What’s Wrong with Women’s Studies?

Circulating among the student body this week is a petition that could revolutionize the Women’s Studies (WS) program at Allegheny College. The initial spark for the petition started in the Women’s Studies junior seminar of Bailey Jensen, ’10, and Erin Caskey, ’11, last semester.

“A few of us got together to make a list of what we most wanted to see changed [in the WS program], so from there it has turned into the petition,” Jensen said, in an e-mail. “One of my professors hinted that tying our goals to the strategic plan might help us gain recognition and really get the ball moving.  Erin took responsibility to create the petition, matching our goals to ones in the strategic plan.”

Originally, the top three goals of the petition were to get Dr. Barbara Shaw hired full-time (tenure-track, from visiting professor status), to find a new, more accessible space for the WS lounge and office, and to add a student representative to the WS Steering Committee meetings.  Jensen and Caskey later decided not “to tackle all of this at once,” and tweaked the current focus to the WS faculty.  At this point in time, the petition’s goals are listed as:

1) creation of a full-time, tenure-track WS position;

2) consideration of Dr. Shaw as an ideal candidate for this position;

3) the hiring of more WS faculty in the near future.

According to Caskey, the petition grew out of interactions with the newly-hired Dr. Shaw.

“I could not praise her enough and I know there are dozens of other students who feel exactly the same way,” Caskey said. “Her classrooms are open, accepting, and affirming, while simultaneously encouraging critical thought and critical awareness.  Allegheny would be lucky to have her, and I want us, institutionally, to take the steps necessary to keep her.”

There are designated professors throughout various departments who teach Women’s Studies, but Dr. Shaw is the only full-time WS professor.  Interest has risen significantly since Dr. Shaw has come to campus, according to Jensen. Caskey describes the addition of Shaw as “groundbreaking.”

“I am convinced that with the sort of institutional support that tenure–or the real possibility of tenure in the foreseeable future–she would be able to serve as just the sort of dynamic cornerstone that Women’s Studies deserves, and that has been impossible so far without a centralized, stable position,” Caskey said.

Women’s Studies is not technically a “department” at Allegheny, but a “program.”

“There are certainly benefits to the word ‘program,’ but it also signals that the discipline/interest has not been given a real space,” Caskey said. “Women’s Studies is a program because, among other reasons, there is no permanent Women’s Studies-only faculty member.”

Women’s Studies decisions are made by the steering committee, which is a rotating collection of professors who express support for Women’s Studies, sometimes by teaching classes.  Professors who teach Women’s Studies are scattered throughout the departments across campus.

For instance, Professor Sharon Wesoky of the political science department, Professor Courtney Bailey of the communication arts department, Professor JW Heuchart and Professor Deborah Dickey of the psychology department, and Professor M. Soledad Caballero, Professor Aisha Lockridge, and Professor Jennifer Hellwarth of the English department have all been listed on Webadvisor as professors of Women’s Studies courses in the last few years.

“The Women’s Studies office is in a little closet-like nook in Carnegie on the first floor, which it shares with a small semi-kitchenette area that is utilized by the entire building,” Caskey said, in an e-mail. “The petition springs partly out of this arrangement; it would be so beneficial to Women’s Studies students, be they majors, minors, or just the occasional class-taker, to have a central location, and a central, stable faculty member– a luxury that other students may take for granted in other disciplines.”

Professor Shaw was initially hired just for this year, and with the huge amount of student approval, she was offered a contract for next year, as well as the year after, according to Caskey.

“I know she will be here next year, but I’m unsure of whether or not she has committed to the year after that,” Caskey said.

Jensen and Caskey hope to reveal the enthusiasm for the WS program to the administration through this petition.

“Many students have taken WS courses merely to fulfill graduation or distribution requirements, but end up truly enjoying what they’ve learned,” Jensen said. “I think our goals for the WS department will allow students greater access to WS courses and broaden the spectrum of what current WS students can learn.”

Karen Feltz, ’12, took FS 101: First Ladies of America with Professor Paula Treckel and learned how women’s studies can be a thread of focus in nearly every department.

“In English classes, you talk about Women’s Studies; in history classes, you talk about Women’s Studies,” Feltz said. “I didn’t realize we didn’t have a tenure track for the Women’s Studies professor because it seems like a really common major.”

The Women’s Studies program presently has 17 majors and 17 minors, according to Professor Deborah Dickey, the current head of the WS steering committee.

With a solid group of active WS students, why hasn’t Allegheny directed more attention to the WS major or taken the steps to elevate it from “program” to “department” status?

“I think that the WS department has been marginalized over the years, so it has been easy to ignore,” Jensen said. “I think with the help of student involvement, the WS department can change for the better. I know a lot of the problems have to do with insufficient funds, but if the school surveyed student interest before jumping into a project, I think there would be greater satisfaction on both ends.”

Allegheny Student Government Vice President Liz Kozub has taken WS courses from Professor Bailey, Professor Caballero, and Professor Lockridge during her time at Allegheny and attributes the lack of a WS focus to the ongoing creation of new academic departments.

“I think there’s need for Women’s Studies on campus and a lot of other colleges have Women’s Studies departments that are really thriving but we’re really pressed for money because we’re developing other new departments that the college prioritizes over Women’s Studies,” Kozub said.

Allegheny’s environmental science department recently hired a new professor to teach classes focusing on global health and medicine in a globalized world, according to Kozub.  The English department is in the process of hiring a new professor of journalism, and just held meet-and-greet lectures for potential journalism professor candidates on Monday, April 26, and Wednesday, April 28.

“The concentration on journalism and global health in environmental science has been expanding,” Kozub said. “I think that shows where the college’s priorities are.”

Despite the college’s current priorities, Jensen believes that improvements to the WS program will positively affect the greater student population.

“Feminist epistemology and discourse is eye-opening, and not in the stereotypical bra-burning, man-hating way,” Jensen said. “WS courses ask students to analyze information differently, much like Black Studies, Latin & Caribbean Studies, and LGBT Studies; this process can help Allegheny students become better critical thinkers and to become more sensitive to certain political, cultural, social, and economic situations.”