Women’s Studies Program Gaining Support Across Campus

The women’s studies program will soon be retitled the women and gender studies program, broadening the program’s subject matter. The growth of the program, according to students and faculty, is due to the strength of the subject matter.

The women’s studies minor program at Shepherd was created in the early 1990s, involving just a few professors. The program now has more students than it ever has since its implementation. It has gained such a strong following due to its increased interdisciplinary nature. By nature, it welcomes students from all areas of study to learn more about gender and its impact on our society.

    The program began with a group of faculty calling a meeting to discuss a similar goal: to bring gender studies to Shepherd University. The Introduction to Women’s Studies course was debuted in 1996 and led to the formation of a women’s studies board, which now includes both professors and students. The program was to be led by co-coordinators due to the interdisciplinary aspect, ensuring that no one department held control over the program.

    Around the year 2000, the current co-coordinators took over: Anders Henriksson, professor of history, chair of the history department, and one of the original coordinators, and Betty Ellzey, professor of English and chair of the English and modern languages department. Ellzey said about the program, “It has always been very important that the program be interdisciplinary so that it is welcoming to all students.” Because of this deeply embedded ideal of the program, it has always been a priority to offer a variety of guest lecturers, events and courses that appeal to a wide range of students.

    One guest lecturer that stood out to Ellzey was Regina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut. She has written eight books concerning women’s issues and spoke to the students in attendance about a variety of topics including humor, women’s lives and gender issues in the workplace. She has appeared on a number of television shows and she lectures not only in the United States, but also around the world.

    Many different courses in varied disciplines are offered as a part of the program every semester. The Introduction to Women’s Studies course itself is a team-taught course including three professors, each with their own area of expertise: one history, one social science, and one literature. This course is a requirement for completion of the minor.

Sally Brasher taught the history overview section of the course in the fall semester of 2012 and will once again be involved in fall 2014. “I have…team-taught the…class and love doing so,” she said. “I think in these courses I learn as much as the students do. Our field trip to the women’s prison in [Jessup], Md. was one of the most interesting things I have done as a professor. I will be teaching that course again next fall with Dr. Dewitt and Dr. Hanrahan.” Beginning next fall, the course will be offered every fall semester and will continue to be team-taught.

    Other elective courses for the program vary greatly in subject matter including courses in communications, English, history, music, political science, psychology, sociology and social work. Many courses are included such as COMM 406 Advertising and Imagery, which has a focus on gender representations in mainstream advertising and what those mean to our society. Some examples of other courses are ENGL 336 Women in the Arts and Literature, PSCI 331 Race, Gender and Politics, and PSYC 320 Human Sexual Behavior.

    The program not only focuses on women’s issues but gender as a whole. Another required course is WMST 350, which is a seminar in women’s studies. This course has different content every time it is taught and can be repeated up to three times for credit. This course is offered every spring semester and is also a course that embraces the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

In Spring 2013, Ellzey taught the seminar course on the subject of LGBQT* representations in various forms of performance. The course focused on movies, such as the Hilary Swank film “Boys Don’t Cry,” which tells the real-life story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was beaten, raped, and murdered after male acquaintances discovered that he was anatomically female. Many other films and performances were taught in the course, including a trip to the University of Maryland College Park for a performance by the company directed by renowned modern dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones. The course culminated in a performance piece created by each student that in some way was influenced by LGBQT* issues.

    Another seminar course that has been offered was Brasher’s Women and World Religions. “The course explores the role of religion in the construction of gender,” Brasher said. “We look at religious traditions and beliefs from ancient polytheistic movements around the globe through the rise of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures. We also look at a variety of Asian belief systems including Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The course focuses on the historical developments of these religions with specific reference to their impact on women’s experiences.”

Students are generally happy with their experiences through the program. Senior English major Katy Cousino, who was involved in the LGBQT* seminar course, had praise as well as critique for the program: “The women’s studies program at Shepherd University is a program dedicated to preserving equality for all genders in understanding the evolution of sex, LGBQT* issues, the evils of misogynistic advertising, and, perhaps the most interesting to me as an English major, the women’s literary, centuries-old battle to have her voice heard. These are all areas of expertise I had the pleasure to dabble in, taught by various professors from a myriad of academic departments.” She continued, saying, “With all of this praise of the program, I must mention how important I believe trans* issues to be in the evolution of feminism in its fourth wave. Therefore, it would be an absolute dream if the women’s studies program could offer a course exposing trans* issues and teaching students to better understand gender equality and the importance of open, unembarrassed, feminist sexual education in America.”

Tai Sommers, also a senior English major and student in the LGBQT* seminar, had praise and ideas for improvement. “Dr. Ellzey and other professors in various departments have worked very hard to make the women studies/GSM [gender and sexual minorities] department a reality,” said Sommers, “but the pointed lack of staff, money, and upper-level administrative support is preventing the department from developing a full-on curriculum and major/minor schedule.”

The program is well on its way to being a major program on Shepherd’s campus. More and more students are open to gender studies and are embracing the idea of such a progressive program being a part of the campus community.

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