Blogs > Cliopatria > "Not a real degree": reflections on an academic autobiography and gender studies

Jan 31, 2005 2:55 pm

"Not a real degree": reflections on an academic autobiography and gender studies

I confess, I did spend some time last week reading through the various Men's Rights forums that were reacting to my appearance on the Glenn Sacks show.   Obviously, there was much written that was hurtful, much that was venomous, and a little that was genuinely interesting.  Dear Ampersand of Alas, a Blog, ventured into the Stand Your Ground forum, and more than held his own.  What I wanted to focus on today was this page of the thread from that forum, on the validity of degrees in women's studies.  A couple of samples:

He is an archtypical Women's Studies professor, which is to say, a person endowed with an academic title that for most part seems completely undeserved. I work at a major research university so I have contact with all kinds of professionals, and I'm here to tell you that among faculty who are honest about the subject, women's studies departments and the people who work in them are not considered legitimate from an academic perspective. Women's studies wonks may do a lot of things, but legitimate scholarship ain't one of them.

Someone else added on:

I don't want to get started on that - and it's probably a topic for a different thread - but the amount of work that you have to do for a doctoral degree in molecular biology, or physics, or any of a number of other "real" degrees absolutely dwarfs "writing about your feelings" and the like in some areas.

I guess if you get a doctoral degree in electrical engineering, you earn a salary at a company and really produce something computer-wise for society.

But if you get a "doctoral degree" in interdisciplinary studies with a major in sex and gay relations, you go on Oprah, write a book that nitwits read, and earn far more.

The quoted remarks are typical of the tired old canards that have benn thrown for decades at those who work in Gender Studies.  I'm not interested in refuting all of the groundless charges in these comments -- it would take too long.  First quick point:  at most colleges and universities in the USA, professors who teach gender studies also teach in other disciplines, like history, psychology, sociology,and literature.  (Here's a list of many of the programs.)   Relatively few universities have "free-standing" departments of Women's Studies staffed by faculty who do not teach outside that department.   Second quick point:  dissertations in gender studies are never about how one "feels".  If you want to find out what most dissertations in the field are written about, I suggest you go here and type in women's studies or gender studies.  Not a lot of fluff will come up -- but a lot of world-class scholarship will!

Of course, I don't have a doctoral degree in gender studies.  Indeed, my Ph.D. is in English Medieval History, with an emphasis on ecclesiastical and political affairs.  Here's the link to the abstract of my doctoral dissertation at UCLA:
Arms and the Bishop: the Anglo-Scottish War and the Northeastern Episcopate, 1296-1357.  Hint, folks: it's not a page turner.  But if you like lengthy footnotes in Latin and Norman French, you're in luck.  (I'm not sure I can read Norman French anymore, but in the early to mid-90s, I sure had to learn how.)

As early as my sophomore year of college, I had become interested in doing a degree in Women's Studies.  I had come into Berkeley as a history major, but once I took my first class on gender, I was hooked.  I'll confess, however, that I allowed myself to be talked out of having women's studies be anything more than a pastime.  Family and friends, knowing of my desire to teach, told me that a degree in Women's Studies wouldn't be taken seriously, using some of the same criticisms that the Stand Your Ground fellows used.   I argued with them, knowing from my own experience that courses in gender studies were often more demanding in terms of work load than those in more conservative and conventional fields.  (This is true in my own classes: ask any of my students who take my Women's History course,and they'll tell you it's much more work than my Western Civ surveys.)

Like most college students, I did want to be taken seriously as a scholar.  And though I knew damned well  that gender studies was just as demanding as the courses I was taking in church history, I decided to make medieval religious history my primary area of undergraduate interest.  (In honor of my father's heritage, I also picked up a minor in German literature.  Nothing like stumbling through Schiller in the original, right?)

When I started grad school at UCLA in 1989, I was still fascinated with contemporary gender studies.  To the bewilderment of my advisers, I took some women's studies courses along with my classes in paleography, medieval Latin, and the like.  I initially hoped to have women's studies be one of my minor fields for my doctorate; at UCLA, one needed expertise in three "minor fields" outside of one dissertation area.  My adviser, however, recommended against any formal association with women's studies at all; "It doesn't relate to your real work", he said.  I listened to him, I'm sorry to say, and thus completed my three minor fields in:

1. Early Modern European Economic History.  (Ask me about proto-industrialization in 17th century Flanders!)
2.  The early medieval German church (I've forgotten all those bloody Ottos, but I can still get through the investiture conflict in my sleep.)
3. Medieval English philosophy, particularly Ockham and Duns Scotus.  (My adviser in this area was one of the first women ordained to the Anglican priesthood,the marvelous Marilyn Adams,now at Yale.  Often, say after a surprisingly interesting discussion of the views of Duns Scotus on the conception of Mary, we turned to contemporary gender issues and the church.  She always had great cookies in her office).

Bottom line:  the "public face" of my grad work had damn all to do with contemporary gender issues.  And yet, even as I was researching that exhausting dissertation, I was doing most of my outside reading in women's studies.  The gap between my real interests and my actual work was tremendous, and it was largely a consequence of my own lack of courage.  I didn't stand up to those who dismissed my interest in women's studies until it was far too late to change the course of my graduate career.  (On a side note, I wonder how much my own sex had to do with the lack of encouragement that I received. If I had been a woman, I might have had more support in doing gender work.  Or perhaps not.  Many of my female colleagues who teach Women's Studies have reported hearing remarks similar to the ones I heard in my student days).

As a result, today I make a special effort to encourage some of my best and brightest students of both sexes to consider pursuing a Women's or Gender Studies major.  My workload makes it clear to them that it's not a discipline for the lazy or the self-indulgent!  Sometimes, I tell them of my own years as a reluctant medievalist, secretly more interested in reading Ana Castillo than Hildegard of Bingen, more interested in Anzaldua than Anselm.  I'd like to think that times have changed.  But there remains little question that for far too many people outside the academic world (and for a few old reprobates within it), Gender Studies work is still dismissed with contempt. 


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More Comments:

Hugo Schwyzer - 1/31/2005

Good point. Of course, not much more than a century ago, pursuing any form of history past the ancients was considered hopelessly modern and "trendy"...

Sharon Howard - 1/31/2005

Wonder what they'd make of my MA in Women's and Gender History... What you describe in the US is also true over here. You find Women's Studies degrees (more, I think, at postgrad than undergrad level), even Women's Studies Centres, but very very few stand-alone Women's Studies Departments or course modules. (In fact, I took MA classes alongside students from the history department, English, Womens Studies and other interdisciplinary degrees.)

But since when did ignorance stop anyone from sounding off about 'lightweight' 'trendy' degrees?