Tireless: Reflections on the Place of Gender Studies at the University of Puget Sound

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by: Ryan Coleman

I did not find a home here at Puget Sound, I found a home in the Gender Studies program.

I came to this University fresh off the most difficult summer of my life. I started coming out as gay to friends and family without really understanding myself or my sexuality in a healthy way. I had internalized a lot of the hate that I received during that process. I was also dealing with a sexual assault I experienced at 16 in a new and challenging way.

My second semester freshman year I took a class with Greta Austin called the Iconic Feminine, which introduced me to the world of gender studies: passionate, confrontational, accessible, urgent, and always close to home. I soon immersed myself in this world, and I do not plan on ever surfacing.

Greta and my other gender studies professors like Alison Tracy Hale, Suzanne Holland, and Priti Joshi offered me education that directly empowered me, challenged me, taught me how to love, how to think and see critically, and how to heal. Quite literally, gender studies saved my life.

I came to this University a disillusioned gay kid who really hated himself. I am leaving this University an empowered and hyper-critical queer man who loves himself without apology. And for that, I love UPS.

This has nothing to do with the department of my major or my core curriculum experience. This has nothing to do with Logger athletics, Greek life, student government, my residential experience on campus, the acres of startlingly green lawns, or any other component of campus life that the administration funds to excess. It has everything to do with Gender Studies.

I support the people who support these campus activities, who are constantly striving to build community, strengthen critical sensibilities, and foster safe and empowering spaces for marginalized students. However, you cannot compare these activities with a program like Gender Studies, which lacks meaningful institutional support. I can no longer tolerate the blatant disinterest and disrespect communicated to the Gender Studies program and everyone involved in it through the lack of funding, staffing, and commitment on the part the administration.

I am writing this piece because I am tired of seeing the exhaustion that my Gender Studies professors try so admirably to hide. I am tired of witnessing them tug-of-warred between their departmental commitments and their passion for the program that they simply cannot afford to commit to. I am tired of knowing that student complaints over lack of interest in gender studies, lack of programming around related topics, and lack of community around issues related to gender, sexuality, and identity could be remedied with an expanded department that is funded and staffed.

I am tired of having to recite my darkest personal experiences to make people understand that Gender Studies is important. I don’t see students studying biology or business leadership having to defend the legitimacy of their scholarly pursuits on the weekly, even daily basis that I do. I am tired of being told to silence my criticisms of the administration, and my frustration at what I see as a lack of institutional support for Gender Studies, by people who tell me instead to celebrate what we do have here. Here is my problem: what we do have here is incredible, but it is getting terrible support.

The recently passed KNOW requirement (the proposal to institute a diversity overlay onto the core curriculum, encouraging students to actively interrogate issues of power, privilege, and identity in the classroom) continues to be met with intense resistance from some faculty. Pushback on this proposal from some faculty communicates one thing: that the students who most rely on this type of education, who are the most marginalized and trivialized students on this campus, simply do not matter.

This is unacceptable.

Gender Studies fosters precisely the kind of progressive community, dynamic curriculum, engaged attitudes, and intersectional education that the institution claims to be seeking.

The administration of this University must no longer use Gender Studies students, research, faculty, initiatives, courses, and other related programs for promotional purposes if they are not willing to support us comprehensively. We as students want funding for an expanded and enriched Gender Studies. We want a permanent faculty position. We want a department and a major, not just a program. We want intentional recruiting for more faculty who have specific education in the fields of gender studies, feminist studies, queer theory and queer studies, trans* theory and studies, bisexuality, asexualities, and so much more under the umbrella of gender studies.

We want you to show us that we matter.

I have included testimonials to the necessity of strengthening Gender Studies on this campus from current students as well as alums of the University. I have done this so that I cannot be pigeon-holed, misinterpreted, or dismissed. These testimonials represent a broad swath of critiques, suggestions, and celebrations and provide a space for movers and shakers at this institution to begin thinking in the critical space that students occupy.

We are constantly told that students have the most important and powerful voices on this campus. Let’s see if that’s not just another institutional lie.

TESTIMONIALS

Faith Matthews, ’14

“Gender Studies is definitely something that I believe should be supported on this campus because it opens students up to a whole new way of understanding something that impacts their daily lives, self- perceptions, and perceptions of others. And Gender Studies typically does a lot to improve talks about equality and open up discussions on a whole lot of things.”

Sierra Maloch, ’12

“The one class I took within the Gender Studies program was probably one of the most important classes I have ever taken, and the interactions I had with fellow students there were some of the most valuable in all my time at UPS. Gender Studies provides a safe space to discuss incredibly important issues, and if the program is not upheld, protected, and revered, where can these discussions take place?”

Grace Penzell, ‘15

“The University of Washington has a Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies major that includes requirements for transnational perspectives courses and a fieldwork course. We don’t even have those courses as options. How can you tell me that we deserve to be on the list of 40 colleges that change lives if we aren’t even given the chance to change lives by studying issues that are essential to future global progress?!”

Lindsey Conrad, ’15

“Allowing Gender Studies to remain an unfunded program highlights UPS’s lack of concern for progress –it showcases the administration’s complicity in systems that exist to oppress people, in a historical and cultural context. There is no possibility of progress without scholarship, that is generally accepted in all other fields –so why is Gender Studies different? “

Tosia Klincewicz, ’14

“There are many folks on this campus and part of this community who are working tirelessly to deconstruct and end oppression. But it’s not enough. When the university provides limited options for gender-neutral bathrooms; this is unacceptable. When the students who do seek to expand their knowledge and academic inquiry of power, identity, and privilege are provided limited resources; this is unacceptable. When students continue to feel marginalized on our campus, this is unacceptable.”

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Mount Hood says:

    We don’t really have the resources of UW. Bashing our school by saying they have something we don’t is ridiculous. I really really respect your passion for this and am glad that the department was able to help you, but there are other majors not represented too.

    1. Mount Rainier says:

      Wow Mount Hood. The depth of your analysis is stunning. Your argumentation astounds.

      1. Mount Hood says:

        Thanks!

    2. Ann Murdoch says:

      There are plenty of liberal arts schools of comparable size to the University of Puget Sound that have full-fledged Gender Studies departments. Regardless of the differences in resource availability for UW and UPS, our Gender Studies department is still lacking, and those resources should and maybe would be available if the department was given the attention it deserves.
      I don’t know what you mean by “there are other majors not represented too,” but no one was arguing that other departments don’t need additional support as well. Gender Studies just happened to be the focus of this essay.
      We may not have the resources of UW, but apparently we do have the resources to keep a perfectly manicured campus and engage in a rapid campus expansion project that includes a new residence hall, a huge renovation to the student center, and the up and coming field house overhaul. I realize that these are two different spheres of interest, but it is interesting to look at where the university invests its money.

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