My co-blogger David Bernstein e-mailed me to note the department in which the thug role model professor who stole the anti-abortion sign — and apparently assaulted a protester — teaches. It’s not a department of women’s studies, but a department of feminist studies.
In principle, having a Department of Women’s Studies may make good sense for an academic institution. Traditional department boundaries — history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, law, and the like — are often useful, because each field has its own intellectual toolkit that is often worth teaching separately. But at the same time, the department boundaries often make it harder to effectively study a particular subject area. The role of women in society, for instance, is an important question that is raised in many different fields of study. Having a department that’s focused on that subject rather than on a particular academic discipline could be useful, though, as with all such things, it could be implemented poorly.
But a Department of Feminist Studies, it seems to me, by definition limits itself not just to a single subject of study, but to a single ideology or closely connected bundle of ideologies. It means that the department is guaranteed to exclude faculty and even students of other ideological views. (Ideologically skewing happens to some extent in lots of contexts already, but here it seems to be baked into the definition of the department in a particular sharp way.) And it puts the university’s scholarly imprimatur on one ideology — and perhaps even just particular versions of that ideology — to the exclusion of its rivals.
It means that other views are automatically defined to be outside the department’s area of focus — the possibility that there are women who aren’t feminists (or who disagree with most of the modern academic feminist movement on questions such as abortion) who are worth studying and whose arguments are worth considering is defined away. Ideological homogeneity and lack of engagement with contrary views is always a danger in many human institutions. But a department of feminist studies seems to be tailored to maximize these dangers.
Of course, I would say the same about a department of patriotic studies, a department of libertarian studies, and the like. (A department of feminist/patriotic/libertarian studies that is all about studying those ideologies or movements, rather than using those ideologies to study other things, would be a different matter; there the objection would be that it’s likely too narrow.)
I wouldn’t always say the same, incidentally, about particular classes that are devoted to particular ideological approaches to law, history, moral philosophy, and the like. Studying Austrian economics, Keynesian economics, Marxist economics, and the like in separate classes might well make sense (again, depending how such classes are implemented). But professors who teach different classes and students who take different classes tend to interact a lot with professors and students who are involved in other classes, so there’s less of an insularity concern there.
In any event, that’s my tentative thinking about the Department of Feminist Studies, albeit just based on general principles rather than specific experience with this department or others like it. If you have more direct experiences, either with Feminist Studies departments or similarly structured departments, I’d love to hear your more informed views below.