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.

NWSA Annual Conference: fascinating topics and challenging interactions

Last weekend I got to attend the National Women's Studies Association annual conference. I went to the conference with a sense of dread (as is common for young professors going to their professional conferences) but it turned out to be a fantastic, if very challenging, experience. I'm sure that you don't want a play-by-play of my experiences (I took 4500 words worth of notes!), but I do want to give you the highlights to show you some of the things that some awesome people are thinking about. So, here are some of the really interesting panels and papers that I got to hear:

  • A super helpful panel on strategies of publishing in academic journals. This is an essential skill for the young academic, so it was really good to hear from the editors of specific publications about what they look for and how they do peer reviews. Now I just need to submit some articles!
  • An engaging panel on different approaches to teaching Intro to Women's Studies (West Virginia University). This panel was based around using props, so we heard about teaching with cells (from a medical perspective), condoms (from a public health perspective), corsets (from a historical perspective), and blow up dolls (from an activist perspective).
  • A paper by Danielle Henderson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on her Feminist Ryan Gosling tumblr. You guys, she is awesome, and you really need to see her memes. Such an interesting critique/use of feminist theory!
  • Two really useful papers by Jenn Brandt (High Point University) and Kate Drabinski (University of Maryland, Balitmore County) on using Twitter and Blogs in the feminist classroom. I am definitely going to try to incorporate these approaches in my spring courses. There are challenges to using those technologies, but I think that teaching students to write publicly and to engage in public debates is so important.
  • A fascinating paper by Safiya Noble (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) that highlighted the way that a Google search for the phrase "Black Girls" almost always returns porn while a search for the phrase "White Girls" returns new articles. Her work demonstrates that Google's algorithm works to perpetuate racism and sexism. Mind blown.
  • A really challenging paper by Leandra Preston-Sidler (University of Central Florida) on the existence of "pro-ana" communities on Tumblr that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice and the ways that those communities' postings are bleeding over into mainstream society as "thin-spiration" photos. Pinterest is another places where these photos abound. Leandra said that even though she is a trained feminist researcher, after spending hours looking at these photos she notices that she thinks about her own body and eats differently....just think about what these photos are doing to young girls who aren't thinking critically about the impact of the photos. Scary stuff.
  • A controversial conservation about the place of men within feminist action and organizations. My friend John wrote a really interesting blog post about this. His post is entitled "Please Excuse Me for Having a Penis", and it is definitely worth a read. It is my personal opinion that feminists must work to ensure that no one feels silenced, so if men are feeling silenced within NWSA they need a caucus to express those concerns. Even if men have privilege every other day of their lives, we should still not deny them a voice at our conferences. We simply must begin to enact within our organization the dynamics of equality that we want to see in larger society.
  • An interesting paper on the labor and ideology involved with being a professional dominatrix. Ayu Saraswati (University of Hawai'i at Manoa) explained that a dominatrix's labor works in 5 ways (discursively, semiotically, affectively, emotionally, and cryptically) to produce pain as a commodified product. Crazy fascinating.
  • A very well attended (aka standing room only) panel on Nicki Minaj. I'm not going to lie, I didn't actually understand some of the points in these papers, but I am super interested in what Nicki Minaj means to hiphop, to women, to the music industry, and to performance in general.
  • And another panel/discussion on using Facebook in the feminist classroom. We had a really interesting conversation about whether you should use your own personal Facebook profile to interact with your students. We also said that if feminism is about de-stablizing the power relationships in traditional education, then it seems problematic for the professor to have a secret life that the students don't have access to while at the same time we ask students to let the course material impact their personal lives. Word.


All of those topics were great to engage with and many of these papers and panels challenged me to think about things in a new ways. Additionally, the question and answer time of each session really gave me a chance to hear what feminist around the country think about this things...and in some cases I spoke up and asked some questions as well.

Additionally, this conference let me connect with some new collogues, plan some collaborative projects, and talk with some publishers about my manuscript. All of these aspects of the conference were professionally helpful, but demanded an amount of extroverted-ness that I found a bit exhausting.

So anyway, that is a general overview of the conference, and I'd love to discuss any of these topics in more detail.

What are your experiences of attending professional conferences? Did any of these ideas strike up your interest? If you were at this conference, what were some of the most meaningful sessions for you?

As always, thanks for reading!