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Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and the Bee Hive

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Haverford, Bryn Mawr, & the Bee Hive

In Jacques Derrida’s “Women in the Beehive,” he asks us to consider the limitations of women’s studies programs.  Although women’s studies programs produce knowledge that understands women as a historically underrepresented group and work to understand the ways that culture, society, history, science, etc. affect women, Derrida asks of those who participate in women’s studies programs to consider what part these programs play in the institution. For a women’s studies program to develop and reproduce the same structure of other classical departments, Derrida asks would this be a failure of the “principles of women’s studies?”[i] The “guardians” of these departments risk creating just “another cell in the university beehive.”[ii]

So how does this claim fit with the Gender & Sexuality Studies program here at Bryn Mawr and Haverford? Are we just “another cell in the university beehive?” Are we re-creating “the Law” as Derrida charges? The Gender & Sexuality Studies program in the Bi-Co when examined closely seems to refute this claim ostensibly, but with certain practical limitations. The program has many unique qualities that, as Derrida responds when asked how to resolve the issue of recreating the Law, do not remain within one department, and that manages to balance the problem of seeing woman as a “subject” and refuting woman as a “subject.”

To work from the top down, the Gender & Sexuality Studies program is most ostensibly distinctive because of the fact that it isn’t even contained in one college, let alone one department. It is coordinated by one Bryn Mawr professor and one Haverford professor. To fulfill the requirements for the program, one can take as many classes as one would like at either college. So as a student at Haverford, I am able to hypothetically take half of the classes required for the program at Haverford and half at Bryn Mawr. This creates an experience unlike that of a typical university; having the option to be a part of academic and intellectual life at two different colleges and to engage with professors with different specializations is an incredibly unusual situation, and one that makes the Gender and Sexuality Studies program in the Bi-College Consortium a resource for an exceptionally multi-faceted knowledge.

The naming of the program also doesn’t create any limitations for who may or may not feel welcome to participate. “Gender & Sexuality,” as a title for the program, leaves much more room for those who may not have felt comfortable participating in a “Women’s Studies” department, let alone a more politically charged “Feminist Studies” department. This also mitigates the issue of using woman as a subject.[iii] The program does not by name use woman as the subject; however, it does not entirely deconstruct the study of woman. The program includes feminist theory classes, studies of women in different contexts, but also makes use of broader contexts: queerness in America, studying gender with anthropological methods, and also groups that are known to be more inclusive of individuals with non-normative genders and sexualities (ex: Quaker Social Witness, HC/ICPR 244).

The program also certainly has a pervasive quality to it; the courses that fulfill the requirements represent fifteen departments (2008-2009 academic year)[iv], which is nearly half of the departments and programs available for study in the Bi-College Consortium. The program is certainly not relegated to one department, and it branches from classical departments like philosophy, religion, English, history, etc. However, the one limitation to this claim is that the program has limited representation in the natural sciences (chemistry, physics, biology, math, etc.); although, within the Bi-College Consortium there has been increasing engagement between the humanities and natural sciences.

The credit requirements for the Gender and Sexuality Studies program are also incredibly flexible and give the student an opportunity to explore their interest in gender and sexuality within different disciplines, or to concentrate in a few fields or departments. In order to fulfill the concentration or minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies, a student must fulfill at least 6 credits including an introductory course, the core course, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality,” and four additional courses that are approved by the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, two of which must be at the 300 level. No more than three and no fewer than two of these six credits can be a part of the student’s major[v], which encourages interdisciplinary study and certainly reinforces the idea that the program in itself challenges the university department Law.

“Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender and Sexuality,” the core course for the program is a microcosm of the program. It focuses on the multi- and interdisciplinary study of gender and sexuality through a feminist lens (using contemporary feminist theory), and goes on to investigate the enveloping nature of gender in American culture and how sexuality is “performed, reified, resisted, and reinvented” in American culture[vi]. Texts vary in content and medium; the syllabus includes several graphic novels, as well as examinations of masculinity in different cultural contexts, studies of the body in theory, and sexuality’s interplay with religion[vii].

Of course, the practical down-side of the program not being within a single department is the lack of funding and organization that a unified department benefits from. It becomes difficult to bring visitors to campus specifically as a supplement to the Gender & Sexuality Studies program because of the lack of resources available to the coordinators. In addition, there are no resources for recruiting outside scholars specifically for the Gender & Sexuality Studies program. It becomes a matter of attracting professors from within the bi-college community to participate in the program and have their classes listed within the program, if they are not already a more active member of the program.[viii] In essence, a lot of responsibility is diffused not between a department-full of professors as it would be within a department dedicated to the study of gender and sexuality, but between just a few people from different departments who are expected to coordinate course listings, speakers, etc.

However, as Derrida mentions, this would be the price to pay for questioning the system of the Law and of constructing a program that runs counter to the structure of traditional university departments, and that this is positive because it is not reproducing the same structure[ix]. In addition, as it doesn’t fit into one classical department, let alone even one college, the Gender and Sexuality Studies program can ask the “radical questions”[x] and not be endangering the program. The Gender and Sexuality Studies program in the Bi-College Consortium has the opportunity then to engage in questioning “the university Law,” although I cannot say that I believe that the program actively engages in asking these questions.

The Bi-College Gender and Sexuality Studies program is in itself a statement and example of a subversion of the traditional patriarchal department structure in most colleges and universities. The inter-college, interdisciplinary, and inter-departmental opportunities available to students highlight the feminist principles that underline the system that the program runs on. The program lacks the institutional support that is traditionally associated with more funding or resources. This, however, is the expense that comes from working in non-traditional ways that are subversive to the rigid system of department Law. The program exists as a radical statement, but does not seem to be proactively questioning the structure of other departments. The flexibility and variability of the program and the options for fulfilling the concentration, though, are certainly a fine example of learning in a feminist way and encouraging well-rounded scholarship in innovative ways.

[i] Jacques Derrida, "Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques
Derrida," in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York:
Methuen, n.d.), 190.

[ii] Ibid., 191.

[iii] Ibid., 193.

[iv] "Gender and Sexuality Courses 2008-2009," Bryn Mawr College, (accessed December 7, 2008).

[v] "Requirements," Bryn Mawr College,
requirements.html (accessed December 7, 2008).

[vi] "Fall 2008 Gender & Sexuaity ICPR H 290 Interdisciplinary Perspectives
on Gender: Power, Performance, and Identity," Bryn Mawr College, (accessed December 7, 2008).

[vii] Ibid., np.

[viii] Anne Dalke, interview by author, Bryn Mawr College, December 2, 2008.

[ix] Jacques Derrida, "Women in the Beehive: A Seminar with Jacques
Derrida," in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York:
Methuen, n.d.), 203.

[x] Ibid., 202.


Anne Dalke's picture

Radical Inaction


All your papers this semester have been about pushing the categories--first of identity, then of knowledge production, now of academic structure.

This essay is very clear and very direct: it gives an accounting of the institutional structure of the bi-college Program in Gender and Sexuality, and nicely catalogues the ways in which the program avoids Derrida's critique of women's studies programs becoming "just another cell in the university beehive."

Where your analysis becomes truly acute, I think, is just before you end, when you observe that--although the program is positioned so that it can "ask the radical questions"...

it doesn't: "The program exists as a radical statement, but does not seem to be proactively questioning the structure."

So: why not? Are you beginnning to identify a problem w/ Derrida's argument here: the presumption that lack of investment in a structure frees one to critique it? Perhaps marginality actually prevents such a critique, because one is all the more vulnerable?

(That is of course the conventional argument on behalf of tenure....that faculty need economic security in order to be intellectually risk-takers).

Whatever your answers to those questions, the more important one is probably this: of what use is a radical position, if it is not put into radical action?

Are you going to find out, for your final project? If so, how?