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Top 10 Things My Women’s & Gender Studies Students Learned

In fall 2022, I taught Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, working with about 30 students from departments across the University of Tulsa. My section was cross-listed with my home department of Media Studies, so in addition to learning key WGS theories, histories, tools, and perspectives, we also focused time and energy on analyzing gender and power in a variety of media forms: film, television, social media and hashtags, romance novels, and so on.

As I’ve done before in Food Media and Media & Popular Culture, our final assignment was a top 10 listicle, which each student completed individually, ranking from 10 to 1 the most important ideas and concepts they’d learned. (For anyone interested, I’ve included the assignment prompt at the end of this post.) Then, during our finals period, we condensed our personal lists into a collective ranking of the most important things we learned this semester, the list that we’ll take with us from this course and into our lives.

Here are the ranked top 10 learnings that resonated most with my students.

10. Students loved Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein’s, Data Feminism, which is available open access online to all. Students appreciated the authors’ point that nothing is outside of datafication today, but data science narratives have typically been white, male and techno-heroic. Students joined the authors’ call for a data science and ethics informed by intersectional feminism.

9. Classic readings on sex and sex/gender informed students’ understandings of science and culture, including Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “The Five Sexes” and Emily Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm.” Elizabeth Reis’s Nursing Clio essay also helped them to think through the contemporary politics of sex and gender binaries when it comes to intersex individuals and for those seeking gender-affirming healthcare.

8. Intersectionality was a term students had often heard of before taking the course, but they left with a fuller understanding of it, especially its complex focus on identity’s relationship to interlocking social systems that cause oppression and privilege. Unpacking gender as a social and cultural construction also proved a foundational concept, something students knew in their bones, but then grew to have the words to fully articulate, especially the critique of the gender binary. These concepts shaped the students’ knowledge of what gender is, how it is experienced and embodied, and informed their thinking around truly inclusive feminist futures, which they further explored in our final reading from Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life.

7. There was much insight and utility in the foundational work of Simone de Beauvoir, including her well-known words, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman.” Students considered this assertion alongside Susan Stryker’s words on who gets to claim the identity of woman and who “gets womaned” in society. They also appreciated de Beauvoir’s thinking around binaries of alterity that subordinate women (masculine/feminine, subject/object, the one/the other), and her gendered analysis of immanence and transcendence and how it shapes the possibilities of women’s lives.

6. Given my students’ relative youth, de Beauvoir’s writing on the power of childhood to socialize us into gender roles and behaviors resonated strongly. They thought critically about how everything from baby clothes to children’s toys to adolescent sports all shape gender. Relatedly, they liked this episode of The Daily Podcast, “Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.”

5. WGS explores all aspects of gender, including men and masculinities, ranging from toxic examples to the theory of hegemonic masculinity and my own research on dude masculinity. Men experience and navigate gender, even if they maintain a more powerful position within a patriarchal society, though students also minded bell hooks that all men don’t experience equality either. Many of the men in the course thought critically all semester long about how masculinity norms have shaped, and in some cases harmed and limited, them.

4. Many of our readings reinforced a simple truth that no question is without a gendered dimension, though students read it first in Penny Weiss’s Feminist Manifestos: A Global Documentary Reader. Some folks want to relegate gendered concerns to only a handful of “women’s issues” (like reproduction, sexual violence, childcare, or equal access to employment and education) but gender is at hand in everything. Related to this learning, students appreciated the theorizing of doing gender, that gender isn’t something that we have but something that we do, and make meaning from, in every arena of our lives.

3. Feminism can be a misunderstood social movement, but students reflected most on how its power comes from its collective spirit, organizing, and action. Relatedly, student shared the critique of commodity feminism, which reduces the movement’s politics to an individual identity for consumers to acquire through the marketplace, particularly via tote bags, T-shirts, and mugs emblazoned with feel-good feminist phrases. Students also pondered the possibilities and limits of social media for feminist action. They appreciated learning about hashtag activism, as well as the nuances of particular hashtags like #blackgirlmagic, especially as they read from Julia S. Jordan-Zachery and Duchess Harris’s Black Girl Magic Beyond the Hashtag: Twenty-First-Century Acts of Self-Definition.

2. Disability studies added another rich dimension to students’ understanding of identity and social systems and structures of oppression. They were lucky to learn from fellow University of Tulsa Professor Jan Wilson and to read from her new book, Becoming Disabled: Forging a Disability View of the World. The point that disability is not a tragedy resonated with many students thinking on these issues for the first time.

1. Given our course’s focus on media, women’s representation in film and TV stood out for nearly all students. Many of their lists noted tools they found useful for analyzing gender in media, especially classics like the Bechdel Test (and ways to push it further) and the male gaze, as well more recent theorization of the female and queer gaze. We also considered how TV has represented (and misrepresented) abortion on screen. Students also enjoyed our course assignment in which they analyzed media of their choice (a TV show, film, commercial, celebrity, video game, and so on) using their newly learned feminist media concepts, an experience that will hopefully lend insight to their media lives going forward.

In Closing

It felt a heavy and important responsibility to teach this course in the fall of 2022, just months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. My students came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they came to class every week with open hearts and minds to learn the history of this field, its theories and tools, its commitment to action and community, so to consider how we might make a more just, inclusive, and joyful society for all. I’m grateful to have learned and journeyed with them, and glad that the course resonated with them. This post’s image is a screenshot from one of my student’s Instagram Stories. It feels pretty special to have our class (willingly and lovingly!) become part of my students’ lives, digital and otherwise.

Top 10 Listicle Assignment Prompt

First, consult our course-long reading schedule. Then, compose your own top 10 list of the most important ideas and concepts from this semester for the study of Women’s and Gender Studies and to you, as a thinker and a person. Note that your list must be equally weighted between content from part 1 and part 2 of our course.

Once you’ve brainstormed your list, rank them from 10 to 1, with 1 as the most important in your assessment and to you.

Give each item a number and a clear and snappy title.

Then write a short (50-100) word description for each item. It should include a summary of the idea or concept along with a defense for 1) why it is important to the study of Women’s and Gender Studies and 2) why it is important to you. You don’t need to include citations, but your list must reference our course readings and big ideas in specific ways. Overall, your item descriptions should be concise, clear, persuasive, and conceptually- and grammatically-correct.

During our finals period, we’ll each share our top rankings, continuing to share from our lists until all of our points have been recorded into our collective class list.

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