris in history and are conducting a search with anthropology. Humanities appointments, I am told, are next on the list. (Another perk: undergrad input has been actively sought in these job searches--definitely an eye-opening experience for anyone with further academic ambitions.)

On to more pragmatic concerns: there are relatively few requirements for the major, which is nice in the wake of the all-consuming core. It may come as a surprise, however, that women's studies as it is taught at Columbia tends to build off of the core rather than criticize it endlessly for its misogyny. The program leans toward critical theory rather than the model of inclusion of neglected voices, which means that CC and Lit Hum prove quite useful in developing a working interdisciplinary narrative of Enlightenment humanism--a narrative with which any mode of feminist critique must reckon. The department is unabashedly political--necessarily so, one might argue--but continually brings to the surface and examines its own ideological assumptions, which staves off the specter of "feminist indoctrination" (of which we were accused in a recent Spec editorial). The basic requirements include the general Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies, which varies rather wildly in quality from year to year, depending on who's teaching and how they organize the class. I am told that this course is up for review and redesign, which seems promising given its uneven history. Following Intro, students must take Feminist Texts II: Beauvoir to the Present, a preparation for the two junior year colloquia, from which they choose either Feminist Theory (offered at Barnard) or Feminist Inquiry (a course in feminist research methods in preparation for the thesis, which I've heard lacks substance). Every major writes a one-semester thesis surrounded by a cadre of advisors--the seminar director, a grad student tutor, and a departmental advisor of the student's choosing--not to mention the other majors in the seminar, who read all drafts of one another's work. Needless to say, this is an embarrassment of riches given the advising status quo at Columbia. Students are encouraged to extend the thesis into a year-long independent study.

Aside from these four core requirements, majors choose five courses from a list of approved gender-focused courses offered either through the program itself or the departments. Out of these five, one has to be a social science, one history, and one from the humanities; also, one must involve non-Western cultures (this can be combined with the Major Cultures core requirement). Beyond these, students take five courses in a chosen discipline (i.e. literature, history, anthropology, even public health--there's definitely room for self-fashioning here) "to ensure grounding in a particular methodology."

As might be expected, there is a substantial amount of contact with the Barnard women's studies department; a prospective women's studies major should not have an aversion to crossing the street on a regular basis. For students interested in feminism and gender issues who want to chart their own intellectual course, Women's and Gender Studies is an excellent and often (unjustly) overlooked option. Because of the interdisciplinary makeup of the faculty--and the fact that a full curricular review is slated for next year--I can't presume to recommend courses and professors across the university; of those closely connected with the program, standouts include Jean Howard, professor of English and director of the Institute (early modern British studies and Shakespeare), and Rosalind Morris in anthropology (Thailand, photography, mass media).

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