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Striving to Become a Department, Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Sees Growth

WGS
The Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies committee offices in the basement of Boylston Hall.

Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality — though currently a small program offering only undergraduate degrees and graduate secondary fields — is working towards one day becoming a “full-fledged” department, Acting Chair of WGS Françoise Lionnet said in an interview Friday.

The WGS Committee is an interdisciplinary study program spanning the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Many students within the committee pursue joint degrees in other departments ranging from biomedical engineering and computer science to history and literature.

Lionnet said though the process to become a department requires much administrative oversight, the transformation would be “an overdue recognition” of the importance of WGS’s “intellectual and interdisciplinary profile.”

“A lot of administrative work has to go into making it into a department,” Lionnet said. “The university administrators have to agree that's the necessary step and that would be a long process.”

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To achieve this goal, the committee has already taken several steps to expand the program.

Currently, the WGS faculty comprises mostly joint appointments between WGS and other departments, but the Committee has made strides in the past few years to expand its faculty. In 2017, WGS hired its first full-time faculty member Durba Mitra and then subsequently hired its first full-time tenured professor Robert F. Reid-Pharr last year.

WGS Director of Undergraduate Studies Caroline Light described the appointments as “fantastic” and “exciting news in terms of institutional resources.” She credits the divisional dean for allowing the committee to hire full-time faculty.

“We were able to make two full appointments on our faculty, which is really new because we’re a committee, we’re not a department in WGS, which means up until just a couple of years ago all of our faculty were jointly appointed faculty,” Light said. “This speaks a lot to team-led support for our program.”

“That’s a revolutionary change in our capacity as a relatively small interdisciplinary program to appoint faculty fully in our program,” Light added.

Not only is the faculty growing within WGS, but the graduate and undergraduate student populations have also expanded.

“For the first time ever, there are looking to be, in the first day of sophomore tutorial, over 20 students, which is really amazing,” Light said.

Despite the growing interest, Light said she is concerned by the multiple upcoming WGS faculty retirements, which may present some difficulty in keeping up with the growing student demand.

Montita Sowapark ’19 — a joint concentrator in biomedical engineering and WGS — said that because most of the classes are seminars, there is likely a limited number of students who can take WGS courses.

“By the nature of the material and the type of work that you’re doing and the types of questions you’re asking, most of the classes work better as seminars,” Sowapark said. “And also because of limitations in how many people can be hired, how many lecturers can be hired per semester, it’s such that fewer people are able to take the WGS classes that they want than ideally.”

In response to the limiting nature of seminar courses, the program is progressively adding more General Education courses — including Ethical Reasoning 42: “Sex and Ethical Reasoning” — that allow for a greater number of students, Lionnet explained.

“We have of course a lot of seminar-based courses, but we have also a lot of Gen Ed courses that are beginning to be offered more and more,” Lionnet said. “And I think that’s the pathway to attracting larger groups of students.”

Still, Sowapark said she considers the biggest obstacle to growth and meeting student demand to be funding.

“I absolutely love the faculty that we have in WGS but I really do think that if Harvard were to dedicate more funding, because that’s really literally the bottom line,” Sowapark said. “How much money do they have to hire people who are doing the most innovative work, to fund research, to fund students, to fund professors writing books, etc.,” Sowapark said.

Nevertheless, the intimate size of the Committee has made it easier for students and faculty members to bond, according to program affiliates.

“I do rely on professors not just for academic support and advice but also for a lot of emotional and personal support and advice. I feel very safe and comfortable approaching them about things like sorting out what I want to do with my future or going through like a particularly difficult time,” Sowapark said.

Lionnet said the small size of WGS courses can facilitate conversations about more sensitive issues.

“In our kinds of courses we talk about personal issues and it’s easier to do that and feel comfortable talking about that in small groups,” she said.

— Staff writer Sophia S. Armenakas can be reached at sophia.armenakas@thecrimson.com.

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