key concepts of GWS and why they might make the academy angry

Earlier this week the National Women’s Studies Association published a document addressing some problems and new guidelines for evaluating tenure and scholarship in the field of Gender and Women’s Studies (for simplicity, we’ll just go with that name, even though I understand that it is contested). This document contains lots of interesting and important information about how faculty in GWS can contribute to the profession and to academia in general and about how traditional tools of evaluation in other disciplines are sometimes not fitting or appropriate within the context of GWS departments and career tracks.

In the section entitled, “What is Women’s and Gender Studies: An Overview of the Field?,” on page 6, the document states:

“Approaches to knowledge production and transformation in women’s and gender studies are highly divergent. Thus in providing an overview of the field, our aim is to offer context and background for assessment, rather than a directive or mandate for the field. We outline below four key concepts central to women’s and gender studies scholarship, teaching, and service.”

In naming these 4 key concepts it seems that the document (and the working group who authored it) is doing two things. First, they are identifying/explaining elements that are important throughout and common within the diversity that is GWS. Second, they are attempting to show that because GWS contains these key concepts, the academy misunderstands, is perhaps threatened by, and does not fairly and adequately evaluate the importance of GWS scholarship and teaching.

So, pages 7 & 8 describe the four key concepts and how they are misunderstood by the academy are:

1) The Politics of Knowledge Production– Since GWS is concerned with the examination/interrogation of the production of knowledge, GWS can be seen as “disloyal or transgressive to institutional norms.”

2) Social Justice– Since GWS values participation in collaborative activist projects, GWS may be seen as less academically rigorous than other types of scholarship that are traditionally valued by the academy.

3) Intersectionality– GWS encourages scholars to deal with multiple and interacting systems of inequality (racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, etc.) and that maybe hasn’t been valued in other fields. (I was a bit unclear on why the academy might have a problem with this aspect of GWS.)

4) Transnational Analysis– Since GWS works to de-center western thought and to understand the way that “the center is always multiply constituted in and through it’s relationship to ‘the periphery,'” GWS may be seen as a threat to the primacy/power/centeredness of the academy. (This wasn’t explicitly stated, but that is my read of this section of the document.)

I find these key concepts and the ways that they might be misunderstood by traditional tools of academic evaluation to be really helpful in two ways: first, because it helps me feel that the diversity of GWS is at least provisionally unified about the value of these four key concepts and second, because it helps me more clearly see the ways in which I want to resist and interrupt the pressures of the academy.

I’m not sure if this document will really change the ways that institutions evaluate the work of GWS scholars, but I think it does change (or at least start to change) the way that I envision myself as part of the academy. Perhaps more importantly, this document helps me understand (and be able to more helpfully address) why the academy might be nervous or angry at me….and it helps me not take that anger so personally.

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This entry was posted in academia, feminism, heterosexism, racism, teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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