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!
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.