Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Women’s Studies Class from Hell

The Women’s Studies Class from Hell

Megan Carpentier's recent Huffington Post piece, A Feminist's U-Turn: A Torrid Tale of Disappointment and Discovery caused quite a stir on a Women’s Studies listserv recently.

According to Carpentier :
My semester stuck in Introduction to Women's Studies came at a price: the cost of my overt feminism.

She then goes on to describe the Women’s Studies class from hell. As someone who taught Women's Studies for many years and was an active member of the National Women's Studies Association, I can attest that Carpentier's post is a caricature of Women's Studies. But I have no doubt that courses such as she describes do exist.

As in every discipline, there are teachers who simply recycle what they’ve been doing for the past 30 years and who become increasingly out of touch with a younger generation of students. So it’s no surprise this happens in Women's Studies as well.Women’s Studies has been around long enough to have its own cohort of burnt-out teachers.

I was afraid of going down that road myself. I recently retired from my job as a teacher of Women’s Studies and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at Community College of Philadelphia. I had been teaching at the College for thirty-four years and the job was getting same-old, same-old. I didn’t want to end my days as a burnt-out teacher, so I retired a year ago. Not a moment too soon!

The gap between my age and the average age of my students got wider every year, and the age gap was also an ever widening cultural gap. I knew next to nothing about the pop culture world in which my students were immersed.

This was brought home to me when I walked by the Women’s Studies bulletin board my last semester at the College. (I retired from my job as Women’s Studies coordinator a semester before I retired from thr college.) On the bulletin board was a flyer posing the question: “Is Beyonce a feminist?”

It would never have occurred to me to use Beyonce to interest students in Women’s Studies. I know she’s a pop singer, but that’s about all I know. A new generation of Women’s Studies practitioners is changing the field and connecting with students in ways I would never have imagined.

I realize that not every sixty something Women’s Studies teacher is as out of touch with popular culture as I am. I so prefer the pop culture of my generation to the rap music, indie rock, and current crop of celebs that interest today’s students.

My pedagogical philosophy has always been: teachers need to understand their students’ world, start with their students’ own experience, and build from there. I still believe this but no longer wanted to make that effort. I wonder what Carpentier would have thought about my classes during my last years of teaching.

What I found most interesting about Carpentier’s post were her remarks about turning to the internet for the feminist education she was not getting in Women’s Studies classes.
The discussions I'd missed in my women's studies class, I found on the Internet; the conversations that I'd needed to make me think harder, better and more critically about gender equity, intersectionality, the personal and the political, I found ten years later outside of the classroom and in the company of strangers I might never actually meet. Writing about women's issues made me learn more about those issues and the feminist theories about them than hours in a classroom ever did, and allowed me to finally feel right reclaiming the word "feminist" for myself.

This echoes what young activists have said about the internet as a vehicle for feminist organizing. I have heard young feminists say that for them the
internet is their mode of doing feminist organizing as the established
feminist organizations are out of touch with their interests/ priorities.
See my post on generational tension within the feminist movement --which in some ways parallels generational tension within Women’s Studies.

And it’s not just young feminists who appreciate what the internet has to offer. From fellow retiree Sylvia Bereskin who blogs at For The First Time: Feminist Women Entering Retirement:

Those of us meeting here in the blogosphere have to be really aware of the ways in which we're breaking down so many barriers; this is a 'room' I can walk into and talk with other feminists and our own age doesn't necessarily even come into the mix. A much more equity-supportive environment for communicating, don't you think?

While this aging organizer still places a high value on face-to-face contact, it’s clear that the internet has opened up possibilities that we are just beginning to take advantage of.


  1. What I began in consciousness-raising groups in the early seventies, I continue via a growing co-hort of feminist bloggers...of both genders. I'm dying to know what the class made of Beyonce. From what I've seen of some of her music videos, if she is a feminist, she's keeping it well hidden behind what we used to call soft porn. And I bet that few of her generation would agree with me.

  2. It's interesting how many women across the generations make this connection between CR and the feminist blogosphere. I think there’s book project here, Nance

  3. I love telling other people about work that sounds interesting for them to do, Karen, but examining the changes in feminist communication since the early 1970s sounds like a cool project. Maybe right after you finish your Philly feminist piece?

  4. Actually, I was thinking of a book project for Nance.
    I never did CR—-although I should have. If I had, I’m quite sure my 2nd miserable marriage would not have lasted 10 years!

  5. Will you at least consult? I'm thinking group project. Help!

  6. Sure. Email me at

    But as I wrote earlier I (unfortunately) never did CR. You as someone who has been immersed in both are well-positioned to pull something like this together.