Women’s and gender studies isn’t simply “mental masturbation” that discourages critical thinking — anyone who has taken even one class from the Department of Women’s & Gender Studies (WGS) is aware of this.
The department does align itself with the feminist movement, but rather than indicating vapidness of arts students or censoring of academic discourse, this relationship is the university fulfilling its obligation to marginalized communities.
So to address the question about whether a university should align itself so closely with a social movement, yes. It should. It is the responsibility of influential institutions in our society, especially those that shape the perspectives of so many young minds, to support movements that not only fight patriarchal structures but also stand up for the racialized, gendered, and disabled bodies that have suffered, and unfortunately continue to suffer, under institutional barriers.
The University of Alberta ought to be applauded for supporting feminist thought because doing so means it is standing up to thinking that is plainly wrong. In the context of women’s and gender studies, the “other convincing perspectives” the author seemingly wants us to consider are often entrenched in decades of racism, sexism, and homophobia. These are definitely not the kinds of ideologies we want to be instilling in students. We should instead encourage institutions to support movements like Black Lives Matter that work to resist discrimination.
In terms of the department itself, most WGS courses focus on the intersectionality and diversity of feminist discourse, not just the one-sided dialogue the author mentions. We talk about everything ranging from disabled bodies and the eugenics movement to the shifting symbolism of breasts to the complexity of race relations in America. In fact, the department website explicitly states this in its “About Us” section, noting that “research in the field is intersectional… [and] recognizes the ways that gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, age, and ability must be understood in relation to one another.” There is a clear acknowledgment of a larger goal of achieving reconciliation for those who have been systematically oppressed.
Further, the department wants to dissect human experiences to “not only understand the world, but also to make a difference.” Most lectures consist of critical analyses of historical and contemporary examples of oppression and subsequent discussions concerning the state of the world around us. The courses force us to think long and hard about our choices as global citizens and how to go about engaging in dialogue with those who may hold completely different opinions. Heavy issues are discussed through a variety of perspectives even when we vehemently disagree with or are hurt by those perspectives. These don’t sound like “smug liberal arts students” to me; they sound more like people who are willing to listen, then evaluate.
Of course, as the author states, many of these same issues are in fact discussed in departments such as political science, sociology, history, etc. But very rarely do the topics in these departments intersect. Professors, and students, in these departments often express concerns about the lack of interdisciplinary studies. Women’s and gender studies allows for a version of this interdisciplinary study to come to fruition. Most classes that may seem like they have nothing to do with the study of language or politics, for example, actually incorporate both (and much more) into their curricula.
The WGS courses I have taken so far have been the most practical classes I have ever experienced as an activist — and that’s thanks to their interdisciplinary nature. Our institution generates students who go on to be leading scientists, writers, and world leaders. We want these people, who will arguably be the most influential in shaping public discourse, to have a holistic understanding of oppression. Failing to ensure this will make it extremely difficult for society to move in a positive direction and will distance us from resolving the many faces of oppression.