Interdisciplinarity in Practice: Directing a Gender Studies Program

By Taine Duncan

At the University of Central Arkansas, the Gender Studies Program is an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor, but it is also a home for student organizations, a university-wide speaker series, partnerships for service learning and internships, and theses and research projects for everyone from Honors undergraduates to doctoral Leadership Studies students.

Despite including faculty and courses from across the university, the program continues to find its home-base in the College of Liberal Arts. Although my primary faculty appointment is in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, I also direct the program. Nesting interdisciplinary programs within departments in the Liberal Arts is hardly a new phenomenon—either nationally or at UCA. In fact, the Gender Studies minor program is one of five interdisciplinary programs housed in our College of Liberal Arts.

This history and practice of interdisciplinarity woven into the liberal arts fosters collaboration and innovation beneficial across departments. My colleagues who direct the other programs and I frequently meet and coordinate our efforts—pedagogically, for invited speakers, and even in our research. For example, the director of the Asian Studies minor program and I have jointly presented at the Asian Studies Development Program national conference on the importance of eliminating the siloing that frequently impacts interdisciplinary programs. In practice, we’ve worked to create courses that demonstrate intersectionality. This fall, my colleague is offering a history course on queer theory in Asian thought and I am offering a philosophy course with a special focus on black feminism, and two of us are currently working on a collaborative research project on bell hooks and Buddhism.

The Gender Studies program also serves highly specialized functions for my institution. Because we are a state institution in the South, our students primarily come from the region. This includes many rural communities from which the students represent the first generation to go to college. Some of my colleagues refer to their philosophical work in this region as a sort of conversion process, but perhaps the better analogy is to a kind of Benjaminian conception of photographic development. Our students come to us raw and unexposed, they frequently express their trepidation in taking philosophy courses and gender studies courses because of the fear of the unknown. However, by the time they complete a semester’s class, they have illuminated some nascent part of themselves which requires further development in the future.

Sometimes this developing process reveals foundational issues of identity in our students. For this reason, the Gender Studies program also supports student organizations for feminists and LGBTIQ students. These student populations often feel vulnerable, and so we partner with the offices of Institutional Diversity as well as Diversity and Community to provide them resources, support, and safe spaces on campus. Sometimes this developing process illuminates a passion for service in the community, which is why the Gender Studies program offers connections to service learning, internships, and research guidance.

Another important feature of the Gender Studies program is an ongoing speaker series. Each fall, the program invites a scholar from the community—either another faculty member, a community partner for service, or a leader in the community—to show the students across the university that gender issues matter in practice, and in our community. Each spring, as part of Women’s History Month, I apply for grants to help fund external speakers. Last year, the speakers each addressed a way in which gender and technology intersect. We invited Dona Bailey, the creator of the computer game Centipede, as well as Beverly-Lyn Cook from the FDA National Center for Toxicological Research. We also worked in conjunction with other departments and colleges at UCA to invite N. Katherine Hayles. Without an independent budget of our own in Gender Studies, we rely on collaboration and grant opportunities. However, this interdisciplinary collaboration reinforces the goals of intersectionality and interdisciplinarity I mentioned above.

In order to facilitate this collaboration—and to ensure adequate funding—I have applied for several internal grants at my institution. Our institutional foundation has a grant line specifically for providing educational opportunities and access to women and girls in the community. Our Office of Institutional Diversity offers a small grant for faculty developing intersectional outreach, so by intentionally focusing the Gender Studies program’s outreach on gender and race I am better able to provide for our diverse students and able to secure funding options. I know that many community and institutional grants are available for such intersectional and interdisciplinary work…often the most difficult task is allotting time to research the available opportunities.

In a time where the humanities and liberal arts are often challenged as abstract, impractical fields of study, convincing students and institutions to invest in interdisciplinary thinking may seem difficult. However, demonstrating that fields like philosophy are an integral part of practical, applied, and theoretical engagement with diversity can motivate students to join programs like Gender Studies.

Philosophy began as a discipline devoted to an interdisciplinary quest for wisdom. This spirit guides the Gender Studies program at UCA, and my approach to directing it. Rather than seeing this work as independent from my philosophical work and service, I see my service in directing the program as part and parcel with my identity as a philosopher.

 

Taine Duncan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Central Arkansas University.  In addition to directing the Gender Studies Program, she is co-editor of the Journal of Philosophy in the Contemporary World.  Duncan specializes in Feminist Philosophy, Contemporary Continental Philosophy, and Critical Theory.  If you would like to know more about the Gender Studies Program at UCA, you can contact Duncan at tduncan@uca.edu.

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