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Knocking on the Ivory Tower WGS Seeks a Department

By Matthew T. Lowe and Kevin J. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

Twenty-five years after the founding of the Committee on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Committee members say the next step for WGS at Harvard is to become a full-fledged department.

WGS is one of many degree-granting committees in the College—along with Social Studies, Folklore and Mythology, and six others. These committees provide courses and degrees just like any other concentration, but draw on faculty members from other departments.

“Departmentalization would give WGS the academic and institutional recognition that the Program deserves,” Director of Undergraduate Studies Caroline Light wrote in an e-mail.

If the ongoing conversation between committee members and Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators does lead to a WGS department, it would mark a significant milestone for WGS as an academic field at Harvard.

Talk of developing a core faculty of its own began three years ago, Light wrote.

Though a FAS budget deficit has inserted an obstacle, Committee members remain hopeful that the recent improvements in the budget will accelerate the process.

“The FAS administration has demonstrated full support for the intellectual and pedagogical reasons for departmentalization,” Light wrote. “We remain hopeful that it will be possible in the near future as the University’s fiscal health improves.”

FINDING ITS PLACE

The effort to become a department comes on the heels of a decade of expansion for the WGS program at Harvard, according to Department Chair Afsaneh Najmabadi.

“We’ve consolidated our faculty, our faculty has grown, we’ve managed to hire more lecturers, the courses we give have become larger, and the number of students taking WGS courses has grown,” she said.

Two years ago, the committee began offering a secondary graduate degree. And next academic year, WGS will begin bringing in one visiting professor each year to fill a newly-created endowed chair in LGBT studies.

The total number of undergraduates enrolled in WGS classes has increased from 388 in the 2008-2009 academic year to 545 during the last academic year.

Najmabadi credits this rise to the increased popularity of WGS in the General Education curriculum.

Courses such as Culture and Belief 37: “The Romance: From Jane Austen to Chick Lit,” and United States and the World 26: “Sex and the Citizen” have also been ranked highly among students in the Q guide ratings.

The number of undergraduate concentrators in the program, however, has seen only gradual growth since 2008. The number of primary concentrators has risen from 16 to 18, the number of joint concentrators has risen from 5 to 9, and the number of students pursuing a secondary in WGS has risen from 9 to 12.

PART OF THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY

Harvard would be among the first of its peers to host a department in WGS.

Within the Ivy League, only Brown has a department devoted to the field. Other Ivies, as well as most smaller liberal arts schools like Williams and Amherst, offer degree programs similar to Harvard’s that borrow faculty from other departments.

But, pointing to the growing popularity of WGS in the GenEd curriculum, Light wrote that WGS stands on the same level within academia as any other field.

“WGS is not a marginalized field, nor is it on the margins of FAS or academic discourse more generally,” she wrote. “Even the most established fields are continually developing and adapting to the changing needs of our community.”

But in addition to navigating through red tape to become a formal department, some students say WGS still faces challenges in gaining respect within the rest of the academic community for its unique form of scholarship.

“I think that because WGS is so rigorous, and it is about questioning the grand narrative of academia—about trying to insert this new voice—people sometimes see it as unnecessary or superfluous,” said Samantha A. Meier ’12. “Sometimes it can be frustrating to realize that there’s only a small segment of the academic world that wants to do that kind of scholarship.”

Ja-Yoon Choe ’12, a WGS concentrator, said that perceptions of the field vary.

“It really depends on how seriously someone takes the material,” Choe said. “WGS definitely challenges a lot of traditional academic fields and really tries to push against common ways of doing things.”

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Matthew T. Lowe can be reached at mlowe@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.

CORRECTION: OCT. 31, 2011

The Oct. 25 article "Knocking on the Ivory Tower WGS Seeks a Department" incorrectly stated that Ja-Yoon Choe '12 is pursuing a secondary in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is, in fact, a WGS concentrator.

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