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Teaching gender and sexuality: Pitt program keeps up with the times

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As the Women’s Studies program goes through a series of changes, including most visibly a proposed name change to Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (see University Times, 9 Jan. 2014), the faculty and advanced PhD students teaching in the program have been working to keep the curriculum in line with national norms in gender and sexuality studies. The program’s new mission statement, recently passed by the Steering Committee, includes promoting “feminist and LGBTQIA*” pedagogy and supporting campus efforts to make Pitt’s curriculum more inclusive. But what does it mean in 2014 to teach gender, sexuality, and women’s studies? And how are gender and sexual inclusivity fostered in our classrooms?

“Gender” and “sexuality” have been added to the program name in part because our courses examine women and femininity as well as men and masculinity, transgender identities, and sexuality. In our classes, we teach students to question “common sense” about gender and sexuality and to consider how gender and sexual oppression can be fought or dismantled. Students are sometimes resistant to lessons that make the personal political, but learn to channel that resistance toward intellectual and personal growth. When we are at our best, we create a transformative classroom experience where students think critically about accepted knowledge claims and see themselves and others through a more reflective lens.

Men and masculinity are lines of inquiry that currently comprise much new research across the humanities and social sciences. But including the study of men and masculinity still makes people wonder: Why should a program started by feminists study men and masculinity? For starters, men have a gender, and like women, men learn to be gendered beings. To get students to think critically about men and male domination, we commonly start lessons on gender with studies of the social, cultural, and political construction of masculinity. In our effort to deconstruct widely held beliefs about the naturalness of men and masculinity, we scrutinize dominant ideas about masculinity; the different ways in which men construct masculinities; how men fail at masculinity; as well as female masculinities. At first, students are generally surprised to see masculinity as part of the gender curriculum but express great interests in masculinity and men. Besides, they reason, men can and should be feminists too.

As a discipline, Women’s Studies has a long tradition of teaching, scholarship, and activism on sexuality, including an emphasis on reproductive rights, the politics of pleasure, pornography, sex work, and sexual violence. Adding sexuality to the title of the program both reflects this long tradition and represents more recent developments in the field. In the last few decades, feminist and queer scholarship has transformed the ways in which we understand the very categories of “sex” and “sexuality,” and our new course, “Sex and Sexualities,” introduces students to this important interdisciplinary work. Through an analysis of the invention of sexuality as a medical, social, and theoretical category, we treat “sex” and “sexuality” much like we treat gender—as aspects of life that are, in fact, shaped by a range of social, cultural, and historical forces. An interrogation of taken-for-granted ideas typifies our work in the program and invigorates students to ask questions about the intimate relationship between the personal and political that they might not have asked otherwise.

In our courses, we not only ask students to take a look at their personal experiences via readings and classroom discussions about the body, sex, food, and popular culture, we develop assignments that push students to translate this learning into practical application. The interdisciplinary nature of our program allows us to draw on methods of inquiry from the humanities and social sciences including close textual readings, ethnographic “fieldwork” and participant observation.  One set of assignments used across several courses is our version of The Body Project. Here, there are a broad set of readings that are supplemented with assignments that encourage students to engage theoretical concepts such as standpoint theory, through experiential learning. For example, in one assignment, students select a new (for them) way of expressing gender. This might include practices such as veiling, changing dress or hair color, or adopting an entirely different gender.

After challenging students to consider the social and cultural constructions of gender and sexuality, we lead students in the creation of new questions that they can apply, refine, and reassess through discourse and in practice through assignments. Therefore, for example, beyond practicing oral communication skills or learning how to create a professional presentation, students teach their classmates about their research findings and methods, fostering a discussion of feminist research praxis. In this way we demonstrate how students can use this learning in ways that broaden and strengthen their work in their home disciplines as well as in our program.

* lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer, intersex, and asexual or ally

Julie Beaulieu, Frayda Cohen, Amy McDowell, Chelsea Wentworth, and Todd Reeser contributed to this article.   All teach in the Women’s Studies Program.

photo credit: Purple Sherbet Photography via photopin cc


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