Is gender theory relevant to undergraduate students? Skeptics have long dismissed theory’s intellectual import largely on the basis of style. In the 90s, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, and Homi Bhabha were scrutinized for their “pretentiously opaque” prose, “bad writing,” and “indecipherable jargon” respectively. Of course not all scholars are equally subject to these sorts of critiques. As Butler noted in her response, “The targets … have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” Refuting similar critiques in regard to queer theory, Michael Warner has recently asserted that “the attack on difficult style has often been a means to reassert the very standards of common sense that queer theory rightly challenged.”
During my Ph.D. I noticed other students would complain about the inaccessibility of Spivak’s and Butler’s ideas, while at the same time embracing equally opaque writings authored by less radical, and, more often than not, white male scholars. “Were feminist and gender theory not allowed to be complex?” I thought. While scholars like Butler and Spivak have at times deployed baroque prose, the disproportionate critique that has fallen on feminist and left scholarship in particular suggests that there is political motivation that undergirds the critique. Excising feminist theory from Gender & Women’s Studies, then, is not just a matter of personal preference. It’s a political position.
Enter Elizabeth Segran’s recent essay in The New Republic, “If We Want Feminism to Have a Real Impact, Then Let’s Stop Teaching So Much Theory.” What’s troublesome is Segran’s claim that the rise of feminist theory has inhibited radical feminist practices on college campuses. Reflecting on her own experience as a graduate-student instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, Segran laments that while students debated theoretical ideas in her classroom, radical feminist actions (like those of the 1970s) were nowhere to be found.
This argument is puzzling for two reasons. First, Segran relies on a false causation. Were not the feminist activists of the 1970s penning their own radical theoretical ideas? Monique Wittig, whom Segran includes in a throwaway list of theorists, is a prime example. After Wittig’s participation in the events of May ’68 in Paris, she composed what would become the founding manifesto of the Women’s Liberation Movement in France and continued to pioneer ideas of radical lesbian feminism. Spivak and Butler are also notable for their commitment to political engagement.
Second, Segran disavows the important feminist currents in the student uprisings at the University of California beginning with the occupation of Wheeler Hall in November 2009 and leading up to the nationwide Occupy movement in 2011. During this upsurge of activism, students established the reform caucus AWDU within UAW 2865, the union that represents academic student employees at the University of California. This group was eventually elected to the leadership, and in 2014 won access to gender-neutral bathrooms, expanded parental leave, increased child-care subsidies, and lactation stations, among other demands.
Segran’s ambivalent relationship to radical feminist politics may explain her disavowal of student activism. While Segran laments the decline of 1970s-style building occupations (and attributes it to the rise of complex feminist theory), she simultaneously decries the fact that female CEOs don’t openly identify as feminist. It is difficult to imagine a kind of feminism that would be able to accomplish both of these goals.
As a feminist scholar myself (and a former Berkeley classmate of Segran’s), I believe that undergraduate students can benefit intellectually and personally from reading theory. Theory need not be an end in itself. Rather, a practically oriented critique allows theory and practice to mutually clarify and enliven one another. I do not wish to dismiss Segran’s personal experience as an instructor but would like to share an alternate view from the same Gender & Women’s Studies program.
In my experience, Gender and Women’s Studies classes can create rare spaces within the academy where making the political personal is both permissible and at times unavoidable. Theory can inform politically motivated practice in a way that is relevant both to student’s immediate experience of the world, and in undermining systemic forms of gender-based inequality.
As a student, I recall feeling empowered when reading Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Concepts like the reproduction of “sexual essentialism,” the belief that sex is a biological, transhistorical reality that precedes social relations, helped me articulate an idea I had intuited by not yet fully grasped. The result, echoed by many of my own students, is that I began to see the world around me in a critical light.
Of course, theory presents certain pedagogical challenges, but ones that teachers should aim to overcome. Often this is a matter of preparing students emotionally for the challenge, explaining the relevance of the text early on, and breaking down complex ideas into small digestible chunks. If a particular text is so arcane that even with the aid of a talented teacher students feel disillusioned, then by all means it has no place on a syllabus. When done right, however, feminist pedagogy creates a learning environment in which students feel equipped to dismantle dense theoretical texts and discuss intimate issues.
As a feminist instructor, I strive for a class that is intellectually challenging, free of shame and humiliation, accessible, and emotionally attentive. In her essay “Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy,” bell hooks argues that feminist pedagogy, through “theory and practice,” is capable of creating a learning environment in which students’ “subjective needs can be integrated with study” resulting in a “dialectical context where there is serious and rigorous critical exchange.” This is what I aim for.
In this way, theory in and of itself need not be more alienating to students then an algorithm, a poem, or a foreign language. Theory helps students understand their struggles in the context of larger systemic problems. Often, this draws students to careers in activism and social justice.
Theory shouldn’t be the only thing we teach, and, of course, it isn’t. Women’s Studies is an interdisciplinary and politically engaged field. The syllabi Segran marshals as evidence of the esoteric nature of the field contains such practically oriented topics as: reproductive justice, marriage, incarceration, the fashion industry, sex on campus, and activism. I find it difficult to believe that students would not find these topics to be meaningful.
I am reminded of the activist and writer Cherríe Moraga, who wrote that “a movement doesn’t happen in a book, but it doesn’t happen without books either.”
Julia H. Chang is an assistant professor in the department of Hispanic studies at Brown University.