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How Tenure Lines Brought Change to Women's Studies
Durham, N.C. - When the Duke administration and faculty approved tenure-track lines for Duke's Women's Studies program in 1998, it was a significant step forward for the 15-year-old program. Since then, Women's Studies has promoted Kathy Rudy to a tenure-track position, hired a new director, Robyn Wiegman, and recruited two new faculty Tina Campt and Kathi Weeks. Today, along with Jean O'Barr, founding director, and Research Professor Charlotte Pierce-Baker, the program has a full time faculty of six, and it looks forward to two additional tenure track hires in the coming two years.
The growth of a tenure track faculty has added luster to a program that had already established a national reputation under O'Barr's leadership. But it has brought change as well. Previously, the program has relied on faculty with primary appointments in other departments. Now that tenure-track faculty members are being hired as Women's Studies scholars, faculty members are taking another look at the question of what is Women's Studies? Because programs across the country are doing the same, many are looking to the Duke experience for guidance.
In an interview with Geoffrey Mock of Dialogue, Wiegman, who will spend the next year on sabbatical, and Campt, who will take over as acting director in her absence, discussed the growth of the program and new directions in Women's Studies as a field. As other Duke interdisciplinary programs have either made -- or are considering making -- the jump to tenure-track lines, the example of women's studies sheds light on how this can be done.
Dialogue: How has tenure lines changed the program?
Campt: I see the impact as both structural and intellectual. At the structural level, having tenure lines is changing the field of women's studies itself because we are being evaluated as scholars within the university not only on the basis of the academic or disciplinary training you got at the Ph.D-level. Women's Studies faculty now are being judged by their academic contributions to Women's Studies. Taken together with the increase in Women's Studies graduate programs, this also has an intellectual impact in that the interdisciplinary work being produced by scholars in gender and feminist studies is gaining new forms of recognition that's also giving the field its own identity and standards.
Wiegman: The transition to tenure lines is part of a larger, national conversation about the identity of the field, and so far, what's most apparent is that women's studies is not the same project as feminism or even feminist scholarship in the disciplines. Teaching within it requires a number of other things, including a certain healthy skepticism about its chosen objects of study, methodological priorities and critical vocabularies. From my perspective, what's unique about women's studies is that it can investigate the limitations of feminism as a historical phenomenon and social force without risking the accusation that it is indifferent to the questions that gender raises.
Dialogue: How is the field being changed by doctoral programs, and do you have plans to develop a Ph.D. in Women's Studies at Duke?
Wiegman: The Ph.D. has led to a fairly odd situation, where faculty who were not trained in women's studies â because we come from traditional disciplines â must nonetheless figure out how to train scholars who are must be intellectually quite different than we are. This is not disciplinary reproduction as most fields know it, and it raises all kinds of questions about how to conceive of women's studies as a field separate from the disciplines. Our program faculty has not been eager to jump into the development of the Ph.D. --- we need more faculty, and we are eager to learn from other programs in the field who have gone in this direction. But in this context, we've made the requirements for our graduate certificate program more rigorous. We currently have 30 graduate students on track to get a certificate, which I think is a somewhat smaller number than we've had in the past, but we are now asking more of them. The new certificate seems to be working out well for both faculty and students.
Dialogue: Would you describe what's happening in women's studies as being part of a normal life cycle of a new field?
Wiegman: Yes to a certain extent. Institutionalization of any field is always an engine for defining its distinct intellectual identity. In our case, tenure lines and doctoral programs are profoundly changing how people belong to women's studies programs, and this has far reaching implications for governance structures and research agendas. That's why it's such a fabulous field to be in right now.
Campt: At the same time, one has to see this institutionalization as part of a much broader context in our field â one that some would describe as a 'crisis,' but what I think of as a really productive moment. I find that the most generative moment in any given discipline is when its basic assumptions are being critically discussed and one is no longer able to take anything for granted. That's true of all fields and has historically been the case within the academy -- in anthropology, in history, in literary studies, in the biological sciences, etc. Moments of "crisis" in the humanities, and the social and natural sciences are really generative in that they are the points at which we are pushed to engage the most basic questions that constitute our fields. Questions such as: Who defines that status of culture? What is a text? What constitutes knowledge? What is our relationship to the past? Or more broadly, what is our relation to our objects of study? In our case, that question often gets posed as whether this current moment of academic institutionalization of Women's Studies has taken us away from our true objective of scholarly and political engagement with 'women' or feminism. But I don't think that these two issues are oppositional. Sure, people get upset when the disciplinary ground on which they stand on shifts, but that is most certainly a key part of the evolution of the field.
Dialogue: Why are your governance rules up on the web? <http://fds.duke.edu/db/aas/WomensStudies/>.>
Wiegman: We are not alone in the transformation that comes from adding tenure lines, but among the elite private institutions, we are ahead of the game. Just this past year, I've been to both Harvard and Yale, neither of which has full time tenured positions. Of course they would like them, but there are always unexpected aspects to getting such a valuable institutional resource. Program cultures change, the structure of decision making is challenged by differences in people's institutional location, and the curriculum has to be developed primarily from within, instead of assembled from cross listed offerings.
In terms of governance, for instance, a program has to consider who votes on what and on whom. Do you give the adjunct faculty the same vote as the tenure-track faculty on all program business? What responsibilities to the program and the university must the tenure-track faculty take on? These kinds of issues seem small but they add up to seismic change. We put our governance rules on the web because I was being asked so often about how we have negotiated our institutional transformations. Other scholars in women's studies want models for how to negotiate these questions. It would be nice if each program didn't have to reinvent the wheel.
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