Anti-Anti-Women's Studies (An Open Letter to Jan Oller)

Feminism ephemera

Image by cathredfern via Flickr

My former colleague in Women’s Studies, Jan Oller, write an op-ed piece in a local alternative weekly attacking WMST as a discipline and supporting recent budgetary decisions to terminate the program. Since I don’t have a current email address for him, I’ve decided to post my response here as an open letter. I hope he sees it!

 

Jan, 

I don’t say this very often, but after publishing your anti-WMST piece in this week’s Citylife, you oughtta be ashamed of yourself. First for very personal reasons: you’re trying to take jobs away from nearly two dozen people, many of whom you know and were, at one time, friends with. Let that sink in a bit before we move on to more substantial issues. Next time you see me, I want you to look me in the eye and tell me why you issued me a great big “fuck you” in the pages of the Las Vegas Citylife.

The more pressing issue here is how profoundly and painfully dishonest your piece is. You’ve done, in fact, the exact thing that both you and I have spent so many years trying to help students learn not to do: to abstract and generalize about a group as a whole from the behavior of a limited number of persons at very specific moments. In a department of roughly 20 people, there is one hardcore immigration rights advocate and one hardcore prostitution rights advocate, both of whose activism flows directly from their own research.

That’s not to say that others in the department don’t advocate these positions, or other positions on behalf of different marginalized peoples. That activist stance is built into women’s studies, as is the academic humanism you belittle in your piece. And here’s where your intellectual dishonesty lies: you know, absolutely know, that there’s no such thing as detached, “pure” scientific research when it comes to human behavior. And you know there’s no non-activist stance in the social sciences.

Consider your own (and my) academic discipline of anthropology. There has never been an anthropology that was not always already applied anthropology, not always already built on a core of social action. From its birth as an academic discipline in debates over the potential for indigenous peoples and immigrants to participate fully in modern society and the terms of that participation, anthropology has always been an activist discipline — even when that activism was on behalf of the status quo. The same is true of economics, sociology, social psychology, and the rest of the social sciences; they developed to solve problems, and what qualified as “data” has always been determined by the scope of the social problem under investigation.

Women’s Studies has an advantage over those fields in two ways. First, WMST makes its activist position explicit. As someone who agitated for the inclusion of more Marx in UNLV’s WMST curriculum, surely you appreciate the discipline’s open adherence to the 11th Thesis, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways, the point is to change it.” Second, WMST not only embraces but defines itself around interdisciplinarity. As in anthropology, the social sciences rest alongside and depend upon the humanities in WMST, and even more, WMST draws of necessity on psychology, literary critical theory, sociology, philosophy, biology, media studies, history, law, cultural anthropology, business administration, theater, the fine arts, and linguistics to describe, understand, and explain the nature of identity and advance avenues of social change.

Frankly, if all WMST did was “produce students who feel passionately about issues that personally affect them, raise their consciousness and feel empowered” I’d consider it a success, but as you know, that’s only a start. (You’ll notice that I cut the thing about legitimizing their preconceptions, since — again, as you well know — very few students come into WMST with any awareness whatsoever of most of the issues WMST covers.) At our best, we help to shape engaged, passionate citizens who very often take on a lifelong pursuit of activism. Do you follow your students’ post-WMST lives at all? If you did, I’m sure you’d see more than one or two examples of students “creat[ing] knowledge which the community at large benefits from.” Consider just one of my former students, who worked to create a program for at-risk Latino youth, sharing the pre-Hispanic history that is their legacy but which is almost completely ignored in the current educational curriculum. Or at least two others who have run for local and state political office.

What we teach in WMST matters. You know that — you’re an activist yourself. But you bear a grudge. I don’t tend to get involved in office politics, so I don’t know what happened with you and UNLV’s WMST program, but it’s clear that you left harboring bad feelings about one or more members of the department. And that’s fine — enjoy your bitterness. But you should feel profoundly ashamed of yourself for allowing that grudge against specific people to morph into an attack on an entire academic discipline which, as you yourself note, nearly a third of academic institutions (and all the Ivy League universities) find to be an important part of the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to a well-rounded academic offering.

Hardly scientific, Jan. And hardly knowledge which helps your community.

–Dustin

 

 

3 comments to Anti-Anti-Women’s Studies (An Open Letter to Jan Oller)

  • Sonny Minx

    who is this Oller fella? I’ve seen his negativity all over the Weekly.

  • SOnny: Jan is a former part-time instructor in the UNLV WMST department and a former colleague (hence my taking his attack on UNLV WMST personally). He has apparently decided to place himself on the wrong side of everything these days; if you read his rant about First Friday on the Weekly’s website (http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/news/2011/jun/22/do-you-love-downtown-do-you/ – comment #2), you’ve seen that the empiricism he so vaunts in his Citylife anti-WMST piece isn’t exactly his strongest suit. Talk about your ideology coloring your perception of reality!

    Anyway, I’ve had a response to this piece from Jan, who insists his attack wasn’t meant to include PTIs like myself or WMST in general, which means basically (as I said) he interjected himself into a debate with real, negative consequences for students and faculty alike out of his dislike of a couple or three particular members of the UNLV WMST department. Generalizing from the behavior of specific persons — exactly the sort of thinking that WMST as a discipline functions to counter…

  • Jan Oller

    You can hold as much of a grudge as you want, that’s your prerogative. But I won’t respond in like manner.

    My piece in the City Life wasn’t motivated by personal feelings towards anyone in the department. It was motivated by the self destructive politics and policies eating away at it. By seeing the number of allies and potential allies being pushed aside…

    It was a critique of the state of feminism in the city, and focused on the problems within the department. The very problems responsible for WS’ shortcomings regarding it’s reputation. What one takes out of that critique is up to them… learn from it and think about it, or react defensively…

    Stating that it all just comes down to personal feelings towards others is an easy way to negate criticism and to legitimize not heeding it, but that approach is akin to sticking one’s head in a hole at noon and pretending it’s midnight.

    You know very well that when one addresses a “department,” they aren’t addressing the adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are in effect the day laborers of academia. A department is generally defined by it’s politics and policies, not by those with no real power over those aspects.

    I don’t see a problem with taking an activist stand when I comment on articles in the Weekly. I don’t see anything wrong with doing so in my role as a private individual. We all have a right to our positions… and I certainly don’t think opposing gentrification or rampant dogmatism…or giving a pertinent social critique of the state of Las Vegas is being on the “wrong side.” It may be the unpopular side, it may not be a position which is politically rewarded. I may have fallen off the bandwagon and been run over a little by it.. but it’s certainly not the wrong side.

    I’ve seen the impact gentrification is having on long time, disenfranchised downtown residents. It goes beyond the arts district or Fremont East, it’s much more complex and it has to do with downtown legislation in general and the way it’s alienating and isolating the poorest of communities while giving a literal carte blanche to the gentrifiers. Goodman’s policies have essentially reinstated segregation…and of course, those benefiting from the legislation, whether directly or indirectly, won’t speak out against their own interests or perceived interests. Since except for those making a direct financial gain, the vast majority are simply reacting to a perceived psychological wage.

    I’ll post pertinent parts of my response to your open letter…..

    The opinion piece in the City Life isn’t a “fuck you” to you or any of the adjuncts. For one, how many adjuncts have been pushed out of the department or fired since the financial crisis began? Who was there to stand up for them? Did the tenure track faculty do it? Did other adjuncts band together in solidarity? Or were those left just thankful that they still had a job? I know that as a powerless adjunct I fell into that camp as well. What’s the bigger “fuck you”? To stand by and let that happen to colleagues… or to write an opinion piece which you hope will make people take a critical, retrospective look at the department and it’s relation to the community?

    Furthermore, let’s face it… when someone says “department” it’s a reference to those with control over the dept’s politics and policies.

    I don’t belittle humanism… But everything is simply not completely subjective. Epistemological truths exist…the goal of any science is to approximate those truths as closely as possible via trial and error. Like wise, we can’t deny the importance of a methodological drive when we attempt to study human behaviors. Which is why collecting data is so important… if you look at works which have made a lasting impression on the field, they’ve done so due to the data they provide. Theoretical approaches come and go and adherence to dogmatism of any kind stunts intellectual growth.

    My problem isn’t with activism, it’s with indoctrination… with professors using students for their own pet projects, and confusing emotion based, personal political rants with teaching.

    Inspiring students or instilling a sense of social activism in them shouldn’t involve pushing one’s own politics on them. Instead, an instructor should nurture students’ own curiosity, strengths, and interests, whether or not they’re the same as yours. Or whether or not their beliefs in how to better society are in tune with what you believe. In this way, you teach them to create their own knowledge and use your expertise to guide them along the way. But you don’t tell them what that knowledge should be… Take a Socratic approach, if they ask, tell them… otherwise let them make their own mistakes and then guide them. Let them discover their own interests and have a dialog with them, not a therapy session or a re-education camp experience.

    When I taught WS, some of my best students were those who hated the course content but learned something because they made an effort to challenge their preconceived notions. They found their own way as to how to implement elements of social justice within their own political paradigms. I found them to espouse what I was aiming for rather than the students who simply thought that being a social liberal and giving personal opinions that agreed with the textbook was enough to claim they learned something.

    I’m more proud of the hardcore Mormon scout leader who never missed a day of class and told me how he designed a tolerance workshop to put the kids through…. or the guy who emailed me 2 years after taking my class, apologized for hating my guts and said that everything I said was true because he slowly started experiencing it and my annoying lectures kept popping into his head…the football player who quit the team and went back to Hawaii to go to a community college because I taught him than an education is more important than a free ride and a piece of paper that says he completed his time…or the basketball player who was ecstatic for his C- because he actually felt that he earned it… than I do the WS majors who rarely showed up because they were working on professors’ pet projects…yet felt that they deserved good grades and would threaten to “tell on me”, or the social liberals who couldn’t get why simply agreeing with me or the textbook wasn’t getting them As.

    This is not the approach which the department promotes or rewards… As a whole, it comes down to tenure track faculty simply filling the ranks with teachers’ pets who will further their own personal political agendas. This approach has done a lot of harm in that it’s pushed a lot of potential allies away… hence the department’s reputation in the community.

    As an institution, I think WS has a lot of problems that need to be addressed. I don’t see that as a problem. Ignoring pitfalls or refusing to acknowledge failures is more damaging than exposing them. The backlash against progressive policies and politics in the US is a direct reproach to failed approaches. Introspection and restructuring is necessary…. a politicized, humanistic approach that focuses on engaging emotive reactions doesn’t work in the long run. It detracts more people than it attracts.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>