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Men Teaching Women's Studies

Susan O'Doherty raises the well-worn question of whether men should be teaching woman-oriented courses. Doherty raises some concerns about the practice, and describes important benefits to having women teaching about women's issues, but stops short of saying that men shouldn't teach women's studies.

The typical response from defenders of men as women's studies teachers is along the lines of Lynn Gazis Sax's reply. If something is a serious subject worthy of intellectual inquiry, then men should be able to carry out that inquiry and teach about it. Defenders of male women's studies teachers also argue (and I think this was Hugo Schwyzer's angle, though I can't find his posts on it at the moment) that reserving women's studies for female professors sends the message that women's studies is not something that men should care to learn about either.

I have a vested interest in this question, as I'm a man who is currently developing a course ("Gender and the Environment") for my school's Women's Studies program. (The argument that men can teach women's studies seems to carry the day here at Slippery Rock, as I have gotten enthusiastic support from the director of the program and other women on the committee.)

But I think there's an angle missing in much talk about this question, which is this: even though my Gender and the Environment course is not on the books yet, I'm already teaching women's studies. I currently have three sections of World Regional Geography, one of our big introductory courses. This semester I've taught my students about the breakdown of the hegemony of the heterosexual nuclear family in North America. I taught them last week about the role of feminism in the demographic transition in Europe. Later in the semester we will talk about restrictive laws on women in Southwest Asia, and how traditional Southeast Asian cultures did not have a rigid gender binary. All of these are women's studies topics, and don't cease to become so just because they're in the same syllabus as the formation of coral atolls in Oceania and Amazon deforestation.

So if there's no way for men to teach women's studies, then I have two options. I could drop the gender-focused areas of my other courses, making them all ignorant of gender -- thereby contributing to the very problem women's studies was created to address. Or I could simply cease teaching social sciences at all. (And once you start applying the no-men-in-women's-studies logic to other axes of inequality -- race, disability, etc -- option 1 collapses into option 2 for me!)

O'Doherty describes her one woman-taught women's studies-ish course as a breath of fresh air, in content and classroom dynamics, as compared to her other courses. We can teach men to replicate that experience as best they can in all of their courses, by for example taking female students' contributions seriously and encouraging male students to step back and listen (O'Doherty's one concrete example). And we can hire more women as faculty across the curriculum, in physics as much as in English literature. I'm happy that Slippery Rock is moving toward offering a major in women's studies, but students shouldn't have to enroll in that major to be able to benefit from both woman-led and non-woman-led-but-woman-respecting teaching.


Anonymous Jeff said...

The attitude that men shouldn't teach women's studies seems to regard classrooms as in extremely short supply, and that men teaching women's courses will deprive a woman somewhere of a classroom, or a student of the chance to take women's studies with a woman. But generally students are able to take plenty of courses, and could benefit from taking some women's studies courses taught by a woman and some more taught by a man. And it seems very unlikely that men will ever muscle out women in competition for teaching women's studies.

6:31 PM  
Blogger fancycwabs said...

You should retitle your course "Mansplaining: Gender and the Environment" so that you can work the eventual ad-hominem attack in from the beginning.

10:06 AM  

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