I was recently unfortunate enough to watch a ridiculous youtube video on the worst college majors. I had hoped that it would be balanced and perhaps offer ideas on how less employable disciplines might be combined thoughtfully with more “practical” majors/minors. Rather, it quickly became a rant about the danger of Gender Studies, how such a course of study is biased (see my thoughts on “bias” here) and encourages “wasteful entitlement programs”. While I don’t want to diverge into my policy positions (although clearly me and youtube advisor-man are not in agreement), I did want to take the opportunity to jump into another part of my autobiographical series of posts. As I become increasingly skeptical of “disciplines” and the logic of studying political science divorced from the other social sciences, I have also realized that my approach to scholarship, analysis, and even my personal choices have been largely shaped by the skills developed in USC’s Gender Studies Department.
My first Gender Studies class was taught by Louis Banner and dealt with gender and sexuality in American history- pretty much your typical broadly organized freshman seminar, paired with am introductory writing class. Pairing a Gender Studies class with a course on basic writing really combines the best of both worlds. Gender Studies, more than other majors, is largely structured around the development of critical thinking skills: questioning deeply held social norms on how things “are”, “are supposed to be”, and “should be” but in a context that every person is intimately familiar with. More than that though, I was forced to start articulating my own ideas and spelling out the logic of critical thought in a more or less coherent manner. Needless to say, after the class I was the most annoying student in every other class I took, constantly questioning the logic of IR theory, liberal feminism, and so on. At family gatherings I would go on ad nauseam on “social constructions”, queer theory, LGBT rights, heterocentric norms, and so on (and on and on and on).
The problem with casual students of Gender Studies, and perhaps with the way the discipline in taught at an undergraduate level, is that we seem to stop at the basics. It does not take any real brilliance to pick up the vocabulary of oppression, privilege, or social justice. I remember feeling that I had learned the secrets of the universe. After all, when you can theorize your own disadvantage and the privilege of others, what could you possibly learn from continued reading, or (dare I say it) real life experience?
The good thing about Gender Studies classes, is that in the end you can count on someone even more out-of-sync/hyper-theoretical to challenge your own stances. I remember hearing a student use the idea of internalized oppression to deny the agency of non-European peoples. It was argued that all sexual relationships between white and non-white peoples are based on oppressive power relations that effectively deny non-white choice. The argument eventually took a turn for the worse when in addition to denying agency and the continually victimizing the non-European person, the student took the argument further by suggesting that only Europeans can “other” people. Clearly, if this is the culmination of a Gender Studies education than Mr. Youtube-Guru above might have a leg to stand on.
Luckily for the rest of us, Gender Studies doesn’t stop at the ridiculous musings of some insight-lacking undergraduate. Indeed, my example is clearly dramatized and exaggerated to prove a point. The problem with Gender Studies is that students might stop taking on new ideas too early, missing the crucial insight to find the nuance in the writings they read as freshman. For me the biggest take ways from Gender Studies were the issues of agency, victimization, voice, gendering the other, and questioning current conditions and the limits of the possible.
The skills, vocabulary, the thinking skills imparted by Gender Studies continue to inform my approach and engagement with my areas of interest, even though I don’t characterize myself as a Gender Studies student. It is also this background that makes me question the logic of disciplinary political science, and –without any atmosphere of superiority- sets me apart from many other people in the discipline.
Gender Studies as a system of critical thought trains students to look at issues from multiple vantage points. How and by whom have women been historically constructed? How have these views changed? What can we learn from the nature of the changing discourse on the feminine versus the masculine? Does this change imply a socially constructed world that is far more flexible than we assume? It doesn’t take too much thought to push this kind of thinking into an analysis of political phenomenon, even if gender and sexuality are not the center of one’s interest. (Although, I am given to believe that gender, sex, and sexuality, ultimately inform far more than we are aware of, even when we take on questions of foreign policy, war, etc.).
As I continue my reading of critical International Relations, indigenous policy, and asymmetric foreign relations, I am increasingly referred/referring back to ideas crucial to the study of gender, including voice, agency, and hegemony. For example: How has the international state system been historically conceptualized? How have these views and the system itself changed? Doesn’t this inherently unstable system require analysts to look outside of state structures and look for new ways of more ethical international organization? Who is in charge of defining “ethical” in the first place?
Gender Studies might lend itself to bad analysis and lazy thought by allowing students to stop too early with cheap terms such as “oppression”, “inequality”, and “privilege”. At the same time, I find it doubtful that most people are able to stop at this irresponsible logic for very long. Most people will be pushed forward by counter arguments and the reality of the world they will have engage with. For most of us Gender Studies is a very approachable way to develop key critical thinking skills that can inform how we see and engage with the world far longer than our formal education.
Gender Studies, far from being useless, can be incredibly rewarding for many students. While I wouldn’t recommend it is a stand alone major, I would highly encourage all students to take at least one class in the discipline, and would even argue that it should be made a mandatory part of general education requirements.
I have started reading a book entitled Autobiographical IR, I and IR edited by Naeem Inayatullah, in which a number of IR scholars from around the globe present deeply personal autobiographies of their personal connections to their research, motivations, and moral points of view. In short, it is a rare, truthful look at the personal side of the profession- a side that is often covered up to present a lie of objectivity and the presentation of true fact. More on critical approaches to IR and Political Science later; for now, I thought I might try my hand at this exercise in a shortened version here. While the book might only take established scholars on for its material, I thought looking at my own autobiography as emerging scholar have completed only one semester of a PhD program at the young age of 26 might be informative and being the process of truthful and open research from an early point. That said, here we go!
“I’m Scottish, English, Italian, and Polish,” I proudly declared one day to my best childhood friend in 6th grade. We were on our way to lunch, and were waiting in line to wash our hands in the basement, before going to the gymnasium/cafeteria. It was one of those classic old school houses: two stories high, brick, with a steel tube-slide as a fire escape out the second story. I felt very multicultural, so a 6th grader in a school with a total of about 40 pupils, K-8th grade in rural Montana.
“Well, I’m part Mongolian and Estonian!” my friend replied. Now he could never be trusted 100%, and I was sure this was some crazy joke.
“Those aren’t even real places!” I confidentially declared. After all, Estonia sounded like a made up place, and Mongolia, that was only in storybooks, right?
Fast-forward 13-14 years, and suddenly Mongolia is incredibly real for me, maybe too real, even. I speak Mongolian, I lived in the country for over 15 months over 5 trips, and written two theses on the country’s foreign relations. Estonia remains a little more elusive, but has generally factored into my research as an example of a small and internationally engaged state. Surely the more than a decade in between must have been formative in this regard.
I’m sitting on a plane seriously doubting my decision to study aboard for a year in Russia as a high school junior. My mom had brought me to the gate, and she parted from me bawling, as mothers are want to do. It certainly was a strange decision to make, and I had no background or substantive education to prepare me for what I was up against. My impression remains that most students that study aboard at any point in their academic career, and especially high school students, come from at least modestly well-off families. Study aboard organizations are often proud to highlight the number of students that receive some sort of financial aid, but let us be clear, not being able to afford a $10,000 price tag for a year abroad (that was in 2004, I doubt the price has been stable) is a very different thing than not being able to afford the gas money to get to the airport. And yet, here I was going to Russia. Why? Two reasons: 1) I saw a Russian dictionary in a bookstore, and thought it looked cool; 2) It seemed far more interesting and unique than Spanish, which was the only foreign language offered at my high school, sort of post-comm chic, if you will. And so it began, a series of fortunate coincidences motivated by not excepting economic limits (often not as heroic as it might sound) and refusing to go with convention.
Mongolia was really just a continuation of that theme, at first. It sounded cool, I had access to student loans (regrettable, yes; unhelpful, no), and I thought it would make me stand out later in the job world. So, I paid an organization to let me work for free as a summer intern. Yes, that’s what I said, paid to let me work for them! In reality, I was terrible intern, so it might have been a fair deal after all. I thought I would spend a couple months in Ulaanbaatar, and then never return!
In no time at all, though, I had caught the Mongolian bug, and pursued every opportunity to get back. Eventually, I developed real research interests, but at first, it was all about hanging out, learning Mongolian, and making friends along the way. I became intoxicated (figuratively?) with the culture, people, countryside, and the general struggle of living in UB and traveling outside the city far earlier that I became captivated by nationalism, foreign policy, indigenous rights, and irredentism. There is a certain level of truth to admitting that our research interests can be real, even when our initial case study was the result of youthful chance and thrill seeking.
I’ll stop here for now, having come to an impasse. However, I think this might be a nice project to prolong a bit, so stay toned for additional installments.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.