Students seeking gender studies

On the other side of the mountains, the University of Montana (UM) is waiting for final approval to begin offering a women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS) major in fall 2015. While the university has offered the program as a minor for years, it is expanding due to popular demand, according to Beth Hubble, co-director of the program at UM.

According to students and faculty at MSU, WGSS has become an important tool for looking at feminism and equal rights for women and minorities, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. While 345 schools around the US currently offer WGSS as a major, MSU is not among them.

 

WGSS at MSU

MSU currently only offers the program as a minor, though interest in the study has been increasing in recent years, according to Kristen Intemann, co-chair of MSU’s WGSS minor program. Students are taking enough WGSS classes to conceivably have a major, according to Hubble, but because MSU only offers a minor, students are piling up on classes.

In order to earn a minor, a student must take Introduction to Feminist Theories, a seminar or independent study, and five dedicated WGSS classes. Many MSU students are currently taking more than the required number of classes in order to focus on their areas of interest as well as gain new perspectives.

Courses for WGSS come from a variety of disciplines, including religion, history, sexuality, anthropology, sociology, political science and health, as well as feminism. One such class is Contemporary Issues in Human Sexuality, which offers teachings from people in the community who are involved in sexual health and perspectives. Another class offered at MSU is Psychology of Gender, which talks about the different ways that the sexes are viewed and discussed.

Brian Kassar of Counseling and Psychological Services teaches Study of Men and Masculinity through the WGSS program. “I consider my class and the ability to study men’s development as a success of feminism because without it men’s studies probably wouldn’t exist … There are some misperceptions about [my] course: some think that it is anti-feminist given the focus on men’s development. Others think that ‘men aren’t that complicated’ and are surprised to learn that there’s a course devoted to understanding men’s gender role socialization.” He believes that having a men’s studies course in the current program helps to emphasize the equality sought by feminism.

Even those classes that aren’t focused on feminism have begun to incorporate it into their studies. Sara Rushing, an assistant professor for the political science department at MSU said, “I don’t teach any dedicated WGSS classes but weave feminist studies and perspectives into most of my classes.”

The current WGSS program is housed in the College of Letters and Sciences and lacks its own department. Intemann says that it relies on faculty from other departments to contribute teaching time for the minor.

 

Student and faculty perspective

For Katherine Soper, a WGSS student and junior in psychology, the MSU program does not measure up to the program at UM, where she attended for two years. “The amount of core WGSS classes they have far surpasses MSU,” she said. “While the classes that are offered provide a solid foundational basis for WGSS, it would be nice to see some more diversity … I think there’s a lot of interest in studying feminist and queer issues around campus, so it’d be nice to see the university reflect and support that by establishing a department and major.”

Danielle Hidalgo, a visiting assistant professor for MSU’s sociology and anthropology department, added that “there are a few incredible people on campus doing some very important work … those people need more support from the university.” She went on to say that “MSU, like so many competitive universities throughout the country, should have a [WGSS] program rather than simply a minor. I’ve had many conversations with my WGSS students about this and they all want a program with more support and core faculty.”

According to Intemann, “There are many challenges to creating an interdisciplinary major.” In order for a new major to be introduced, special documentation must be submitted to the Board of Regents discussing a budget for the first three years of the operation of the program and institutional support including sources of funds and physical facilities and equipment. The papers must also include the capacity of student services to accommodate the change, as well as adequacy and availability of required library and information resources. The documents then need to be approved by the appropriate department and emailed to the provost’s office. Then various committees must approve the changes, which can take up to six months, so new programs must be planned a year in advance.

That process does not even consider cost although for UM, the new major won’t add any extra expense: “Our students are already taking these classes and grouping them together so they can have a major in it,” said Hubble. UM already offers many more WGSS classes than MSU, so much of the teaching infrastructure is already in place.

Joshua Winsor, a senior in psychology, thinks that one of the main problems holding back the WGSS major is current perspectives and perceptions of feminism. “One of the major issues with the idea of a WGSS major may deal with the incorrect view of feminism being all about creating a negative stereotype of men. This arises from the extremists in feminism; like any other extremists, they are a myopic minority that just happened to be louder.”

Chris Myers, a senior in community health, agreed: “There are so many jokes that surround feminism that it’s hard to take the term seriously, in the manner in which it should be represented. [It] has been skewed beyond recognition. The courses that make up [WGSS] could really help to define and reinforce the true ideals of feminism.”

“The very differences that we are allowing to color our views of each other are what can, and should, strengthen our society and relationships,” Winsor added. “The more we train folks to focus on understanding this area, the greater the positive impact on society.”