The University of Chicago Magazine June 1996
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Gender studies finds its center

No passing fad: Director Auslander regards gender studies as serious academic work.

A new Center for Gender Studies will begin operating at the University this autumn as a campus-wide research and teaching resource for faculty and students.

The center is designed to be "an umbrella covering people from many departments, with many different gender-related interests," says Leora Auslander, associate history professor and the center's newly appointed director. "We hope to reach out beyond the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions" to other divisions and the professional schools--even to the Laboratory Schools and the libraries.

So far, says Auslander, nearly 40 faculty members have expressed interest in the center, and when students were invited to a meeting to discuss plans last February, close to 100 attended. Faculty committees have been organized to work out specific details: one will consider whether the center should grant degrees; another is creating a curriculum. "What's settled for the fall," says Auslander, "is the two-quarter undergraduate course that will be taught on questions in gender studies and the graduate teaching practicum in gender and pedagogy."

One of the toughest decisions--to focus on gender studies rather than women's studies specifically--reflected a desire on the part of Auslander and the center's other founders to study gender as a system, rather than as simply a reflection of female or male experience. The broader focus will encompass studies in sexuality, as well.

"The center will foster interdisciplinary research and teaching on feminism; the social construction of women and men; the powerful metaphors of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality; and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered studies," says Auslander.

"My hope is that research can be done by different groups on different subjects, even if the projects stem from different ideologies. I am deeply committed to this center serving as a bridge between faculty members, between students, between departments."

Auslander doesn't foresee a conflict between those interested in gender studies for academic reasons and those who are involved for political or social purposes. "There's no such thing as neutral research," she says, "no such thing as neutral teaching. Neither one should be ideological, but there isn't a way to detach the production of knowledge from the production of power."

She adds, "There may be tension surrounding an expectation that this will also be a women's center -that is, a place women can go for information, resources, and counseling. The University is certainly in need of that kind of place, and I would lobby for it, but that is not our mandate. Our focus is on research and teaching."

The establishment of the center was negotiated by Auslander and a core group of fellow faculty members: English professors Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Helsinger; Law School lecturer Jacqueline Bhabha; Norma Field, professor in East Asian languages & civilizations; and anthropology professor Susan Gal. The group worked with Provost Geoffrey Stone, JD'71; Humanities Dean Philip Gossett; Social Sciences Dean Richard Saller; and John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, Dean of the College.

"The administration is very supportive," Auslander notes. "Since I came here eight years ago, more and more faculty members have been hired who work in women's studies and in gay and lesbian studies. Also, more people have been willing to identify with gender studies. It's now seen not as a passing fad, but as serious academic work."

Future plans include searching for funding to start an endowment and to finance lectures, workshops, and conferences. Additionally, Auslander hopes that the center will find a permanent location, perhaps a house "with enough space for offices, seminar rooms, a kitchen, and hangout space."

In the meantime, questions and ideas are welcome. "The Center for Gender Studies is self-selecting," Auslander says. "We hope that anyone in the community with an interest in gender studies will seek us out."

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