Category Archives: Interdisciplinary Leadership

“Columbia comes to the institutionalization of women and gender studies late…”


Dean of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2013-14

One of the really interesting things about IRWAG as a women and gender studies program is that it starts late. It doesn’t start until [1987]. By this point, you’ve already had the high water mark of second wave feminism. It happens because Columbia goes co-educational and you have, on campus, people like Martha Howell, and people who have been here a very long time in the feminist trenches without any kind of institutional space, but on their own doing feminist pedagogy, on their own doing feminist mentoring on campus and these sorts of things. Columbia comes to the institutionalization of women and gender studies late, at least ten years later than many of the other programs. I think the first program—I was at San Diego State last year at some point—the first women and gender studies program starts—it would have been feminist studies or women studies actually—in 1972. San Diego State lays claim to being the first one. Columbia is more than a decade later. That means that this program looks differently.

I think one of the things that might have been difficult for students is all of our work, at first glance, doesn’t look like feminist and gender studies work. I work on genealogy and what’s called kin-keeping and root-seeking. For me, that’s very much about thinking about norms around the family. All of this stuff around genetic genealogy assumes a heteronormative, normative family. That critique and that engagement with that conversation is part in parcel of what I’m always doing. Saidiya Hartman’s last book was on root-seeking in Ghana. Jean Howard works on Shakespeare. Roz Morris has been running a series on Africa and South Africa.

For the faculty, we are feminists. Everything that we do, our intellectual work, is always imbued with that. An example I use all the time is that when I was in graduate school looking at dissertations from the ‘80s and early ‘90s, there would be dissertations on labor or citizenship, name a topic, and there would be a gender chapter. I remember talking to people, older graduate students or people who are assistant professors, and that was the strategy. You do a gender chapter. But I come of age as a graduate student, as an undergraduate, where I don’t know how to think without always having a gendered perspective and a feminist perspective. That antenna is always up and active. It’s not isolated to a chapter. This book on the Black Panther Party’s health activism, there’s not a gender chapter, but there’s gender throughout the book in, I think, a matter of fact way. It’s less about the objects, like you mentioned some people work near history, far history, text, not text. Marianne [Hirsch] has worked on the family, but she’s also been working on memory. So I think if students don’t understand that history and they’re looking for a women and gender studies program that everybody’s work, every title, everything is “Gender and this,” “Women and that,” “Sex and this,” we’re just a little bit different. Part of that is because we come late. Women and gender studies is institutionalized late at Columbia, so Columbia is able to chart a different path.

“…creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own…”


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

Particularly this last year has been extraordinary. I spoke to the Black Graduation this year. These are young people for whom the Obama thing was a given, and it wasn’t just a given once, it was a given twice. They’ve had two presidential terms with an African American president. These are also the young people who saw Trayvon [Martin], and who were—I was stunned by the verdict. I expected it, but I was stunned. They didn’t expect it. I talk with them, particularly this year, as they prepared to come to their senior year, Ferguson erupts, or Staten Island. Those verdicts came down during their senior year. There has been a resurgence in the level of activism, not just around racial justice and criminal justice, but also the young people who are organizing around sexual violence. They’re upset and they’re hurt, deeply hurt and deeply angry, and rightly so, but to me it is so beautiful.

They bring tears to my eyes, because it’s a level of activism and a willingness to put their bodies on the line that I have not seen. It’s not about nostalgia for a moment that they didn’t live in. They are living in this moment, and that’s something. Those two moments, the Obama moment and—like you said, not just what happens to you, but what you do with it—that they decided to step up and organize. Those of us who are feminists feel sometimes like, oh God, what happened? All these young women who think feminism is a dirty word. And then, boom, here they are, creating their own and standing on their own and insisting on their own. Their institutions are not going to tolerate sexual violence. They are not going to just take mass incarceration for granted, and this is what we should do. They can change their institution. The fact that they have to do it is disheartening. The fact that they are doing it, to me, is just extraordinary. Those are the changes I think I’ve seen in the last sixteen years. I’m just so grateful that I got to witness them, because it’s easy to become jaded. In both of those instances, you can’t become jaded.

“Theorizing Activism and the Justice Initiative…”


Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2000-01

I am teaching a course in prison. I’m the first faculty member at Columbia to teach a course as part of the Justice Initiative. In order to accommodate all the time that would take, Patricia Dailey and I worked together to set up another class that I would teach that would not require a huge amount of grading and so on. Theorizing Activism, which was begun and designed by Janet Jakobsen—awesome Janet Jakobsen—I picked up on. I might have made it more a philosophy course, but there was no time to do that. Unlike what Janet had done in the past, which was heavy reading, I thought it would be very interesting to limit it to activists, people who were already engaged in activism, or students from my Philosophy and Feminism class who wanted to be.

There’s two kinds of students in the class: people who had been very involved in activism already, or students who wanted to be. I thought, since I’m not a trained activist, it would be much better for students and easier for me, quite honestly—given that I was already teaching in prison—to bring activists in. I think it was a success. I had someone every week for about six weeks, I think—six, seven weeks [of the semester] in a class—come in and talk about activism. Students got to ask questions. The project for each student in the class was to be an activist, and then to write up what we called field notes about what they did. It was really good for the students. I think most of the students enjoyed it. I have yet to read the evaluations, but I think they did. I was really amazed at how eager students were to engage in that way.

Q: Can you talk about the class that you’re teaching as part of the Columbia Center for Justice, the class you’re teaching in prison?

Geraldine Downey is one of the people that began the program, and she introduced me to the amazing women who began the Center for Justice in the School of Social Work, and that’s Kathy Boudin and Cheryl Wilkins. Both of them were incarcerated for over twenty-five years. They knew one another and began activist work in prison. Geraldine and I thought that it would be interesting to try to teach a version of Literature Humanities. Part of my motivation to do that is to make the college pay attention to the program. My hope was to get some of my Lit Hum students to go in with me. It’s really powerful when students go inside. But the dean of Columbia College, Jim Valentini, who I am happy to go on record as saying has no imagination about these things, didn’t get the point of it. So I was not allowed to take students in this term, and I’m not sure when that’s going to happen.

One of our women’s studies students who I met through IRWGS is going in with me. In fact, she’s the one I recommended and maybe you talked to. In the spring we did three ancient plays, all from Lit Hum: The Oresteia, The Medea, and Lysistrata, and the students loved it. We discovered in the middle of the semester that students weren’t even taking it for credit. We thought they were taking it for credit, but they knew that they weren’t. Nobody informed us of that, by the way. It’s a little bit disorganized, I have to say. But I was struck by the fact—and the students said this—that it was so much fun to them that they were taking it anyway.

“My hope for the next generation of women’s studies…”


R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower
IRWGS Core Faculty

As I think about where IRWAG should go or might go in the future, I think that the intellectual directions have to be first on the agenda because as we begin—now, there are, I think, six joint faculty lines in women’s studies. But one member of the faculty has just gone off to be a dean, another has pulled out of her teaching commitments. I’m about to retire. That gives us an opportunity to re-think the whole intellectual direction of the project. One of the things that’s most exciting, I think, is when a department or a program has the chance to say, “Well, we’ve got three—possibly more if we can twist a few arms—but at least three new hires that we can think about, new people to bring in. How should we think about the program as a whole so that these people fit?”

For whatever reason, gender seems to have surfaced or bubbled up in all kinds of places. Questions of work and wage work and what it does to the family or what it does for the family within the United States, of how the labor force has to be changed, of what the impact will be on capitalism or on social rights on the global movement of labor through caring work. All those questions are questions that involve gender profoundly. So there’s a piece of me that thinks its moment has come. The moment has come when we so deeply, deeply need to understand how gender functions in this society that it’s an opportunity to open up a women’s studies program, both as a teaching program and as a research program, that attempts to grasp some of these issues, to understand them, to push them forward. I think that’s my hope for the next generation of women’s studies.

It’s about a gender that we now understand as fully and completely racialized, about a gender that we understand as rooted in class, as rooted in nation. It’s a conception of gender that we could never have imagined when the concept first emerged on the scene in the later 1970s. I think Columbia is poised to take advantage of it. Let me put it that way. We have so many very good, very smart people at the cutting edge of their fields, who just need an institutional support system to enable them to move in creative directions.

“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.

“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.

“IRWGS has been the place where you look for women leaders…”


Dean of Social Science, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
IRWGS Core Faculty
IRWGS Director, 2013-14

At its beginning, IRWAG exists because of strong women leaders on campus. I think it’s been, not wanting to go too far with origin stories, but I think it’s no coincidence then that the women who then get hired into the lines—when the institute starts to have lines—are prominent, formidable scholars. It’s been the case in a lot of institutions, some peer institutions, some not, that women and gender and sexuality studies is the least well resourced. Often it’s scholars with low status relative to other scholars on campus, often the case that they’re spousal hires, so they’re trailing spouses—some great man of science or industry or history that they’re following—and they need a place to teach. That was never really the case at IRWAG, so you begin with, again, lots of very capable, very smart, very formidable women, for the most part, in its leadership. I think it’s not rocket science. If you are looking on campus, at a moment in the ‘90s and the ‘00s, to really do something about the fact that—in a not good way—leadership at Columbia has been mostly men. You can look at the deans of the colleges, the deans of the schools and all the higher administration. We have yet to have a woman president. We’ve yet to have a woman dean of the faculty in the Arts and Sciences.

IRWAG has been that place, for good and for naught, where you poach the women leaders. Not only people who are on the core faculty, but people who have more informal leadership roles. People like Julie Crawford, who was I think one of the chairs of the Committee on Instruction and is now running Lit Hum, she’s the director of the core curriculum program. Christia Mercer was running the [Lit Hum] before her, who’s a quarter appointment in IRWAG. Marianne [Hirsch] was doing professional service for the MLA. Jean [Howard] was the board of trustees at Brown. I mean, just on and on and on and on.

It’s tough. It’s mostly a bittersweet story. It’s mostly not a positive story about the institutional strain that IRWAG is put under. What’s been great is that I have a group of colleagues who are so committed to doing this work that, often to our detriment, we hold it together with great mentorship of graduate students and undergraduate students, exciting programming with a shoestring budget, and we still do it while having all these other leadership obligations. I mean, for a time Lila [Abu-Lughod] was directing both the Middle East Institute, I think, and the Center for the Study of Social Difference at the same time. I mean, wow. That’s a lot of work. Obviously the downsides are that that energy is siphoned off from the institute. Another way of saying that is if everybody’s energy was allowed to be focused on the institute, my goodness, what could it be? What campus juggernaut could we be dealing with here? It’s a profound compliment that this is the space in the arts and sciences, but I think that the institute is not always well compensated in the sense of restoring both that energy and, frankly, labor to the institute in turn.

“The separation between students and faculty was a problem…”


Associate Professor of Sociology

I think what was very surprising to many of us was not so much the institutional failing because lots of institutions were failing along those lines, but that there was no real connection between the students who were engaging in this activism and faculty on campus. That separation between students and faculty—Alondra [Nelson] and I both, and lots of us agreed—was a problem. I think it was seen as the continual separation of faculty and students. If there should be an institutional home at Columbia where students should feel like they could come and talk to faculty about this issue, IRWGS should be that place. This was before we were IRWGS. It was when we were IRWAG.

This was just a kind of meet-and-greet meeting. Not anything extensive, but more of a how can we work together to do some things with you? What are your aims, and are there ways in which we can provide support, advising, or even programming? This was in the fall and we were thinking about programming for the next year. During that meeting, the students stopped and left the room. They stopped the meeting and left the room to talk to one another. Then they came back and revealed to us that they were going to be filing Title IX and Clery Act complaints against the university. They were working with some activists outside of the institution, people from Know Your IX, and I think perhaps people from Legal Momentum—although I’m not sure—which is the legal group that used to be the legal wing of NOW, the National Organization of Women. They had yet to file the Title IX complaint, but they were planning on doing it at some point soon and that was going to be the big thing that they did in that spring. We also thought it would be useful to do some programming. Alondra really stepped into gear and organized a Know Your IX workshop where activists, a women from CUNY, someone from Legal Momentum, some of the women from Know Your IX, Annie Clark and another woman, came along with Marybeth. They did a sort of teach-in. This was the first thing that we did together with some of the activists on campus around Title IX.

There was a lot of mixed feelings on the part of the faculty about the filing of the Title IX complaint, but it was seen as something that, given our failure to support students in so many instances before, and our failure to hold the institution more accountable for its dealing with things like gender-based misconduct, a lot of those things were not expressed to students. We sort of tabled them all. I think most of us just felt really bad that we had no idea what was going on and hadn’t been there to support students. The students’ main complaint seemed justified, which was that the general apparatus of the university, the people like faculty, administrative staff, administrative offices, and then the higher administration, were either ignorant or dismissive of what was going on.

“…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.