Do people literally think that gender studies classes entail sitting around comparing oppressions and handing out points for whoever finds the most privileged white boy to attack?

… pretty much? Like, not 100% of course but a lot like that.

If so why do they think that?

Have you looked at the syllabus for your school’s gender studies courses? Have you flipped through a gender studies textbook? Have y’all read any gender studies papers outside of “you won’t believe what bullshit they published” articles?

No of course not.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t look at the syllabus for the organic chemistry department either, and yet I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of what that’s about, and when I’ve talked to chemists we don’t talk past each other. Construction engineers/same thing. Business Majors with a minor in Arabic/same thing. Teachers/. Doctors/.

So why do I think that’s what gender studies is like? The same way I know what Organic Chemistry is like: I’ve done a slight bit of reading, have a slight bit of natural interest, and have spoken to people who studied this. I know there’s more to it than dunking on privileged people, but the part of it that affects my life is pretty much all like that.

Only when I am critical of the continental philosophical tradition, and its various derivatives like gender studies, does this idea surface; that you’re only allowed to critique things after dedicating your life to them.

And I have another paragraph I want to write but I don’t know how to write it without sounding either exceptionally arrogant or exceptionally insulting. I’m going to try and I ask you to please interpret it kindly because I don’t actually dislike people who dedicate their studies to the liberal arts, but here it comes:

Things gain traction in the analytical tradition because it is close enough to the truth to be useful. Things gain traction in the liberal arts exclusively because it is fashionable.

The problem I have with this way of looking at it is that gender studies and critical theory generally have a huge, motivated cultural apparatus dedicated to negatively misrepresenting them for political reasons, which Organic Chemistry generally does not (notwithstanding the sour-grapes people who washed out of org chem because of all the memorization and assays and are bitter about it forever). The popular conceptions of politically controversial fields actually are less representative than popular conceptions of more neutral ones, simply due to the fact that wider society’s main interest in those fields is as political battlefields.

Here as anywhere contentious, the answer to “why do people think this bad stuff if it’s not true” is “because they’ve received a predetermined worldview in which these people are their enemies, and due to filter bubbles and confirmation bias they only hear or think about what enemy groups are doing in the cases that most complement that worldview.” Same reason people think of tort law as being full of cases where a no-hoper gets awarded millions of dollars in emotional-hardship damages for papercuts – which of course does still happen sometimes, in the same way as the ridiculous shit from crit theory does happen sometimes.

I only really did lower-level humanities stuff, and I imagine it gets narrower and more ideological at a high level if only because you need to butter up your advisor, but my experience doing humanities and social sciences stuff is that in undergrad teachers mostly want you to be conversant in the major thinkers, frameworks and books in the field, but don’t really care what position you take within that space so long as you’re able to demonstrate a grasp of the subject matter and argument format. A lot of the core texts are just, “here’s all the different theories and people you need to know in this field, here’s the context in which they developed and what they say about each other, here’s a reading list specific to each of them.”

I only ever took one “soft” course where the prof was really pushing a specific ideology – it was pol sci, but I think it was just a bad prof and not the subject’s fault. I’ve mainly seen the bad stuff associated with crit theory happen outside the context of actual classes, like in student interest groups and so forth. We read books with specific agendas, but we usually read books with different agendas in the same course, and we were always encouraged to read them critically. Honestly the wacky SJ stuff is much more something I associate with undergrads who have a shallow grasp of the subject than with the professors who actually work in the field. I’ve heard of professors who pull that shit so they clearly exist, but unless things have gotten much worse in the past ten years (which is possible!), they’re far less common than reputed.

I can’t say much about gender studies because I only ever did the 101-level of it, but I remember it being interesting and inoffensive. The one thing I remember disliking was that I felt it was taking the strict social-constructionist position too seriously, but I argued about that in class discussions and the prof was happy and encouraged me to pursue the subject further, because in a 101-level course just seeming interested and able to grapple with the material is positive.

I’d say my experience (as a person mostly involved in the social sciences, but with a fair amount of study in undergraduate-level humanities as well) has been somewhat in between. I’ve definitely encountered professors with ideological axes to grind who graded accordingly; they were neither vanishingly rare nor the majority/plurality.

Also, while I agree with the claim that the people who tend to be more dogmatic and antagonistic tend to be undergrads with relatively shallow knowledge of the subject in question, in most undergrad-level classes those are the majority of your classmates. Even assuming the professor is genuinely open to discussion of contrary views of the subject (and I do think most are), if the rest of the class is hostile to a particular view, that can still chill dialogue substantially. That doesn’t really impact the quality of scholarship in these fields in any direct way, but it can have a negative impact on the quality of their pedagogy.

like even though I am a floofy SJ-before-we-called-it-that type myself, given what I have studied at uni I can see the plausibility of the ‘fashionable nonsense’ pov.

It all depends really on whether you’re thinking of gender studies as being like (e.g.) sociology – which has definitely had its failings but certainly at least attempts to be a proper subject – or more like English lit/literary criticism, which is nonsense almost the entire way down. 

I’ve studied in that kinda area and in practical arts – the craft side of things is often taught well, but the ‘academic’ side of things will frequently involve stuff like ‘let’s apply ludicrously outdated unfalsifiable psychology ideas to the characters in a work of fiction and act like our doing that adds anything whatsoever to the sum of human scholarship.’

A better analogy than organic chemistry would be evolutionary biology. If you come from a science-friendly background, you can probably guess pretty accurately what studying evolutionary biology would be like. But if you come from a Creationist background, unless you’ve actively sought out more unbiased information, you’ll probably think it’s a bunch of straw atheist types who worship Darwin and hate Christianity. (I’m guessing – correct me if I’m wrong.)

If you have only heard about a field of study from people who are actively hostile to the idea of that thing being studied at all, then you won’t have been given an accurate representation of what studying that field is actually like.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.