Interdisciplinarity and Gender Studies: A Manifesto

Posted on: August 29th, 2017 by estarkey

When women’s studies programs first emerged, in the 1970s, they were shoestring operations, created by professors who wanted to merge their professional lives with their political lives. Some had marched, others had written for feminist periodicals, but all shared the desire to transform the university into a place more hospitable to women, in policies and curricula.  They began a “long march across the disciplines,” as feminist scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis put it in a seminar back in the 1990s; her allusion to Mao’s famous march from Canton to Xian province, long before he would complete his communist revolution in China, suggested a that making universities more feminist would require a similar mix of endurance, commitment, and daring, one that could not be achieved in days or weeks but would require years, even decades.  And that implicit gesture toward revolution invoked subversive, transformative practices. Though the reality was much less dramatic, women studies pioneers emphasized feminist modes of inquiry that questioned standard assumptions about scope, methodology, and appropriate boundaries.  Women’s studies ranged across the disciplines, informing practice with theory and theory with practice moved from theory to practice to theory, and insisted on truly interdisciplinary inquiry that allowed questions of gender and sexuality to upset the ideological apple cart on a regular basis.

Much has changed, including the evolution of women’s studies programs into gender and sexuality studies and the investment of most universities in gender studies departments.  Certainly, institutional status has been important for the longevity of gender studies as it has evolved into a stand-alone discipline.  But something has also been lost—not only disruptive conversations between scholars of different disciplines about questions of gender and sexuality, but collaborations between gender studies programs and women’s centers, where programming and advocacy inform teaching and scholarship.  The recent decision of the National Women’s Studies Association to exclude women’s center directors from the steering committee of the association suggests that the consolidation of gender studies as a stand-alone academic discipline has alienated NWSA from its activist roots.

The University of Mississippi never invested in its gender studies program as other universities did in the 1970s and 1980s; unlike many of our SEC peers, we have no tenure track faculty in gender studies, no separate women’s center and gender studies program, and very little infrastructure and institutional support.  This is an ongoing challenge FOR the Sarah Isom Center, make no mistake.  And yet, perhaps because of this, we remain closer to the original disruptive vision of gender studies as an interdisciplinary venture, one that brings the energy, expertise, and enthusiasm of scholars and activists from a number of disciplines, experiences, nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities to create innovative scholarship and programming.

Our evolving research partnerships—with Dr. Lainy Day and Dr. Kate Kellum on gender and sexual diversity in biology and gender studies, and with Dr. Mary Thurlkill on religion and diversity—grow out of our affiliates’ research questions, and they combine education, research, and activism that challenge bedrock assumptions, including those of gender studies regarding the social construction of gender.  Our Isom fellow program, inaugurated with Dr. Carrie Smith in Psychology and new rhetoric courses in development (see inside for details), will continue to build our interdisciplinary partnerships across campus. Our growing online course offerings are developed by Ph.D.s in English, film, and education. Our lectures and educational experiences—from LGBT history month to women’s history month, the Radical South, to our arts and music festival, and Oxford Pride—are built in partnership with departments, centers, and regional nonprofits. Our core graduate course, GST 600, structures its exploration of feminist methodology in partnership with affiliates from across departments and schools.

All of which is to say that our commitment to gender studies as an interdisciplinary adventure, not a disciplinary norm, is not just accidental but intentional. We continue to be informed and challenged by findings and assumptions from different fields.  As we build infrastructure and academic programs, we will continue to be guided by that vision.  We invite you to reinvent gender studies anew with us, as teachers, scholars, fellows, and fellow travelers. Gender studies continues to be important for the questions it raises, the seemingly unchangeable assumptions it challenges, and the coalitions it makes possible, and we create gender studies as an interdisciplinary inquiry, not a rigid dogma, together.

–Dr. Jaime Harker, Director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies