Gender studies pushes forward, integrates with other disciplines

Sammy Caiola

Northwestern’s methods for teaching gender and sexuality have garnered a lot of attention in the past year, from Prof. John Michael Bailey’s sex toy scandal to the Feb. 19 Chicago Tribune article featuring Prof. Lane Fenrich’s new course, “Sexual Subjects: Introduction to Sexuality Studies.” New opportunities for studying gender and sexuality are thriving across departments and the after-class sex toy controversy is in the past, said gender studies director Mary Weismantel.

“We really want to use this as an opportunity to get the message out that we’re very proud of the way sexuality studies is taught at Northwestern,” Weismantel, an anthropology professor said. “We think we’re a national leader.”

University President Morton Schapiro said he is glad courses like Fenrich’s are offered at NU.

“Some people think that maybe there’s no place to teach human sexuality at a research university, but they are wrong,” he said. “I’m so glad we have a course like that.”

The gender studies program, founded as the Women’s Studies program in 1980 and renamed in 2000, is on its way to changing yet again, this time to the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program. The name change has been approved and now must be voted on by the entire faculty and the Board of Trustees, Weismantel said.

But some peer institutions are not joining the shift in focus away from women’s issues and toward themes of gender and sexuality. Stanford University has had a feminist studies program for 30 years, and many faculty members are reluctant to change it, said Heather Hadlock, the program’s director.

Stanford’s program draws its faculty from other disciplines but can stand as a major on its own. There are 11 feminist studies majors and minors at Stanford, according to program staff, compared to the 51 gender studies majors Hammond said are enrolled at NU. Stanford is keeping its focus on women’s issues rather than gender and sexuality, Hadlock said.

“The focus of our discussion has been our commitment to keeping the critical activist edge that is suggested by the word ‘feminist,’ that we could see turning to a name like gender studies as a step back from that direction,” she said.

One change that is “going to happen for sure” at NU, Weismantel said, is the introduction of gender studies as an independent major. This has been voted on by the program and now must pass the faculty vote before being made official, Weismantel said.

Previously, students could take gender studies only as an adjunct major to be completed with another major. Gender studies lends itself to interdisciplinary work because many gender studies classes are cross-listed in other departments, such as history, sociology, anthropology and English, Weismantel said.

“Sexuality studies, for the most part, at least in terms of teaching, should never just be about the sex,” she said. “Sex is a window to talk about religion and morality and politics and economics and culture and history. It’s a road to everything. It’s a great lens for us to use to look at all those wider questions.”

Because gender studies is a program and not a department, it does not have its own full-time faculty; professors teach half in gender studies and half in other departments and lecturers teach only within the program. For this reason, many gender studies courses are also listed within other departments.

Scott Sowerby, a history professor who currently teaches “Sex and Scandal in Early Modern England,” said 44 students enrolled when he taught the course for the first time last spring. This quarter, 119 did.

“Sex is at the core of human experience,” Sowerby said. “It’s understandable that students gravitate toward courses that can help them understand some important facets of their own identities. Teaching it from different disciplinary perspectives gives a richer understanding of that phenomenon.”

Sowerby’s course is one of many that is crosslisted under gender studies, according to the program office. Cat Hammond, a Communication senior who double majors in film and gender studies and is an office assistant in the gender studies program office, said the cross-listing system worked well for him and he has had no trouble filling his requirements.

“There’s a lot of overlap,” Hammond said. “Film is an area where we still see a lot of residue of outmoded ways of thinking about gender. Gender studies, for me, has been a productive lens.”

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