Horizons In A Time Of Crisis:What Women's Studies Can Teach Us

Contributed by James Searle SUNY Albany
June 21, 2011
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The University in Crisis


There are two points with which we must start. First, Public Higher Education is under attack and must be defended.  Second,  the study of both Gender and Women’s issues carried out in Women’s Studies classrooms has immense significance for our world—a world in which domination faces our students in ever more complicated, violent, and subtle forms—and for continuing to develop more ethical and politically engaged forms of academic inquiry within the institutions where we work and study. In short Women’s studies are of vital importance and when threatened must also be defended.

To get ahead of myself a bit, I want to discuss the ways in which these two principles can fit together, the ways in which they may or may not threaten one another, the issue of whether one rests on the other: in effect the question of the ways in which the University needs Women’s Studies and Women’s Studies needs the University.  To those familiar with the debates it is a question of institutionalization.

In what follows I will be pursuing the problem of horizons in a time of crisis. I have found it necessary to unpack and synthesize a long and complex history surrounding the University in order to place the present ‘crisis’ in a longer frame. What I would like to suggest is that the inauguration of the current crisis is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of Women’s Studies within the University. The benefit of a historical perspective is that it unearths some of the great contributions Women’s Studies can make towards understanding our present moment and also shows that feminist scholars have for a long time been forced (or free enough) to ask the crucial institutional questions that the crisis places in front of us today.

The 1970s are significant in three ways: this is the moment when the first WS programs are established (Buffalo 1970), it also marks the beginning of the end of the Golden Era of the American university, and it is a clear beginning point in the economic and political movement most commonly identified today as neo-liberalism. The 1970s are in these terms somewhat contradictory. The emergence of Women’s Studies is a product of decade’s worth of political activism around gender issues inside and outside of the university and is in ways made possible by the relative abundance of Golden Era federal funding which made the creation of new centers, programs, departments, and positions much easier than today.

 At the same time Women’s Studies also marked the clear beginning of a critique which made clear that the traditional forms and history of intellectual work were outdated, oftentimes biased, and in need of serious transformation. One of the ways the historical ironies can be made intelligible is focusing on the role the notion of research played in the funding of the Golden Era University. The Golden Era initially solidified the autonomy of disciplines and the funding of universities by stressing the economic and political advantages of the production of knowledge under the research model.

 But by the mid 1970s all of this changed: not only were various methodologies and theories challenging ideas like disinterest and scientific research, but they also undermined academic hallmarks like disciplines. Above and beyond this another set of forces was at work not to undermine the internal organization of the institution but to undermine the institution itself: enter neo liberalism. David Harvey helps us to contextualize the shift from the Golden Era into the neo-liberal age we now inhabit:  “during the high growth years of the 1950s and 1960s [.] redistributive politics, controls over the free mobility of capital, public expenditures and welfare state building had gone hand in hand with relatively high rates of capital accumulation and adequate profitability in most of the advanced capitalist countries. But by the end of the 1960s this began to break down, both internationally and within domestic economies” (Harvey 14).

Neo-liberalism set its sights on the well endowed public goods of the US Welfare State—such as the University—as new sites for capital accumulation. Clearly I am glossing this for the sake of brevity but there is a wealth of material being produced on Neo-Liberalism effects and functions today. What is most important to recognize is that Neo-Liberalism set a number of material limits on a certain kind of horizon which was dominant in the 1970s and is still frighteningly prevalent today: the university of the early 1960s.

This is all put forward to give a sense of the context in which debates about the institutionalization of Women’s Studies take place. It is not just—to borrow Kathleen M. Blee’s characterization—that “Women’s Studies, as a paradigm of intellectual inquiry and as an institutional site in the academy, has a complex and unstable relationship to traditional scholarly disciplines” (177) but also that Women’s Studies entrance into the American University loosely coincides with the dangerous instability of the University itself. So while it is clearly the case as Blee says that “challenges to disciplinary knowledge, inherent in the intellectual mission of Women’s Studies, have had institutional consequences for Women’s Studies programs and departments” (179), it seems to me quite dangerous not to be crystal clear about the economic and material forces at work.

Of equal danger is losing sight of either side of the coin: the content—if it can be called that—of Women’s Studies is as important as the institutional form in which that content takes place. The logic is quite twisty: how can a program that questions and undermines the traditional forms of intellectual discourse take shape and appear in the academy? Is the traditional intuitional form a requisite for appearance? Finally what are the costs—both material and intellectual—of such an appearance? 

Diane Elam addresses quite directly the fiscal and material dimension of the debate: “Women’s Studies is often viewed by the fiscal powers that be as a ‘borrowed-time’ discipline, where specialists are constantly trying to find time to teach, study, and do research in Women’s Studies in addition to the responsibilities they have to primary field of research. Nice work if you can get it” (218). Elam’s work calls attention to the fact that most scholars who teach courses in Women’s Studies hold joint or full time appointments—if they have full time employment at all—in other departments, in other disciplines. For Elam this is a problem which discordantly strikes on two keys: not only does it place Women’s Studies in a compromised position in the “corporate university whose motivating principles are increased profitability,” but it also guarantees that the intellectual work of Women’s Studies will always stay on the backburner (219).

Now all of Elam’s assertions rest on a knowingly provocative commitment to the department in its traditional form as horizon. I am not so much bothered or concerned with Elam’s hard earned pragmatism in the face of the crisis as I am with the theoretical principles evident when she writes: “The important move that Women’s Studies can make is that it can indeed become a department without simultaneously taking on the rigidity of a discipline. In doing this it can begin to challenge the terms and conditions under which the university is used to operating. Part of the negotiation that Women’s Studies as a department will have to make is preserving, even intensifying, all of its various interdisciplinary connections while arguing for its fiscal, administrative, and disciplinary autonomy” (220).

 Here the historical lens helps us to see that disciplinary autonomy is not only directly connected to a model of knowledge production (research) but that being a department only guarantees autonomy under a set of larger conditions. So while departmental autonomy for a department like English in the Golden Era translated into heaps of books, grants, and an abundance of classes and jobs, departmental status under Neo-Liberalism means flexibility and adjuncts, an impossible tenure process, and ethically questionable public-private partnerships.  Elam’s confidence that “to be a department is to be ensured, in these volatile fiscal times, that the university is committed to the acquisition of knowledge’s about women” (223) disregards quite explicitly the ideological edge of the question: what are the conditions for that acquisition and once acquired how is that knowledge distributed, reproduced and used?

On the institutional questions Robyn R. Warhol couldn’t be farther from Elam. Warhol does not see security in the traditional formations whatsoever, going as far as saying that if her program were offered tenure lines she would simply turn them down. At the heart of this position is an awareness of certain kind of shift in the humanities and social sciences: “departments in all the disciplines are gradually becoming less traditional as their tenure-track personnel are becoming more interdisciplinary”. Warhol sees that interdisciplinarity which was once quite unique to Women’s Studies programs is now becoming a wider trend. This leads Warhol to suggest that “long-term radical transformation of ‘traditional departments’ is as worthy a goal as the more obviously exciting project of developing Women’s Studies tenure lines in those institutions where it is possible” (225). The horizon for Warhol is “eventually dissolving the department structure of higher education in favor of a fully interdisciplinary organization for the production of knowledge” (226).

Warhol’s proposal is the more radical of the two positions, but it is not without its blind-spots. For instance, what are the real-world consequences for the labor practice of interdisciplinary scholars today? Is it not true that to receive rigorous interdisciplinary training it takes more time, a larger share of scarce resources, more specialists, and more administrators willing to depart from the quantitative habits of review that leave so many in the humanities and social sciences out in the cold? Warhol leaves us with these questions unanswered.

It is unsurprising—and a little cheap of me—to suggest that the prudent and powerful position lies somewhere between the two proposals, but from my local and limited position that is what I am comfortable saying. To zoom out a little bit, I want to suggest that those of us who are outside of Women’s Studies programs can learn immensely about the coming challenges by attending to the debates and struggles surrounding institutionalization and Women’s Studies. Furthermore, Women’s Studies because of its long experience with the imaginative, the once un-imaginable and impossible, and its unique point of emergence in our institutional history, has much to teach us about finding the right horizons in this crisis. In short the time for disciplinary strife has passed, defending Public Higher Education and furthering the institutional progress of Women’s Studies are contiguous elements in a single struggle. 


Response from
Matt McGregor

July 10, 2011

Re: Horizons In A Time Of Crisis:What Women's Studies Can Teach Us

There is both a fatalism and a voluntarism to Warhol's argument—which is admittedly more complicated than I'm allowing here—which is prevalent among some of the older academics I hear waxing prophetic on this issue, and which soon became rather tiresome.  Do we really need more 'radical' reinventions of the university / humanities?  To what end?  Unless one is planning to open a private institution, like AC Grayling, one has to begin with an acceptance of determination: Warhol simply isn't free to banish disciplines by fiat, or reinvent pedagogy, or whatever.  'Reinvention,' it seems, is a sexier code for compromise and acceptance of the old lesson: there is no alternative.  

Your response, I suppose, as you suggest in your piece, is that we should do both: point out that there is indeed an alternative—like changing administrative funding priorities, or the Millionaries Tax in New York—while planning for the eventuality that the transformation of the institutional space continues on its current dismal course.  But, I wonder, is this any more than finding a silver lining in an indisputably dark cloud?  If it is, I suppose I wish it would discard the 'radical' tag, and market itself as the unfortunate, if necessary, compromise it seems to be.