Megan Carpentier, whose usual blogging gig is at Jezebel, just published a scathing critique of Women’s Studies at the Huffington Post. Her piece is misleading and unfair. It represents her one bad experience as standing in for the entire field of Women’s and Gender Studies. It paints WGS as a bastion of intolerance, authoritarianism, white privilege, and regressive body politics. Full disclosure for those of you who aren’t regular Kittywampus readers: I teach in WGS. But my investment in academic feminism doesn’t nullify Carpentier’s biases.
First off, if Carpentier’s goal was constructive criticism, why on earth would she publish this piece at HuffPo? She has a big platform at Jezebel. Not as big as the HuffPo, granted, but plenty big. The Jezebel commentariat includes lots of people who’ve taken a class or two in WGS. They would have discussed Carpentier’s complaints in productive ways. The HuffPo commentariat are much more of a mixed bag, including many who are outright hostile to feminism. (The same can be said for other progressive online communities, sad to say; Salon’s letter section can be a real cesspool of misogyny.) So far, Carpentier’s post has attracted remarkably constructive responses – nearly all of them from people who teach in WGS! Funny thing: none of them bear any resemblance to the rigid ideologue Carpentier blames for alienating her from feminism.
There’s only one plausible reason for publishing this piece on HuffPo instead of Jezebel: page views. And bashing feminism (in any of its variants) has proven to be a great way to advance one’s career. At least, it’s currently working pretty well for Susannah Breslin, as it has for Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and countless other ambitious women writers.
But back to to Carpentier. The heart of her beef is the professor who taught the one and only WGS course she took in college. Let’s take as given that her prof was every bit as awful as Carpentier claims. Some people are authoritarian when they get in front of a classroom. Some don’t like it when their students ask hard questions. Apparently Carpentier’s prof had more than her share of insecurities:
For my professor, the challenge [of dissenting opinions] seemed to be more than she was willing to take. There was no Socratic give-and-take that I’d come to love about my other classes; I was supposed to accept that she was right, I was wrong and that what she said was feminist gospel.
Of course it’s not good practice to shut down students. Very occasionally it may be necessary. I’ve done it a few times when people insisted that racism is dead, or that rape victims bring it on themselves. I won’t allow outright hate speech in the classroom, and I won’t allow intolerance to go unchallenged. Over the years I’ve had a smattering of complaints in my course evaluations that I don’t recognize students’ opinions as equal to my own; for every such gripe, I get at least 20 statements like, “Professor is so open to students’ ideas.” Generally speaking, those who complain are likely to be the same folks who aren’t willing to entertain the idea that sexism – or even more so, racism – still exists.
I assume that wasn’t Carpentier’s problem. She paints herself as much more progressive than her professor. But her single experience is not typical. The irony is that WGS classes tend to be far more discussion-oriented than most classes in other disciplines!
To be sure, Carpentier describes her own, personal experience, but its publication on HuffPo – rather than, say, a personal blog – implies that her experience indicates larger issues within WGS as a field. Otherwise, why bother telling her story to the world? Yet it’s absurd to suggest that this one professor stands in for all. As Shira Tarrant points out in comments:
But the experience of “Rich White Lady” feminism taught by your college professor draws from a very small sample size: N=1. No doubt there are problems of competence across all academic disciplines. And none are above critique. However — and with all due respect — it doesn’t take much digging around to know that feminist politics and theory is also taught more deeply and intelligently than what you’ve described.
Exactly! Surely Carpentier knows other people whose experiences vary from her own! Surely she interacts with them all the time on Jezebel! So why not include even a brief “your mileage may vary” disclaimer?
Instead, Carpentier takes the opposite tack by comparing her WGS course to other college classes she’d taken:
A rigorous introduction to feminist theory — where was Friedan? Steinem? Even Paglia ? — was replaced by rambling lectures about personal experience from the professor and books about “Important Women”(mostly white) that ran counter to my academic experiences with structural history in the history department and my increasing interest in stratification theory — and the intersection of race, class and gender in society — that I found so fascinating in the sociology department.
Here her single experience is posed against the history and sociology departments. It’s this comparison that directs Carpentier’s criticisms at WGS as a field. It’s this comparison that frames her individual experience with one apparently disastrous professor as typical of WGS. She never took additional classes in WGS (not that I blame her), but nowhere does she admit that it’s disingenuous to hold up this one professor as representative.
In fact, most of Carpentier’s experiences are remarkable for their extreme atypicality. She tells one anecdote that’s so bizarre it almost defies credulity. If it happened just as she describes it, her professor was not just unpleasant but completely incompetent:
But it was when the professor told us that, one day, when sexism is over, the government could make abortion illegal again, that I truly lost it — both my patience and, as it turns out, the A that I’d been biting my tongue to earn. She presented this nugget of information not as an idiosyncratic view of her feelings about abortion, but as a tenet of feminist thinking about abortion, and it was one that stood in opposition to everything I understood about abortion and its importance to the feminist movement.
If this is accurate, then her former professor really has no business teaching WGS. If Carpentier truly missed an A only due to this incident, she’d have strong grounds to appeal her grade. But it’s precisely this anecdote that shows how unrepresentative this class must have been!
The same is true for the other appalling incident she relates:
We learned about rape culture in a mandatory group discussion of our experiences with sexual assault that didn’t take into account that the survivors in the group might not be ready, willing or able to relate to a group of students and a professor those experiences.
The very act of teaching about sexual assault in any form can be triggering. If someone asks to opt out of class on a day when sexual violence is on the agenda, I’ll always agree – though I’ll also ask to make sure they’re getting the help and support they need. It’s unconscionable to mandate discussion of individuals’ experience. But again, this incident is an extreme outlier. None of my colleagues would ever act this way. It’s just plain unethical.
In one area, Carpentier’s experience does point to a broader problem. She faults her professor for not taking an adequately intersectional perspective. People working in WGS have had their blind spots when it comes to race, class, disability, and so on – which makes them an awful lot like feminists outside the academy. Most of us are trying to do better. Speaking for myself, I’m still growing and learning. I continue to revise my syllabus. I’m still trying to figure out the most effective ways to help students gain an intersectional perspective. I’m a white gal working in a very white institution, so it’s hard, and I don’t pretend that I’ve got all the answers. Humility is the first step toward improvement. But I will also say that I don’t know anyone who teaches WGS by assigning books about Important (mostly white) Women, as Carpentier describes.
As for Carpentier’s other gripes, they’re pretty thin. Not enough theory at the intro level? Well, in my program, we have a whole course devoted to theory. That’s where we read Friedan – not in the intro, where we assign a mix of theory and more accessible texts. Some of my colleagues use Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate” in the intro class. Frankly, Steinem is not a theorist! She’s a journalist and a leader. Paglia is not a theorist, either. She’s a self-promoter. Whether you consider her a feminist is a judgment call. If I wanted to assign a critic of WGS, I might consider using a chapter from one of Daphne Patai’s books, I wouldn’t pick Paglia. Her writing is unfocused; she too often goes off on tangents and rants.
Carpentier also hated the journal she was asked to keep. I have some sympathy. I don’t assign student journals, myself. From my perspective, they require an awful lot of reading. They can devolve into navel-gazing unless you specify a lot of structure – at which point, I’d rather use a different form. But even when I give an assignment that requires reflection on one’s own values, I would never grade on “feministiness,” as Carpentier alleges her professor did. My colleagues who assign journals similarly don’t require students to toe a particular political line; they grade on students’ engagement with texts and ideas, or they simply assign a check for work completed. Not one of them uses “feministiness” as a criterion. If Carpentier created a “series of faux-incidents with which to populate” her journal, well, that was her choice, and I’m not sure she can blame her prof for that.
I’m glad that Carpentier reconnected with feminism through activism and blogging. I’m sorry she had a crappy professor. Like Shira, I’m all in favor of discussing how WGS do better in our research and teaching. Self-examination is an excellent thing. But if Carpentier is really interested in improving WGS as a field – and thus advancing feminism – she might start by expanding beyond her sample size of one. Otherwise, she’s only bashing it, not criticizing it constructively. Which, come to think of it, is exactly how anti-feminists respond to feminism in general, including – not least – feminist bloggers.
Update 6/8/10 (very belated!): In comments, Erniebufflo notes that Carpentier’s piece was first published at On the Issues Magazine – a more serious venue than HuffPo, to be sure – and that Carpentier is no longer a full-time editor at Jezebel. She’s still got a platform there, however, and she used it to discuss the HuffPo/On the Issues piece. Her emphasis at Jezebel was markedly different:
I thought she was cracked, but I was 19 and didn’t realize that “feminism” meant many different things to many different people, or that there was more than one way to be a feminist. Having been raised in a religious environment in which we were taught that there was one gospel, one Church and one way of looking at a set of issues, it didn’t occur to me that a political and social movement would or could be more multifaceted. I figured if she was a feminist, and feminists believed that about abortion, then I was obviously not a feminist.
Here, Carpentier makes clear that this prof in fact doesn’t represent feminism-as-a-whole. She observes the difference between her 19-year-old self and the woman she’s become, who now draws finer distinctions. That’s precisely what her original piece needed to do, but didn’t. The tone of discussion at Jezebel was very different, as a result, with the focus shifted off of Carpentier’s “cracked” professor and onto the commenters’ personal evolution toward feminism.