Should Men Teach Women's Studies?
Reflections on a career that perhaps should never have been
Can men teach Women’s Studies? Can white folks teach Black History? Can Black folks teach Asian-American History?
An answer later. For now, let me start by pointing out that these were very different questions when I began my teaching career, nearly 30 years ago.
The Californian community colleges are teaching institutions. With few exceptions, there are no upper-division courses. In the history department, we generally offer only survey courses. The professors who teach those courses are expected to be generalists, flexible and capable of teaching a wide variety of subjects.
When I was hired for a full-time, tenure-track position in 1994, the announcement was for a European Historian who would also be able to prepare and offer courses in at least three of the following areas: US History, East Asian History, African History, British History, Latin American History, Asian-American History, Chicano History, African-American History, Middle Eastern History, History of Religion, History of Science, and Women’s History.
On my application and in my interview, I said I could teach British History, Women’s History and History of Religion in addition to the European survey courses.
The college knew that offerings might need to shift to meet different student demands, or changing imperatives from the public universities to which our students hoped to transfer. The ability to teach outside one’s own area of expertise was not a “bonus” – it was an essential part of the job description. At the community college, we were expected to be “jacks of all trades,” and that flexibility was a virtue, not a necessary evil.
My parents offered me examples of two vastly different, but equally wonderful approaches. Both mama and papa had PhDs from Berkeley in philosophy, where they had met in graduate school.
Daddy did his dissertation on Kant, Wittgenstein, and philosophical problems around language apprehension – and though he did teach a few intro courses, he spent the rest of his illustrious career at UC Santa Barbara focused on highly specialized upper division courses and helping his graduate students. He published one book and countless articles, and even now, I still struggle to understand them.
Mama wrote her dissertation on Hobbes and Locke – and then got hired at Monterey Peninsula College. From 1975 to 2003, she taught in a “block” program called Gentrain, which stood for “General Train of Humanities Education.” She began by focusing on philosophy, but soon started teaching religious and cultural history as well. The first time I ever heard her give a lecture to anyone other than my brother and myself, mom spoke enthusiastically for nearly an hour about early Christian heresies. Monophysitism and Arianism had not been something she studied in school – they were interests she developed after she was already a professor. The class was rapt; mama was beaming.
“The best part of teaching at the community college is you’re always learning from your colleagues,” mom said, “and you always have the opportunity to teach new things.”
I figured out early on that I wanted to be like mom. Though I did grit my teeth and finish my own dissertation at UCLA, on northeastern English medieval warrior bishops, I knew I never wanted to do research. I wrote one academic paper for publication, and called it a day. I knew I was called to the community college, where I could teach survey courses on a wide variety of subjects.
I started teaching women’s history in the spring of 1995. I was initially brought in as a temporary replacement for a regular faculty member who had gone on maternity leave, but enjoyed the class so much that I asked the division dean to assign me my own course. The dean smiled, and said she’d need to ask the three female faculty members who regularly taught women’s studies what they thought of the idea. “You’re not tenured yet, Hugo,” the dean said; “I don’t want you to make any enemies.”
Two of the three women who taught the course were enthusiastic about me teaching it. They wanted to see my syllabus, and offered to help with anything I needed. The third was less sure. Professor Ling, who also taught Asian History, came to see me in my office. “Why do you want to teach women’s history,” she asked. “I’m curious.”
“Because I think it’s an important and little-covered subject,” I said. “We need to learn what our foremothers endured and achieved.”
Professor Ling nodded. “That’s fine, Hugo. But I teach this course because I want to raise up young feminists. That’s the key work of women’s studies at the college. Do you think you can do that?”
“Yes,” I told her, “Yes, I can do that.”
Professor Ling nodded, unsmiling. “Let’s see you do it, then.”
For the next 18 years, until my resignation, I taught women’s studies at Pasadena City College, and as best I could, whatever my other failings, I kept my pledge to Professor Ling. You’d have to ask my former students whether I succeeded in raising up young feminists, but anecdotally, I am told that I did rather well in that regard.
There are two general criticisms of men teaching Women’s Studies (or any person who isn’t a member of a historically oppressed group teaching that group’s history.)
The first criticism one usually hears is that the instructor will -- presumably -- be unable to empathize with the experiences of most of the students in the course. (When I first started teaching women’s history, the overwhelming majority of my students were female; I often had only one or two men in the class. By the time I was forced out, that percentage had shifted, and perhaps 25% of my women’s history students were male.) How can a cis-gendered man know what it is to live as a woman?
It’s a good question. My answer was, and it remains, that no one person can ever empathize with the vast diversity of what it has meant throughout history to live as a woman. We are not just gendered, we are also unique in terms of our cultural backgrounds and psychological dispositions. There is virtually no experience that is 100% universal to womanhood. We could just as easily say that a Black female professor might lack empathy for the Chicana experience, or that a straight female professor might not comprehend the particular challenges of living as a lesbian. No one person can be all things to all people.
It is fashionable, nowadays, to say that oppression grants what might be called “epistemic privilege.” If you belong to a class of folks victimized by white supremacy and misogyny, then you will have a keener awareness of systems of oppression than those who have less direct experience of discrimination. According to this theory, white men are like fish in the ocean – they don’t think about water, or how to breathe, because they are in an environment built for them. Those who are not white men are like scuba divers, exploring an unsafe ecosystem that isn’t designed to sustain them. Scuba divers have “epistemic privilege” about oxygen, because their lives depend on thinking about it constantly. The fish get to be oblivious. To the modern mind, white men teaching women’s studies are like fish teaching about the ocean – unable to sense the real dangers, unable to see the complexity of a system they presumably take for granted.
The problem with that metaphor is that each of us is sometimes a scuba diver, and sometimes a fish. When it comes to women’s history, for example, we are all divers – none of us have the lived experience of being, say, a suffragette or an antebellum slave. We are all explorers in an alien landscape. The professor isn’t a fish – the professor is just someone who’s been diving into that strange world a little longer than his or her students. And to extend the metaphor, any good scuba instructor is well aware he or she has things to learn on each dive – and sometimes, can even be taught by the observations and insights of the dive students.
The second main criticism of men teaching women’s studies, or white people teaching the history of peoples of color, is that we’re taking jobs away from others. It is certainly true that we need to do more to hire women and nonwhites as faculty members, particularly for tenure-track jobs. That’s true across the board, however. We need more women and nonwhites teaching Scandinavian history, and astrophysics, and chemical engineering. Race and sex should be no impediment to intellectual accomplishment in any field. Focusing on hiring people of color only to staff Gender and Ethnic Studies classes is to miss the forest for the trees. We can have Black women from Pentecostal backgrounds teaching the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, and we can have men teaching women’s studies. Identity is not the cornerstone of intellectual legitimacy.
In August 2013, I began my infamous Twitter meltdown by admitting that I had only had two undergraduate women’s studies courses before I began teaching the subject. I presented that as a scandal, as I was in the middle of a complete psychological collapse and desperate to have everyone believe I was a fraud. The truth was, none of the other three women who taught women’s history at Pasadena City College had had much if any academic preparation for the topic, either. Two were senior enough that women’s studies hadn’t even existed when they had been in college. They had taught themselves along the way. I did the same. I didn’t read Judith Butler in college, but I read her to get ready for my classes, just as I read Andrea Dworkin, Gerda Lerner, Lilian Faderman, bell hooks, Joan Brumberg, Kimberle Crenshaw and Dossie Easton to get ready for my own courses.
I never lied to my dean or my hiring committee about my academic preparation. I was fortunate enough to be hired in an era – and at a place – where professors were expected and required to teach new things, to push themselves out of their comfort zones, and become experts on subjects that hadn’t even existed when they had been in graduate school. (I later created courses like Men and Masculinity, Lesbian and Gay History, Beauty and the Body in Western Civilization, and Navigating Pornography – all based on research I did on my own, mid-career.)
I loved teaching these courses. Though I never stopped delighting in teaching my Western Civilization surveys, I felt most alive teaching gender studies. This is not just because I delighted in women’s attention, or craved notoriety, though both of those are no doubt true. It is also because I believed in what Professor Ling had made clear was my chief task: to raise up young feminists.
I do not think I will ever teach in a classroom again. That is a bitter thought, but I accept that is an inevitable consequence of my choices.
What I cannot accept is that I should never have been teaching what I taught in the first place, that my entire career would have been a mistake even if I hadn’t broken the code of conduct that I myself had authored.