Category Archives: Intellectual Spaces

“…we need an intellectual space”


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

Many of the people who still don’t have lines in IRWGS we consider main, main members of our community, like Jean Howard. She doesn’t have an official line there, but that’s one of her big homes. A lot of people were committed but a lot of people drifted off and worked on other institutes, but then we were anchored by the four lines, with half of our teaching obligation and administrative is in IRWGS, and now there are six, six or seven. So that’s pretty stable, and they’re major, senior people. There were no tenure battles. Many departments flounder over supporting or not supporting a junior person. We didn’t have any of that. We don’t have admissions. We’ve resisted from the beginning. We don’t want to have a PhD. We don’t even want an MA. We like it the way it is—it’s a place people go to because they genuinely want to be there, because they care about it, and it doesn’t get caught up in this bureaucratic stuff and fighting over resources. Why not have a space like that? We have enough of it in our own departments, so let’s have a place that’s not like that. I think most people feel that way about IRWGS, that you don’t have any of that going on.

I think a lot of people feel we need an intellectual space. Not all departments are intellectual spaces for people. There are many departments that are problematic for people. Either they don’t fit in them or there are nasty histories. One’s department is not actually always the intellectual center for you and you have interests that actually go well with other people’s interests who are not in your discipline. This is an opportunity to follow the themes of your research with people who are interested in the same things.

We think this is all part of gender studies too. It’s enriching what IRWGS does and giving opportunities to IRWGS faculty to have conferences, to have working groups, to develop ideas. I know it comes up there and we know it, because we know how much effort it took to start the thing. Sometimes we think, look, why isn’t Women Creating Change under IRWGS and just skip CSSD [Center for the Study of Social Difference]? But then it would have to be curricular. IRWGS is a curricular unit. It teaches undergraduates. It has a graduate certificate and it does public programming. That’s what it does. The research side had never been part of it. All that research is done now through CSSD.

“How does intellectual history look different?”


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

I was having dinner one night with three colleagues who were historians at different institutions. Martha Jones, who had been a graduate student of Eric Foner’s here, Mia Bay, who taught at Rutgers, Barbara Savage, at University of Pennsylvania, and we were lamenting the way that the intellectual labors of Black women went ignored and under-appreciated and under-resourced. One of those laments over a bottle of wine. Then we thought, even the study of Black intellectuals, which was very much central to what IRAAS [Institute for Research in African American Studies] did, was impoverished when it came to Black women intellectuals. We decided, wouldn’t it be great to have some kind of a collaborative project where we figured out what work had already been done, and we also thought about where the voids were, and help to support scholars who were trying to do that work. So we organized a meeting, which was just a kind of information gathering meeting where we invited people who had either written histories of Black women intellectuals, biographies. Who was out there doing the work, and what did they feel like was needed?

We organized a meeting that was held at Rutgers, and then, eventually, after that meeting, we saw there was some interest and we applied for an NEH grant. A lot of work. We didn’t get it. Not a lot of the criticism, but some of the criticism was that we didn’t have enough representation of conservative intellectual women. That it wasn’t balanced. We were determined that we were going to do this project, and we’d do it on a shoestring if we had to. It wouldn’t be as big, it wouldn’t be as ambitious.

By that time, the Center for the Study of Social Difference had come up, and we presented the project to them and they funded it. What was great about their funding it is they gave us a set amount of money. IRAAS gave us money. Then we could take that to raise other money, to go to other institutions. Martha at University of Michigan, Barbara at University of Pennsylvania, Mia at Rutgers, and say, “This is the money that these Columbia centers and institutes have already given us. Can you ante up some?” All those institutions contributed to this working group, interdisciplinary, intergenerational institutions from public to private. We had people who were representative of small colleges, large universities, Black colleges, who formed this collective and really worked together as a working group on our projects and on our papers, holding several conferences.

Then we were able to use the resources that we got from the center to hold a big, international conference at the end. Because what we always wanted to do was put the work out there, but really put a call out there to say, here’s a place where you can do this kind of work. If you’re working on Black women intellectuals, you’re not working alone. We’re trying to figure this out. What does it look like? How does intellectual history look different? Who do we count as an intellectual? It’s not necessarily someone with a PhD from Oxford. Some of these women never had PhDs, but they had ideas that were important.

It was the kind of project that I just really love being a part of, because in terms of content, I learned so much. It supported my own work. It supported the work of people whose work I wanted to read. But institutionally, it did something, because we had these younger scholars who were going through the tenure process, and they were able to be mentored by senior scholars in the group, who were reading closely their work and writing letters for them. It brought the idea of intellectual history, of Black women’s intellectual history to all these campuses, graduate students. It did both work on the ground and work at the level of ideas. Institutional transformation on the ground and—

I think that’s what something like the center and IRWGS is best at doing. That what it does collectively is also transformative for a field, intellectually, but also institutionally. IRWGS has supplied leadership for the university. Jean [Howard]’s work with IRWGS, and then she’s the Vice Provost of Diversity or the chair of the English department. Alondra [Nelson] is now Dean of Social Science. That these are people who come from this small unit, and they are also the hardest working people I know.

“…organizing to protect intellectual freedom…”


Moore Collegiate Professor of History
Director of IRWGS, 1994-96

So I missed that period with Roz [Morris]. At the same time, I’m hugely sympathetic with Roz’s political engagement. After I came back I worked with her, but at that time I think she’d stopped being the director. We’d worked together to founded this CU-FACT, this little network. How do we put together a listserv? Big deal. It meant a lot then in terms of all this conflict around Iran, around accusations of anti-Semitism, the lack of desire and capacity to protect junior faculty, to enable them.

I missed what, in retrospect, and from what you’re saying, was probably a big turning point in connecting the institute to a new level, a new kind of engagement of younger faculty, more of them crossing numbers of disciplines, and also tying to new social movements. I’m still trying to figure out the timing of that. There was a big increase in politicization around the Iraq War. We were, I think, probably the first place, which had this enormous protest, and then all the fallout—the repression and this and that, which began to make things very complicated and tortured internally. It wasn’t just women at all. There were a lot of men, Middle Eastern or—
That was disturbing, that you had to be so protective of the quality of speech in order to have an impact, and you couldn’t tolerate somebody spouting off. The organization was very good at that in those days, because we had people who had had a lot of organizational experience. It matters when you’re organizing a big event and get people lined up, and da-da-da-da-da, and they can only speak X, Y and Z. It matters.

It became very visible that certain things would be picked up on and circulated. They would be sent around and sent around, and pretty soon someone could get a monstrous email saying God knows what. That must have been the moment when this kind of ad hominem attack started when one person would be taken as representing the whole. Then the university would say, “Oh, my God, there goes five million in donations.” Then what happened after our first big protest against the Iraq invasion? On the anniversary the year after there was another moment of organization. We did a lot of organizing to prevent and to protect it, and then hardly anybody came. Then I don’t think there was a third year, nobody came.

“Studying intersectionally with other aspects of social difference…”


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

When we thought about what is the next stage for the study of gender and the study of gender and sexuality, it was really what we were already doing, which is to study it intersectionally with other aspects of social difference, whether they be race or class or sexuality or economics. Also collaborations with other programs, so we approached some of our cognate centers and institutes, IRAAS [Institute for Research in African American Studies], the African American studies, CSER [Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race], [Institute for] Comparative Literature and Society and then the Barnard Center for Research on Women. We said, “What if we formed this research center, would you want to participate with us?” They all said yes.

They’re not all of them as active as some of the others, and IRWGS is still the most active. We thought: well, we’re doing all the curricular stuff but what about studying new things and collaborating more around scholarship? So we approached the president of Columbia and he gave us some seed money to form this center.

The fact that we really wanted to have a more collaborative space I think was also attractive. I’ve devoted a lot of my energy to building that. It was always going to be for faculty, but also for graduate students. It was not going to be another programming unit that would just put on events because there’s so much of that here. They’re all great, but we can’t possibly split ourselves into little molecules to go to them all. It’s really going to be a more in depth, long range collaboration and working together in working groups.

I’ve been involved in two of them. One is Engendering Archives and the other one is on Women Mobilizing Memory, which is the more global one. Engendering Archives, which is one of the three first, is actually still going. It was initially a large mailing list of about forty people, with funding for three years, but it’s actually still meeting two or three times a semester and people have been reading each other’s books or presenting papers with a respondent—very, very in depth, fabulous discussions of people’s work. I think when you’re in a big university where a lot is going on, the trick is to find a space in which you can build a community and try to accomplish something that you really believe in. CSSD has been that kind of space for me, as well as the cultural memory seminar and then IRWGS in a larger way.

"…these are young people who are organizing and responding because they also know the history."


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

It’s fed my creativity, it’s fed my activism. It’s touched me in ways that I did not expect to be touched. Essence did a first-ever special issue on Black Lives Matter. There was no model on the cover. It was a black on black cover with Black Lives Matter, just the graphics. They asked me to write a piece, along with many other people. I had to write about this generation. Those that I teach are very privileged, but even those who weren’t privileged, those who had been written off and put in the worst schools, abandoned in their schools and their communities—talked about, because their pants sag, that this is what they’re up against. Just recently, in McKinney, Texas, we see how that officer treated those children. This is what they’re up against. But look at how they respond. I worry about them, I’m concerned with them. Those children in Ferguson were confronted by tanks. But they did that, and the rest of the country said, “Oh, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Maybe we shouldn’t have that militarized police force. Or maybe there is a problem with mass incarceration. Or, at our own university, maybe we shouldn’t be investing in companies that invest in private prisons. It’s the students who are leading us. I’ve always believed that. As a young activist, I believed it too. It’s one thing to believe something in the abstract, theoretically, and it’s another thing to see it in action.

Q: Right. So not only talking about recovery, but regeneration.

Yes, right. And knowing the importance of history to that regeneration. So many of these young people are young people who are organizing and responding because they also know the history. They’ve studied it. They know how their world is different from the one they’ve read about, but they also have learned from what’s come before. It’s the best—it’s the way it’s supposed to work.

“…these are our collaborators, these are equal partnerships”


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

The Global Center directors had a retreat in Paris this December. They were thinking about cross-network programming, that there should be themes across the centers. Not each center just doing its own thing. Were there issues that would be interesting to do across centers? One of the ideas they came up with was they thought gender would be an interesting topic, so they came back to us, and we said, “Yes, we can do that for you.” We exist, Women Creating Change, to work with the Global Centers. We brainstormed a bit to produce some ideas for the network, to work in collaboration with them, of themes that might be good cross-center themes.

We came up with four themes that built on projects of CSSD already and things that had happened at the Global Centers, and we came up with four. One was called Making Cities Livable: Gender, Displacement and Women’s Strategies, because we have two projects that work on gender and cities. I worked on this one, Reframing Violence Against Women, because my project is ending, on Muslim women and religion and family law and women’s rights with a couple of colleagues in the Middle East.

The third theme was Women Mobilizing Memory, which is the project that Marianne and Jean have been doing. They worked in Chile with Chilean colleagues on the aftermath of political violence there. They went to Istanbul in September, and they’re probably going elsewhere. It’s about women’s activism around memory and around reparations, a whole set of things—redress about past atrocities and political violence. It’s activist women and artists and theater performers and all of that. It’s been an amazing project, and they would love to continue it and thought maybe some of the Global Centers would be interested. Then the final one—Alice Kessler-Harris has been running a project, Social Rights After the Welfare State. She started it in the U.S. and then they had comparative meetings in Europe, which turned out to be incredibly interesting, in Germany and France, the old welfare states.

So there could be whole new initiatives with the Global Centers, with international colleagues, which is what we really love, our colleagues. You don’t just export knowledge the way some of these other Columbia institutes do. Actually these colleagues know more about their regions than we do. These are our collaborators, these are equal partnerships, and that’s really been wonderful for my projects where I always have mostly people from the Arab world, the Middle East, in those workshops. Hopefully this will be the next phase of what we do through CSSD.