Prolegomena to any future dumb questions about Women’s Studies

Someone asked me the other day, with a straight face, if there are women’s studies conferences. Being the diplomat that I am, I said, “Yeah, of course”; in response to his comment that perhaps women’s studies would be better off if there was a man teaching courses along with the “five” women professors, I feebly replied, “our department has like 30 professors!” I would have liked to pursue an extended diatribe about the ignorance that it takes to completely overlook the contributions of the forty-year-old department not just to academic knowledge but to real women’s lives all over the world,  about how our department receives a yearly $1 000 000 endowment for the Ruth Wynn Woodward chair, has eight full professors and 18 additional faculty members, and joins 44 degree-granting Women’s Studies programs in Canada, 900 Women’s Studies programs in the United States (this many that offer graduate degrees alone) and 250-odd programs worldwide to teach tens of thousands of students every year, how the Canadian Women’s Studies Association is a member of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and American Women’s Studies programs are overseen by the National Women’s Studies Association, which has been around since 1977, that a professor from my department recently published a column in the Georgia Straight, that everyone should read, about the ongoing importance of Women’s Studies .

It did get me thinking, though, about what the hell is wrong with the modern university that would allow one department to be so oblivious about what is going on just down the hall, or just across the quad, or on the other side of the student union building. And unfortunately I don’t have any good answers that extend beyond woebegone sentiments. I do have a theory, though, that I’m hoping has been taken up in detail by some clever scholar, and that I will one day stumble across in a thick tome dug up from the back corner of a used bookstore that will answer all of my questions once and for all. My theory is that the humanities and social sciences, especially the humanities, somehow project a perception toward laypeople that no special training is required in order to achieve proficiency. This is not to say that people aren’t aware that there is the possibility of graduate and post-graduate education in the humanities, or that people can and do devote their lives to studying things like “power” or theorists like Bourdieu. Rather, there seems to be a perception that even though this is the case, a layperson can still engage in a conversation with a humanities scholar and assume that they have all of the knowledge and competence that is required to formulate an argument about a topic in the humanities to a degree that is appropriate to engaging the arguments of the scholar on a peer-to-peer basis.

There is a stark contrast, then, between how laypeople approach the sciences versus how they approach the humanities, and more importantly, how people in the sciences versus those in the humanities regard these laypeople who are trying to interpret the work done in their fields without the necessary competence. Let me give a quick example. A quick Google search of blogs coming out of the sciences reveals a vast distaste with the way that science journalists handle science topics (Language Log, Bad Science, and Neuroskeptic, for instance, are highly critical of science journalists misinterpreting science stories). While some of their complaints can be attributed to laziness on the part of journalists, many of them can be more accurately attributed to science journalists having poor or deficient knowledge of the subject matter, which leads to them misinterpreting things that would be obvious for anyone proficient in the field. The humanities, on the other hand, don’t have a well-embedded and -accepted body of critique of the way that laypeople (e.g. journalists) misinterpret humanities topics, even though such misinterpretations happen all the time.

I think this is for a couple of reasons. First, there is no clear demarcating line between academic humanities topics and non-academic ones: academics talk about ideology, for example, but so do Republican talk show hosts. To a layperson, there is no reason to assume that what the academics are talking about is any different from what Rush is talking about, even though the difference is enormous. Similarly, academics talk about feminism, and so do our hippy moms; to the layperson, there is no recognition of the vast gulf that exists between the meaning of the term as it is used by academics and the meaning of the term as it is used by your mom (let alone the differences between academics). The second, related reason is that humanities jargon is often homonymous or heteronymous with everyday words. There is no reason for a layperson to assume that the word subculture has a different meaning in a cultural studies context than it does in an MTV context, or that the word competence has a different meaning in a literature studies context than it does in a Starbucks conversation context, or that the word problematic has a different meaning in a conversation about Althusser than it does in a conversation about a leaky faucet, or that the word imaginary has a different meaning in a sociology context than it does in a Disney context. Thus, when laypeople hear humanities scholars using the words problematic and imaginary as nouns, they get accused of being opaque for the sake of appearing erudite, when they are actually using terms of jargon that have decades-long histories of definitional specificity. Third, the humanities and social sciences, by their very nature, do tend to deal with issues that come up in people’s everyday lives, topics that are often dealt with by laypeople in Starbucks conversations and Disney movies (to some degree). However, scholars tend to use different tools and approaches to analyse these topics, and they often come at them from different approaches and have different goals than the laypeople. And not surprisingly, the approaches they use, and the arguments they formulate, require a great deal of training and specialized knowledge to create and comprehend. A person in the welfare lineup might have a lot to say about poverty, but they are not going to be saying the same things as someone in a graduate-level seminar about the same topic.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic of much debate, but it is a thing nevertheless. The salient difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is that the natural sciences are known to be “private” for the most part, in the sense that the inner workings of science tend to take place behind closed laboratory doors rather than out in public, and they deal with issues that are usually only of interest to specialists in the field; the humanities deals with issues that are public to begin with, so the divide between public issues and “closed door” social sciences/humanities is hard to distinguish, and thus specialist knowledge is considered, or appears to be, public property.

This is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time. It is fortunate because many social science/humanities types are wary of the way academic institutions separate scholars from the people and situations that they are studying. It’s hard to feel good about capitalizing on the experiences of the person in the welfare lineup by writing a thick dissertation on poverty and getting a cushy, well-paid tenure track professorship while the welfare recipient keeps receiving welfare. At the same time, this disparity between the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities is unfortunate because we live in a world where institutional legitimacy goes a long way; it’s tough being in a department that has limitless potential for improving people’s lives, and seeing that potential go down the drain because academic success is so incumbent on the pretense that quantitative knowledge is unassailable. But I digress. The meat of my theory here is that people ignore the legitimacy of the social sciences/humanities because of a fundamental difference in the way that the two poles are conceptualized by laypeople. Science is considered Scientists’ Business, and humanities is considered Everyone’s Business; this dichotomy erases the existence of the specialized knowledge and training that forms the basis of research in the humanities and social sciences. What’s the solution? More education for everybody.

Now where’s that book?

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2 responses to “Prolegomena to any future dumb questions about Women’s Studies

  1. A fascinating post and thanks for the name-check…

    Speaking as a scientist, though, I think we have more in common than you seem to imply. There certainly is a perception that science goes on in a kind of private ivory tower laboratory, or to put it simply, that “science is hard”.

    But this doesn’t mean that non-scientists are willing to just accept what we scientists say. On the contrary, in many quarters there is a mindset that science amounts to an arcane and sophisticated body of deception whereas the truth is simple and accessible to anyone – most of the arguments for Creationism, for example, boil down to “Obviously evolution is too improbable to have happened!” and most global warming skepticism boils down to “It’s a bit chilly isn’t it! Global warming? As if!”

    But I think humanities academics are in exactly the same position. As you point out, many lay people feel perfectly able to discuss ideology or feminism or power, etc. But they don’t feel able to talk about Althusser or Derrida or whoever. They just don’t care about them. They feel that they don’t need to master the language of the academy, they just know the truth because it’s obvious, and any academics who disagree are just over-educated eggheads…

  2. Spot on, Neuroskeptic. I was going to make the same point. It’s something I came across years ago in a social psychology course I was taking. The basic context of the discussion was the research showing that people basically deduce their emotional states post hoc, and often incorrectly — in the discussed case, men “excited” by hiking over a gorge mistook their heightened emotional state for attraction to a female research accomplice. Now, certainly one can question the conclusion and the research, but a fellow student “knew” that research was incorrect because he “knew” that people didn’t work that way. Our TA asked if there was a particular critique he had, but he said, “No, it’s just stupid — I’d know if I was hot for someone versus whether I was just excited cuz I’d gone over some gorge.”

    As NS said, people feel like they don’t need to master new language or concepts to deal with science (admittedly in this example, so-called “soft” science). On the other hand, academics, in the sciences or humanities, can also encourage this unfortunate chain of events by being oblivious or insensitive to such confusions, especially when we are oblivious or insensitive to them among people who do want to learn, but would rather like to be talked to with patience and consideration. And as was just pointed out at a conference I went to, scientists at least often look down on fellow scientists who spend overmuch time on writing for general audiences or making work “accessible”.

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