Category Archives: Intellectual Spaces

“Organizing teach-ins on Title IX…”


Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Director, 2014

I asked [James] Valentini’s office and Sharon Marcus’s office—the dean’s office—if they’d be willing to provide funding for events related to Title IX, or any subset issue. Valentini’s office gave us two thousand, Sharon Marcus gave us, I think, a thousand. We put on what was called a teach-in, but it was an information session that we held in the fall, which was really successful. We had over a hundred people. It was in the Law School. Suzanne Goldberg—at first I didn’t want her to speak because I thought it would be too institutional. Then I invited her. She said, “If we don’t include Columbia as one of the factors, what kind of a comment does that say? That we’re in some ways against Columbia? We have to give Columbia a chance to be a participant.” I said, “God, you’re right, sorry. Please join us!” And she did, among other people.

I invited two people who were part of No Red Tape, who are also self-identified as survivors, and so they sat on the panel too. They said it was very helpful at least to even have somebody to speak to. It was a good panel, because we started off with bystander interventions, and not just talking about post, but pre-preparation, or what you can do. Bystander intervention, someone who had done training on that, a Title IX person, an attorney who knows Title IX very well, and also telling people the options. Like, here legally are the different things you can do in various registers, and know that if you do X, Y is excluded, or Y isn’t excluded and all those kinds of technical things that people sometimes have to reinvent the wheel to figure out.

We had a big fall event. It was really successful. I was working with No Red Tape, I was put on their board for a fund outside of Columbia with donors to help develop funding sources for people to have alternate means of funding, either bystander intervention or projects, or whatever it was. I did an independent study with Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, allowing her activism to be counted academically (so long as she wrote a paper), helping her that way, recognizing the work that she was putting in. Then we scheduled a workshop for the spring and did a screening of The Hunting Ground, and another thing through the Law School on sexual harassment in the military. We did a good number of events that were mostly well-attended, partnered with the Law School on two. Bernard Harcourt in the Law School teaches a lot on law related to sexual assault, so he had a whole class that he wanted to attend. That’s been our involvement.

“It was being in this context at IRWGS that broadened the kind of work that I did…”


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

I was very excited about the anthropology department because it was the biggest thing that had happened in anthropology in the country. We won’t go into the reality versus the fantasy, but I came. Then I was half in IRWAG, and it was very small. There were only two of us joint people, who had half of our teaching there. But I was amazed at this group of women faculty that I found here who were just so institutionally savvy, so committed to this project even though it was all volunteer time for them. Thinking about how to make it good. They wanted the highest standards, but recognizing Columbia’s limitations in terms of powerful departments. People had to really be wanted in their discipline. That’s the brilliance that they had, I think, that they wanted the departments to be totally invested in this hire, and so they involved them from the beginning. They wanted the senior person to be wanted in their department. As an anthropologist, I was somebody who would bring something. As a historian, what more could you want than Alice Kessler-Harris? That was their strategy. A lot of programs flounder because you get faculty that the departments don’t really want. It means that some people can’t be considered, like the kind of cutting edge of feminist studies, which is very interdisciplinary, or cultural studies, since the scholars don’t quite fit in departments. We couldn’t hire people like that at Columbia, so we’re all people who are very well respected in our disciplines but who also have some relationship to women’s studies and sexuality studies.

So I came here. That was very different world for me, and my work actually changed. I always tell the story that probably the article I am most famous for now is this little piece that was called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” It’s taught in University Writing and all over. It was for a teach-in that IRWAG did. Roz Morris was the director then. There was the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and she organized what she called a Forum on War. Gayatri Spivak spoke, and Judith Butler and Cathy Lutz, and I can’t even remember who else. Roz asked me, and I said, “Oh, no. I work on Egypt. What do I know about Afghanistan?” She looked at me like, “You don’t have anything to say?” I felt so ashamed. I only spoke from my deep knowledge, and our knowledge is ethnographic and it’s very specific. I thought, “Well, I’m sure I have something to say.”

So I wrote this talk for that event, which was to me kind of like Middle East/Anthro 101. I put together all the pieces that I knew, and I thought through a few more issues and it was just—it ended up being in the book that I published last year called Do Muslim Women Need Saving? I feel like it was being in this context at IRWGS that actually broadened the kind of work that I did, taking it beyond anthropology, beyond Middle East studies. I had to think: how could I reach a different audience with what I knew, but really directed at feminist issues?

“I would like to continue to build disability studies at Columbia…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature

I strongly believe in service learning and I wish that Columbia were more supportive of it because I think it’s very transformative for my students. Columbia has this policy that I dislike, that it should just come from your heart and that you do service as extra giving on top of your work for the course. I have expressed my discomfort with that policy. I think it makes the class inaccessible to people who are paying for every credit at Columbia and need to work and do internships during their time here. I have not figured out how to reconcile that institutional problem. So I’m teaching a class with service this spring, but I’m not especially comfortable with it. This semester I will be thinking through how I want to proceed with that. But I have felt like IRWGS, CSSD [Center for the Study of Social Difference]—Columbia has been very supportive of my desire to work in the field of disability studies. They’re not huge resources, but I have been able to find resources to do a lot here. The people who these events and meetings bring in are not largely Columbia people. So there is still not a big community at Columbia that cares at all about disabilities. IRWGS and CSSD are very happy to have that included as one of their differences, but there’s not a huge intellectual interest in it. I hope that will evolve, especially as we build connections with people doing medical humanities type work. At the moment, the audiences come often largely from the rest of the city and not from this institution. I would like to continue to build disability studies at Columbia. That would be a very meaningful legacy for me to leave here. I wish that there were a more robust community here.

I have had two chapters of my involvement with disability studies; first with the popular culture, and my work on freak shows, and the history of disability, and then coming back more as an advocate through my experiences as a parent. It has been really transformative to me. In the tradition of IRWGS, it has been an opportunity for me to bring together my intellectual life and also my work as a teacher, and an advocate, and an activist, in ways that have been very meaningful and I think have been helpful to students and others on this campus. But it’s definitely a work in progress.

“Women Creating Change…”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2007-08, 2015

Our central project with the Global Centers, that I’ve been involved in, is Women Creating Change. That’s already a multi-pronged project. We were actually invited to invent something on women and gender that would happen at the Global Centers. To his credit, Lee Bollinger realized that we have all these Global Centers, we have a lot of initiatives, but somehow there isn’t enough work going on around gender and sexuality. So he invited me, actually, to come see him and said, would I be willing to work on something that would make gender and sexuality much more central to what some of the Global Centers are doing. I said, “Yes, if we can house it in the Center for the Study of Social Difference,” because we already have that center.

We decided to keep the same model—we called it Women Creating Change—and be around some working groups that people were already doing. We decided to identify some crucial questions that were affecting women and that were questions around gender that are happening globally. Memory is one of them, religion is another, urbanization and the urban was another one that was really important. Another line is on social policy questions and the relationship of the state to social lives, and state welfare, and state sponsored programs that would benefit the social life of the population. Questions of education and healthcare and things like that. We’ve had a welfare state model in the developed world—not so much in the developing world, but even in developed world—that’s disappearing. So what’s taking the place of that, and how does that affect the lives of women, and families, and men, and migrants and citizens?

Those are the main projects that Women Creating Change is built on. The one that I’ve been involved in has been Women Mobilizing Memory. We’ve built collaborations with the Global Center in Chile and the Global Center in Istanbul. It’s something that could really also go elsewhere. Some of the people at the Global Center in Brazil are interested in that. So we’re really looking at strategies of mobilizing the memory of past catastrophes, and present disasters as well, toward the future and toward change. It draws on memory studies but it also draws on activism and it brings together the arts and the humanities, and the more humanistic social sciences because academic structures are different in each of these places.

“…a space for intellectual work"


Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2004-07

I’ll tell one story that I think is really important in terms of this history, because I don’t know if anybody else would remember it this way. I became director and we had our first Executive Committee meeting. I said, “Okay. Here I am. What are we going to do?” Somebody asked, “So, Lila, what would you like to do?” I was like, “Me? Oh, I’ll just do whatever you want. I’m just taking care of this thing.” Then I said, “Well, there’s one little thing that I really think was sad that it’s gone.” There was this thing called the Bunting Institute, which was an advanced study center at Radcliffe that was a very important institution for women scholars in the old days. It was for, just before tenure, junior women scholars to have a year to work on their books. It was interdisciplinary. They had a wonderful weekly seminar. I never got to go there, but it was life changing for all the women who had ever partaken in it.

I said, it’s really sad because it closed. It was merged into Harvard and became the Radcliffe Institute, which has men and women. It’s just a normal advanced study center, which is fine, but that was a very special thing because it recognized the special problems women face in the academy. I said, “It’s really too bad. It’d be nice to have something like that here, at Columbia. Why can’t we have an advanced study center?”

We talked a lot about it and we said: In the twenty-first century, you don’t have it just for women anymore. We don’t want to compete with other units that are kind of struggling at Columbia around race, like IRAAS [Institute for Research on African American Studies]; and CSER [Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race] was just starting. Why don’t we do it with them around the question of difference? Gender is one of them but there are others. All of these units are sort of organized around identity categories, which we theoretically don’t like, but they’re all people who struggle. Scholars who struggle in the academy, who aren’t mainstream, who work on things that are not as valued, who have a lot of demands on their time by students of color or women who turn to them. They do a lot of extra work. So shouldn’t they have a space for their intellectual work, and not just always doing bureaucratic things together and fighting for resources? A place to nurture our scholarship?

That was my idea. We worked on it and we had the ARC report. Luckily, we had the right people come in from outside who were shocked that we didn’t have a research institute. So they supported us and we got the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

“…those are feminist questions”


Mark van Doren Professor of Humanities, Chair of Literature Humanities

Almost all the protests and demonstrations and teach-ins I’ve been to in the last ten or fifteen years have been either about the war, particularly about the Middle East, particularly about American politics abroad, and particularly about American racist politics at home, stop and frisk [practice by New York City Police Department officers], Ferguson [Missouri], Eric Garner. Those are the ones that all the feminists I know, and my family, have been protesting and talking about and feeling are of immediate impact on everybody’s lives and political conscience and responsibility. I think in each of those instances, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? All of a sudden Republicans talking about Afghani women needing access to education—there’s a feminist critique involved in that. It’s a feminist critique that’s certainly part of why those are the things that were of immediate concern to people.

I have a lot of former students who work on the internet now, that’s where many young feminists work. Being a young feminist who works on the internet, especially if you’re concerned about racism or gender discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination, it just means getting rape and death threats every single day. I think all of those things together, for me, are totally feminist issues. I am far more concerned about Trayvon Martin than I am about gay marriage. The way we think about injustice or rights-bearing subjects, who is silenced in the public sphere, whose life is less worthy, why is that life less—those are feminist questions. They don’t necessarily always land on female bodies, but they’re feminist questions.

Where our activism lands—like I write about 16th and 17th century women. My optic is always about the stories we tell about political rights and who has a political voice. They’re definitely about a historical era a distance from us, but the questions that I’m asking are coming from a place of both how did we get to a delimited sense of political rights and how is the dominant historiographical story we tell about that actually wrong and interested. Male historians tell a very interested story, and I don’t agree with that story. It’s about re-visioning dominant narratives.

I think for almost everybody who’s a feminist, whatever they work on—where their attention is on in their activist life or in their public sphere life—is really looking at inequality, injustice, and the dominant structures of power that make some people lesser than others, whether those people are women or gay people or people of color. In America, it’s people of color. It’s not just right now, there’s a long history to that. I don’t think there’s a distance.

"It was a very contentious issue…"


Professor of Anthropology
IRWGS Director, 1999-2000, 2001-04

It was a very contentious issue. We fought a lot about it. It was one of the most contentious issue in my recollection. I think at that time I was one of the people—I probably still am—who thinks that teaching activism in a classroom is a very weird thing to do. On the one hand it can veer in the direction of internship. On the other hand, every conference you go to, you know, experiences this aporia between the people who are activists and who are often deeply anti-theoretical, if not outright anti-intellectual, and intellectuals who are frustrated by the demands for the instrumentalization of thought which often occurs, as it has to, when you’re doing strategic or tactical stuff.

My own feeling, which is not widely shared and certainly wasn’t shared by the students is that the space between these two has to be kept open. That one has to secure theoretical work from the demands of instrumentalization, and one has to allow activism an immunity, sometimes, from the slowness that is necessary for theorization–which does not mean that activism shouldn’t be theorized. I think it should. It does not mean that theoretical work should be ignorant of, or indifferent to the material consequences, and entailments, and conditions of its own possibility, for sure.

My preference is for this gap to be actively protected. Therefore, I think I wasn’t as supportive of the teaching of activism, which I think is great, and I want students to do, and I want my colleagues to do, and I do. I feel the need for there to be a differentiation of discourse and address. The idea that everything would be serving the same purposes seems to me a horror—an intellectual failure, and a political failure.

A university is a very special place where one is enabled to have the time for a kind of thinking­—a kind of critical thinking that can’t be done in any other place, where the temporal demands, and the implementation demands are different. That seems to me something to defend really vigorously. At different times—I think in the ‘90s there was a very strong, quite insistent call for a continuity between intellectual theoretical activities and practical ones, if not the effacement of the difference between the two. I myself opposed that, but lots of students demanded it, for sure. Then there was lots of difference among the faculty about it, too.



“My assumptions about what was possible in this country were very different from theirs…”


William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies

The 2008 presidential election was the first time I noticed a change. Even though I was in my forties by then, but it was one of the first times that I really felt the generational difference between myself and my students. I had not felt it before, but I really felt it. It was because their assumptions about what was possible were so different from my assumptions. When Barack Obama enters into the field and says he’s going to run for president, I’m one of those people who thinks at the very beginning, that’s never going to happen. Like, really? Okay, he’s probably going to be one of the more viable candidates, but it’s just never going to happen, not in this country. My students, from the beginning, are like, “Yes, that could happen.” They had no sense that it’s not possible. At first, I think it’s because you’re so naïve and, “You wait, when racism slaps you on your face, you’re going to be shocked.” But then I had to figure out they’re not that naïve. I sort of came along. They were already there. I came along early on. I was like, oh, maybe this could happen.

For me, the sense that I would never see it in my lifetime, they didn’t have that sense. I’d stand up and I’d teach them and I realized that my assumptions about what was possible in this country, my country, was very different from their assumption, and that their assumption was, in many ways, right. Where my history mattered, that they didn’t have, is that I knew—once I realized it could happen, I knew that it wasn’t the end of racism or post-racial. I think they were hopeful that that’s who they were. I knew that it wasn’t, and I sort of felt badly, because I knew that—I was prepared for a backlash, and they were not. They were not. Their youth did not prepare them for that.


“…students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum”


Professor of English and Comparative Literature
IRWGS Core Faculty
Director of IRWGS, 2007-08, 2015

Well, the field is changing. Students are changing and I think the curriculum is changing as well. I mean, the biggest shift, curricularly, is that we’ve added “Sexuality” to our name. I think we’ve always been doing sexuality and we are the place at Columbia, certainly in Arts & Sciences, that’s doing sexuality. We’ve been trying to appoint a faculty member in that field, but short of that, we have a number of people who teach it and who have come forward and been willing to teach it. I think that move towards sexuality has been a very big one. The global focus is getting more urgent. I think it already was when I first arrived here and at Columbia. IRWGS appointed Lila Abu-Lughod and Beth Povinelli, so they’ve brought that in and Roz Morris was the director when I first was hired. I think we’ve had that very much at the forefront of our mission, but it takes constant care to maintain it and to enlarge it. We’ve tried to appoint somebody in Latin American Studies, for example. That didn’t succeed but we’re hoping to do, again, this constant vigilance to try to have course offerings that are broad in that way. That’s been some of the shift.

I think what I’ve seen also is a shift in student culture. I feel like recently, really, in the last two or three years, students are just more activist. Changing things in the world seems more urgent to them. I think the kinds of sophistication about analyses of issues of social difference has just been so much more at the forefront of students’ thinking, both undergraduate and graduate. That’s been a shift from the first decade of this century when I think fighting the war was a big issue, and then the economic depression, I think, made all of us more discouraged and probably students more quiescent.

We’re doing this interview on the heels of the protests in Baltimore, so I think we’re seeing something erupt that has been building and it has to do with just tremendous economic inequalities. I’d like to think that students are beginning to realize what it costs their parents for them to be getting this education and to take a look at what that privilege means and who is excluded from it. I think that’s part of it. In terms of gender and sexuality, I think just this larger conversation that’s been taking place in the US that comes out of the gay marriage debate––I think the country’s become so polarized around every question that students are being drawn into some of these questions, whether they want to or not.

I don’t think it’s because the curriculum has changed. I think that students are pushing against the limits of the curriculum, which has not necessarily changed. At the same time, there are a lot of initiatives that are beginning at Columbia, for example, the Justice Initiative and teaching in prisons. I mean, that’s kind of new here and the opportunities to do more of that, more work with the community, public humanities––I think those spaces are opening up and I think students are seeing those opportunities.

“You can’t study gender in isolation from race, or class, or ethnicity…”


Associate Director of IRWGS
Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference
Adjunct Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature

The audience [of the Center for the Study of Social Difference] has always been other faculty, but we’re always interested in expanding that, which is why we launched this blog [Social Difference Online] this past fall. Now that we’ve been taken under the wing of university development, we’re doing a lot more for trustees and alums. There’s a much broader reach at this point. It’s continuing to broaden. That’s a good thing. We have multiple audiences, so that’s a little bit challenging too. Learning how to pitch your research to different constituencies has been a kind of interesting but worthwhile thing. I feel like one should always be able to explain what one is thinking and doing. That’s almost a no-brainer, right? We should never only be talking to other academics. We should all be public intellectuals to some degree. That’s kind of what we’re aiming for.

Part of the competing vision of the center is reflected in the makeup of the working groups. If the vision is strictly an advanced study center, then there’s not a whole lot of artists and activists. It’s more focused on getting together and workshopping papers and discussing things. If the model is more capacious, or more about disseminating ideas and also pushing the boundaries of research and so forth, then you have a project like Women Mobilizing Memory, archives, other projects that are specifically interested in performance, and activism and other things, and do a lot of public programming. That was a big point of contention actually. Do we want to do any public programming? Do we want to do none? Because that takes up time and energy.

The whole idea of the center is to—we were just talking about intersectionality before—it’s really, kind of an outgrowth of that, that one can’t study gender only. You can’t study gender in isolation from race, or class, or ethnicity. It doesn’t make any sense. Certainly if you think about where gender and sexuality studies is going right now, that’s also a no-brainer. Nobody does that. That’s the starting point for pretty much everyone. Our feeling was that obviously IRWGS is immensely relevant and we do really important work, but that we needed something, some other thing, that could pull together the kinds of research, the kinds of work, and the endeavors that go on in these other centers and institutes that otherwise wouldn’t really connect somehow. So the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, the Institute for Research in African American Studies—the whole litany of everybody [IRWGS, Barnard Center for Research on Women, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society]—and that the center would be the place where you wouldn’t have to worry about these kind of disciplinary boundaries. You wouldn’t have to constantly try to make the argument that when one studies gender, one has to think about race, and ethnicity, and class, and all this other stuff. The center is that. I don’t think it could be any other way. The idea is that we’re trying to do something unique in some ways because the way the university is organized, it’s really hard to initiate a working group or research project that addresses these kinds of issues. Where would it go? I’m not sure. It doesn’t fit anywhere and that’s the problem that CSSD was designed to address.