Outskirts online journal

Carolyn D’Cruz

Further information

About the author

Carolyn D’Cruz is the Convenor of Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies at La Trobe University. She is also author of Identity Politics in Deconstruction: Calculating with the Incalculable (Ashgate 2008).

Publication details

Volume 27, November 2012

Taking responsibility for Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies

Like so many people around the world today, my vocation was targeted for redundancy some five months ago now. The announcement was made at La Trobe University’s Humanities and Social Sciences’ Faculty wide meeting, as part of the Organisational Change Impact Statement (OCIS), in front of all my colleagues who attended, and for supposed ‘legal reasons’ I could not have been told in private. As the sole staff member dedicated to teaching Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies (GSDS) the implications of axing the major was patently clear—framed as a change of business plan and direction for the Bachelor of Arts degree, on the alleged grounds that student retention was poor, I became known as an ‘affected’ staff member. As you can imagine, when I left the lecture theatre a half moon of other staff members circled around me like I was a widow at a funeral. I felt shattered, but I can’t say that the proposed axing was unexpected—Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies, and its predecessor in Women’s Studies, does not enjoy the same kind of the status as traditional BA majors in say history, politics or philosophy outside of its own circles. While highly regarded in specific NGOs, government organisations, activist circles and advocates for the marginal, Faculty management are not so clear about where such an area study fits in this age of ‘infinite possibilities’, ‘thinking aloud’, and preparing students to be ‘world ready’ and ‘make a difference’, to cite four recent slogans in which La Trobe’s marketing team has ‘branded’ our ‘product’ to attract students to get their education, or perhaps more accurately get their qualification with us. The language in which this organisational restructure is taking place speaks for itself, and there is enough literature out there that documents the corporatisation of university education over the last three decades without me having to rehash it here. So in all honesty, I did see this coming. I did not need the proposed axing of the course to reflect on what I have experienced so far as a perennial insecurity of this area study’s educational and broader societal status. I believe the threat and disrespect often accorded to area studies such as GSDS is attached to a much more general and insidious contempt for the issues and political siding with the marginal, despite the lip service and anti-discrimination legislation that all corporations (including universities) proudly flaunt as a part of their mission statements. And it is the dual purpose of examining how something like GSDS fits into the supposed mission of producing and evaluating knowledge through the university on the one hand, while ‘carrying a brief’ as Janet Halley (2006) might say, for marginalised and minority perspectives in working toward a more just world on the other hand that shapes the responsibility that I want to speak of here.

So let me emphasise this double imperative again. First, without a doubt in my mind, GSDS takes sides—we write history from below, we redress exclusions from the canon, we appreciate lived experience as a crucial voice in the making of expert knowledge, we question divisions between the private and public and what that means for our bodies and lives, and we unpack the bias embedded in power/knowledge relations that are dressed as value neutral and grounded in Reason. We take sides in the name of justice. On the other hand, while we might work in the name of justice or social transformation, we have brought the arms of activism and advocacy into the academy. As such, I believe we are obligated to follow a second imperative: we must give an account for how we legitimate our knowledge claims. And it is the tensions and productivities between these dual imperatives that provides our area studies with an extremely fertile terrain for asking the most fundamental questions about the pursuit of knowledge and liberty (to give a nod to the Enlightenment heritage), as we account for the most complex patterns of domination and subjugation in our world today.

Obviously, laying one’s political and ethical cards on the table in the pursuit of knowledge does not sit easily or comfortably with what we might traditionally associate with disinterested Reason, but interestingly fits well with the University’s mission—‘to transform the lives of students and communities through learning and knowledge creation’. The question remains as to why the history of area studies such as this are often ridiculed and chastised in all sorts of public arenas (during the proposed cuts 3AW radio talk back host Neil Mitchell expressed bemusement over what would possibly be covered by a gender studies course at university) . To reflect on this heritage of ridicule, let’s turn to the 1998 special issue of Australian Feminist Studies, which takes us back to the open hostility and derision that the introduction of feminist and women’s studies subjects had met in the early 1970s. I’ll cite two examples: first, the faux course proposed by a Professor of Spanish at Academic Council at Flinders University in 1972: Titled, ‘The Philosophical, Social, Sexual and Artistic Transcendency of Tauromachy’, the supposed course on the theory and practice of bullfighting was to be taught by ‘Latin and Spanish migrants’ whose ‘lack of academic qualifications’ were not to be regarded as a serious impediment (Sheridan 1998, 68). This was a clear dig at the value placed on ‘lived experience’ in the resurrection of subjugated knowledges and the introduction of women’s and other marginal groups’ perspectives into the domain of knowledge construction. Indeed the status of ‘experience’ continues to supply our area studies with some of the richest, most groundbreaking and enduring material for intervening in debates about the partiality of so called neutral knowledge and the epistemological status of the contaminated and fragmentary standpoints of marginal perspectives in articulating counter-narratives to dominant ideologies. The second example recounted in the AFS issue recalls the notorious Philosophy Strike at the University of Sydney in 1973—the place and status of feminism and feminist subjects, and who was qualified to teach such things, was a crucial marker of the famous division between General Philosophy on the one side and Traditional and Modern Philosophy on the other side up until the year 2000. Even at the time of the strike, opinion was divided as to how much the issue could be attributed to rampant sexism within academic processes or was a consequence of undemocratic, professorial decision making. Of course, there were those who emphasized connections between sexism and authoritarian decision making; and from the point of view of the Professorial board the issue was completely centered on maintaining academic standards (Bashford 1998). What I want to emphasise here, is that these issues have never left us. The entanglement between assumptions based on sex and ethnicity with regard to academic standards continued to plague many area studies throughout the ‘culture wars’ and debates around political correctness in the 1980s and 1990s. I think it will repay us to revisit these ‘wars’ and track them to their current instantiations, research that I am currently engaged with. We have our own versions of the ‘gender and misogyny wars’—from Julia Gillard’s recent parliamentary speech calling Tony Abbott’s sexism into account, to the current campaign to expose and hopefully stop Alan Jones from airing and encouraging intolerable bigotry under the guise of free speech. (It took seven and a half years to find Alan Jones guilty of inciting hatred in the Cronulla Riots.) And while speaking of wars, I cannot leave unremarked the specificity of the history wars in Australia where we are a far cry from acknowledging sovereignty and attaining justice for Aboriginal people—we know that the foundation of this nation does not get properly told; and it is the job of area studies, I believe, to redress this anomaly in the construction of knowledges.

Having made it clear that I am carrying a brief for the marginal and subjugated voices in the academy, I am yet to pit this imperative against the other measure of accountability, and that is the question of professional and scholarly competence. I think there is an undeniable verve and rigour in the ‘counter cultural’ production of texts that were emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The idea that a different world could be created; the detail in which the personal lived experiences of the subjugated made cases for public and political redress; the exposure of the partiality of scientific knowledge and systems of classification as propping up bourgeois, imperial, propertied, masculinist and White Anglo-Saxon subjectivities and forms of organising love, kinship and work—all of these things together produced a truly awesome critique of what had come to pass as the natural order of things. In developing counter-narratives to the sanitised versions of the ‘origin’ stories and foundational monuments and archives upon which ‘Australia’ represents itself to itself and the rest of the world, we cannot ignore the ways in which gender, sexuality , class and race have intersected and joined together to build what was overtly flagged as a White nation. As both critique and advocacy for resurrecting subjugated voices in a different telling of such ‘democratic’ nations and the oppressed and minorities within them, Women’s and Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, post-colonial scholarship and queer theory emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as cutting edge additions to the Humanities and Social Sciences, and courses were flourishing. I have a stake in all of these areas and believe that without the recognition that no one area can or ought to subsume the others, we will forget how to keep visible the trauma that has spawned the identity categories that currently mark us inequitably and with varying levels of under/privilege in our endeavours for truth and justice.  This is why I find feminism as an organising principle for how we might learn, create and disseminate knowledge, limiting.

At the same time as these fields were growing, however, on campus resistance and a targeted media campaign egged on by a select range of academics began to publicly berate such studies for strangling intellectual freedom and rigour through what was perceived as mandatory political correctness, equal opportunity and affirmative action in professional life. The honeymoon, if there ever was one, was over for these new fields of study with alternative foundational subjects and agents of history. Whether by circumstance or intent, much of what was coming out of such studies became entangled with debates and the influence of what we can generally call post-structuralist theory (the fact that post-structuralist theory came to stand for political positions on both the left and the right, for high theory as much as for undermining the canon, and for ushering identity politics into the academy as much as for robbing identity politics of their foundational concepts, ought to indicate that there was some kind of crisis in positioning one’s theoretical and political orientations within the academy). The irony of such public association was that many of those working within area studies felt that the so-called post-structuralist critique of grand narratives, founding principles and subjectivity threatened both the ontological grounds and emancipatory goals of their fields (the double imperative that I am making myself answerable to here). Within this particular historical moment both theoretical disagreements and political collisions over the ordering of identity differences within feminisms were becoming much more visible. This was reflected particularly at the turn of the century in the case of Women’s Studies where many a journal, book and conference pondered the future and grounding principles of the area study. My reading of this moment is that the increasing institutionalisation of the area study brought with it more rules and procedures of institutional compliance where there was a demand for curriculum to make a turn from critique to construct.  This is to say, from its beginnings in redressing the canon and resurrecting subjugated voices in specific disciplines, the 1990s became caught in establishing an autonomous institutional base, which begged the question of demarcating a more precise curriculum that cut across disciplinary objects, theoretical frameworks and methodological strategies, as well as pedagogical styles.

As Wendy Brown argued back in 1997, in her paper, ‘The Impossibility of Women’s Studies’, curriculum mapping proved much more difficult in agreeing on objects of study, questions of method, and inclusion of diverse perspectives than say, political science. Some have disagreed with Brown’s assessment that the institution demands a certain coherence of Woman in order to build a viable curriculum (Zalewski, 2003). I believe it is both the institutional demand for coherence and the impossibility of binding that coherence that gives us the best chances of staying open to what might easily get missed if we try to manage all sorts of oppression under the one moniker of feminism-even if it is pluralised to feminisms. The task for area studies is to learn how to work with the unbounded grounds upon which an ineluctable propensity to bind us to identity categories get made.  And so we need to continue debating how to negotiate the problem of privileging gender (or not) over other categories such as race, class and sexuality to name just three. We need to sort through the entanglements between the naming of marginal identities as both objects of study and analytical categories. We need to find better ways for the bureaucracy to cope with the interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary composition of our majors. And finally we need to re-ignite some of those heady debates of the 1990s when there were genuine attempts to speak across theoretical and methodological differences. Judging from the publication and conferences around today, it seems like the drive to foster more dialogue between  the interpretive and empirical disciplines has been put in the ‘too hard’ basket. As difficult as revisiting some of these conversations might be, I think this makes for a better and stronger approach to the scholarship and activism upon which our area studies have been built.

So here is my moment of truth, or more accurately my moment of digression that situates my role in this saga. To lay my cards on the table, I have to admit that throughout my entire study and sessional teaching career I had never anticipated that I would be in a position today, wondering how best to take responsibility for the specific—and it is very specifically named—interdisciplinary area of Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies. I entered this field at La Trobe University shortly after the transition from Women’s Studies to what it is now. As a scholar, I did not realise that all the political and philosophical problems—and they were definitely problems—I was studying in social movements best described as ‘identity politics’ would actually give me the qualifications to take responsibility for those area studies that are based around such categories. I actually thought I was trying to move away from what I felt to be the perils of identity politics. It was not until I saw the advertisement in the Age, for a lecturer in GSDS, which was placed on the very same day as a position for a lecturer in Women’s Studies that I realised how much difference a name could make. I fit the bill for GSDS, which was advertised as a half time contract position. I did not fit the bill for the women’s studies position, which was a full time continuing position, so I did not apply for it. In the meantime, however, the job of restructuring a Women’s Studies program to Gender Sexuality and Diversity Studies became my ticket to a permanent full time job. This has been both exciting and frustrating. I have had the room to take responsibility for what gets taught under this new name. But at the same time the heritage of the program still grapples with the ad hoc nature of its emergence before it became officially institutionalised and the placement of many academics hitherto associated with women’s studies program are now firmly entrenched in their original home disciplines. So apart from some of the core units we run at first and third year levels (which I teach), we have to rely on the goodwill of other departments to contribute to our survival. We have fought very hard over the last six years to secure a dedicated position for GSDS, which we finally attained last year. But no sooner had we begun the task of developing a new curriculum when the proposed cuts were announced. Had it not been for the depth and breadth of our networks, however,—many of them made over the last few decades when La Trobe’s Women’s Studies was well renowned—and had it not been for the hundreds of signatories and letters written by students, academics, other programs on a national and international level, I doubt very much we would have survived. In this way, the constant demand to justify our existence has equipped us well for battling the bureaucracy and drawing upon the ever-ready networks of support for our mission in the academy.  We might have survived this round of cuts, but in all seriousness I am not so optimistic about the future. As I write I have an enormous sense of indignation and anger at the lack of knowledge, respect and investment that the Faculty had shown toward GSDS and myself for the entire period of the OCIS process in which my head was on the chopping block. I am tired of having to constantly justify the need for a visible presence and greater infrastructural and staff support in order to better run such an interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary program. I am fearful that the corporatist turn in university culture will alter our quest for justice to some kind of human resources feel good ‘spin’, which decontextualises the historical conditions that give rise to the need for anti-discrimination, equity and diversity issues in the first place. But then I think of our students, who are walking advertisements for articulating why we ought to cultivate rather than devastate those who take responsibility for the marginal in the academy. As one student, Francis Tarpey, put it in a letter to the editor in the Age during the campaign to reverse the proposed cuts, “I began my degree sceptically, but upon sitting in my first class [of GSDS] I was enthralled. The lecturer promised we would explore questions of knowledge production, untold histories of disempowered peoples, issues of race, class, gender and other ways humanity is carved into categories of identity. Three years later, the tools I continue to be equipped with provide me with insight into highly relevant issues which feature in the Age every day”. Why any university would not want to nurture a program that produces graduates like this is beyond me.

References

Bashford, A. 1998 “The Return of the Repressed: Feminism in the Quad” Australian Feminist Studies. 13 (27): 47-53.

Brown, W. 1997. “The Impossibliity of women’s Studies” differences: A Journal of Feminist cultural Studies 9 (3): 79-102.

Halley, J.  2006 Split Decisions. How and Why to Take a Break From Feminism. Princeton University Press

Sheridan, S. 1998 “’Transcending Tauromachy’: The Beginnings of Women’s Studies in Adelaide” Australian Feminist Studies 13 (27): 67-73.

Tarpey, Francis. Letter to the Editor. The Age, June 30, 2012.

Zalewski, M 2003 “Is Women’s Studies Dead?” Journal of International Women’s Studies, 4 (2): 117-133

Back to top