Who Should Teach Women's Studies?

Disgraced professor renews the discussion over whether those leading the field should have degrees in it.

August 21, 2013

“Internet feminist” Hugo Schwyzer’s recent breakdown – his word – has been ugly and public. While the Pasadena City College women’s studies professor’s revelations about being an adulterous “moral fraud” have stolen the headlines, his case raises another, more academically relevant issue: What qualifies one to teach women’s, gender and sexuality studies?

Clearly Schwyzer’s actions have much more to do with personal matters than his chosen field. But in an interview explaining himself, he said that he had “conned” his community college into letting him teach women’s studies despite having only taken two undergraduate courses in the field. That statement has some academics wondering how that was possible, if it matters and who should be teaching women’s studies.

The question was posed last week on a popular women’s, gender and sexuality studies listserv.

Since Schwyzer’s graduate work focused on British medieval church history, said Tara L. Conley, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University’s Teachers College with a master’s degree in women’s studies from another institution, “I’m interested in hearing what the vetting process is for incoming academics who may want to teach women’s studies but do not have a doctoral degree in [women’s studies].”

The question is complicated. Unlike professors in other fields, women’s, gender and sexuality studies professors at institutions across the country come from a wide range of backgrounds, for several reasons. First, the field is fundamentally interdisciplinary, drawing from English, history, political science, philosophy and other disciplines.

Second, while women’s studies programs have existed since the late 1960s, doctorates in women’s studies are relatively new. To date, fewer than 20 institutions offer the degree, according to one unofficial count, making the pool of women’s studies Ph.D.s from which to draw discipline-“pure” professors a shallow one. (Schwyzer has said that courses on women's studies did not exist when he was a graduate student, and, therefore, he could not have studied it formally.)

Still, the doctorate is gaining popularity, and some experts say it offers distinct advantages in both training for a career in teaching women's studies and hiring. Yet those experts also say it shouldn’t be the ultimate prerequisite for a job in the field. Instead, women's, gender and sexuality studies will be kept fresh by a diverse group of scholars with relevant theoretical and methodological training.

Women’s studies “emphasizes a transnational, transdisciplinary and intersectional focus,” said Shira Tarrant, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at California State University at Long Beach and author of numerous books and articles on gender, in an e-mail.

“To that end, it really benefits the field to have a range of scholars,” she said. “Faculty who are hired into [women’s studies] departments have expertise in disciplines such as political science, [comparative] literature, Chicano-Latino studies, psychology, Africana studies, sociology, philosophy, communication. The list goes on.”

Tarrant’s doctorate is in political science. She focused on feminist political theory for her dissertation – a trajectory she called “common” among women’s studies faculty. Such trajectories are enriched by training and ongoing research in gender, labor issues, race and sexual politics, depending on one’s expertise, she said.

While stand-alone doctoral programs are “important avenues” in developing the field, Tarrant, added, a Ph.D. in women’s studies isn’t a necessity.

Meryl Altman, professor of women’s studies and English at DePauw University agreed, pointing out that her department is run by an art historian.

Across women’s studies, she said in e-mail, “You’ll find lots of people who started out in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, but increasing numbers of biologists and economists, too, not to mention people who studied in other interdisciplinary programs (Black studies, Latin American studies, conflict studies, environmental studies…).”

Altman said academic hiring “is hardly an exact science," and there’s a risk in any field that “the person you thought you hired is not the person who actually turns up.” Sometimes it’s a “con job,” she said, borrowing Schwyzer's term, and sometimes it’s simply that the expectations of the hiring department and the candidate don’t align. (Pasadena City College didn't return a request for comment on Schwyzer's vetting process.)

A well-written job description, based on discussions about the needs of the department, can help. Here’s what DePauw’s women’s studies department came up with the last time it hired a tenure-track professor, in 2010:

DePauw University seeks a full-time tenure track faculty member to be appointed in Women's Studies. This person will teach Introduction to Women’s Studies and specialized courses in any of the following: feminist theory; transnational feminisms; sustainability studies; queer studies; feminist science studies. Candidates should hold or expect the PhD in women's/gender studies, or should hold or expect the PhD in another discipline with a graduate certificate, minor, specialization or comparable graduate training or experience in women's/gender studies.

(DePauw eventually hired Christy Holmes, who earned her doctorate in women’s, gender and sexuality studies from Ohio State University – a “wonderful person,” Altman said.)

That said, Altman added, “I think the person’s actual qualifications for the position are a lot more important that which credential they hold – or, for that matter, what institution they hold it from.”

Altman, whose Ph.D. is in English and comparative literature and who also teaches English, noted that many women’s studies appointments are joint, or tied to another department. Colgate University, for example, is looking for a professor of economics and women’s studies.

But while a degree in women's studies remains optional, training isn't -- and opportunities for graduate-level coursework in the field have been available for decades, experts said.

Lynn Comella, an assistant professor of women's studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who received a master's degree in gender studies and feminist theory and a Ph.D. in communication, said she took issue with Schwyzer's claim that there weren't more opportunities to pursue women's studies, gender and sexuality courses when he was in graduate school. "If he couldn't find them, he either wasn't interested or didn't bother to look," she said. (Tarrant, who was a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles at about the same time as Schwyzer, said many courses with feminist, gender and women's studies content were offered, as well as an entire undergraduate program.)

"Some people have this misperception, and I'm glad I have a chance to clear it up," Comella added. "Those of us who teach in women's and gender studies are highly trained. It's possible to get a Ph.D. in women's and gender studies at top schools like Indiana University, [the University of California at Los Angeles], and [Arizona State University], for example, and many universities offer rigorous graduate certificate programs that can be combined with any discipline, from the hard sciences to the social sciences."

Even professors teaching in established women's studies Ph.D. programs agreed that while such degrees offer graduates an edge, they aren't a requirement for teaching.
AnaLouise Keating, director of the women's studies doctoral program at Texas Woman's University, said she believed 18 graduate course hours in in women's, gender and sexuality studies was sufficient training, along with knowledge and history of the field, including feminist and womanist theory, and social justice issues. Although she said her department was committed to hiring assistant-level professors with doctorates in the field because the degree offers "something unique to the teaching," the fundamentally interdisciplinary field "will always be flexible."
Karen Adams, professor of women's studies at Arizona State, said that if she were to teach an introductory women's studies course now, as she did as a graduate student of linguistics in the 1970s, "I would feel behind the curve from anyone who has been teaching in the program and getting courses that are designed for high-level graduate students in the program." For that reason, she said she'd prefer women's studies Ph.D.s in hiring -- but the degree still isn't a requirement.
Conley, the education and communications graduate student, hopes to hold a joint appointment in a women's studies program someday, she said. "Time will tell."


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