Queering the curriculum

Students criticize lack of intersectionality, cohesiveness in queer studies

Written by Ralph Haddad and Chantelle Schultz | Photo by Sonia Ionescu

Last semester, from April 1 to 14, Women‘s Studies and Sexual Diversity Studies Student Association (WSSA) members went on strike to protest austerity measures. In an open letter regarding the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies‘ (IGSF) response to the strike, published on April 4, the WSSA Strike Mobilization Committee pointed to the broader issue of the IGSF‘s position as “a small, underfunded, and undervalued institute at McGill.”

The IGSF houses McGill‘s Sexual Diversity Studies (SDS) minor, the only queer studies program at McGill. In recent years, professors and students alike have raised criticisms of the undervaluing of queer studies – academic studies relating to queerness and sexuality – at McGill, both within and outside of the IGSF.

Delaney, Stu, and Grace, collective members at the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE), spoke to The Daily about this inadequacy of queer studies classes at McGill. “We see a definite lack of [queer studies at McGill]. While there is a class about queer theory specifically offered this fall (WMST 302) and it is incorporated into most Women‘s Studies classes, it is not pervasive throughout the various McGill majors,” they wrote in an email.

Professors also recognize the inadequacy of current course offerings on identity politics such as queer studies. Speaking to the state of queer studies at McGill, Jon Soske, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies, wrote in an email to The Daily, “In my conversations with many students, I repeatedly hear that there is a deep anger that both the faculty and the program offerings at McGill do not adequately reflect and speak to the diversity of McGill‘s student body.”

Another professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies, Brian Lewis, however, told The Daily, “I think queer studies have made impressive strides since a group of us established the SDS minor a decade ago. [...] We now have a flourishing program.” Lewis co-chaired the working group that campaigned for the minor, which was created in 2005.

Soske instead emphasized the need for a different kind of solution in the face of limited resources. “Historically, faculty members have tried to respond to [the need for more diverse courses] by developing separate undergraduate programs (African Studies, Sexual Diversity Studies) that have then struggled due to inadequate resources, both financial and human. This response has clearly proven inadequate. As faculty members, we need to work closely with students to develop more creative responses to a situation that has reached the point of crisis,” he said.

Limited course offerings in SDS minor

The IGSF, which was created in 2009 in part to address the lack of attention given to gender and sexuality studies within the Faculty of Arts, still only regularly offers one class on queer theory each academic year, SDST 250 (Introduction to Sexual Diversity Studies). Other classes dedicated to queer theory are offered as irregular, special topics courses. This year, for example, there is one such course, WMST 302 (Women‘s Studies Current Topics 2: Queer Theory).

SDST 250 is the only required course for the minor, and the remaining credits toward the minor are complementary classes in other departments, or SDST 450 (Independent Reading & Research), and SDST 499 (Internship: Sexual Diversity Studies).

Heather, a U3 student with an SDS minor, spoke to The Daily about her experience taking the complementary classes. “You‘re entering these classes that are having discussions about queer issues, about sexual diversity. But for most of them [...] it‘s still like that entry 101 level, just from a different lens. [...] And that gets really, really redundant,” she said in an interview. “There‘s no deepening of the content you‘re looking at. [...] It‘s just such a shame that there isn‘t a follow-up [SDST course to SDST 250].”

Alanna Thain, the current director of the IGSF, echoed the need for more in-depth classes on queerness in the institute. “There is a strong need for courses dedicated to queer studies [...] beyond tacking on a ‘week on queer issues‘ to other content,” she told The Daily in an email.

“I really would love there to be more of a cohesive network,” said Heather. “Because it does feel scattered, and it feels like an afterthought of a minor.”

Omar, a U2 Economics student, wrote in an email to The Daily that he decided not to minor in SDS because he found the selection of queer studies courses offered to be very limited. Echoing Heather, Omar also noted that classes often focus too much on a general overview of available theory. “Even if they are more specialized, they are typically theoretical and don‘t go in depth on pressing, real-world examples that are happening in today‘s society.”

The need for intersectionality

Students have criticized how queer studies courses at McGill are isolated within the IGSF, and that, both within the IGSF and in other departments, courses lack in intersectionality.

For Lewis, “courses rooted in departments will continue to be the way forward. [...] As long as departments hire new people who will be able to contribute new courses, we can continue to expand the program.” Lewis pointed to HIST 433 (British Queer History), which he teaches, and HIST 431 (Topics in U.S. History: Queer America), which is taught by Shanon Fitzpatrick this year, as examples.

However, a U3 History student, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily that queer studies classes at McGill need to be more intersectional. “We can‘t just look for professors who are interested in queer studies. It‘s just not enough. They also need to be interested in other structural issues in the world.”

He also spoke about the lack of queer studies classes that engage with race. “I don‘t want to learn about gay white people all the time,” he said.

Pointing to structural issues, he noted that a few professors are offering more critical and intersectional courses, but that these professors do so solely because of their own interest, instead of department mandates that require intersectionality, and thus “a disproportionate amount of labour falls onto these people.”

Heather agreed that queer studies courses outside the IGSF present a limited perspective on queerness. “The history classes that apply [to the SDS minor] that I‘ve taken, yes, in a word have been white and Western,” she said. Given that these non-IGSF classes make up a large portion of the courses that can count toward the SDS minor, this translates into a lack of intersectionality in the minor itself.

In terms of concrete solutions, the anonymous History student suggested “forcing departments to change their course offerings.” He said, “Stop offering courses like U.S. 18-whatever to 2000 [...] and replace that with Queer America. [...] I don‘t think that‘s a ridiculous request.”

In their email, the UGE collective members pointed to the lack of trans studies as separate from queer studies at McGill. “Oftentimes, trans theory is grouped in with either queer or feminist theory. This grouping is reductionist to the fact that trans and queer are distinctly separate identities and theories, which at times have the capacity to overlap,” they said.

When asked why they think there is a lack of queer studies across all departments at McGill, they responded, “Queer education inherently questions norms. When people start to question norms, that destabilizes systems. McGill is built by and for oppressive capitalist systems that aim to educate and train workers to participate [in these systems] and perpetuate them.”

Resource allocation and budget cuts

Speaking to the effects of budget cuts on the institute, Claire Michela, the administrative and student affairs coordinator at the IGSF, explained that, every March, the institute applies to the University to teach a certain number of courses. “Sometimes [they] allow us to offer a bunch of courses, and sometimes not so many. This year we‘re actually offering a lot.”

In an email to The Daily, Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts Hudson Meadwell pointed to the addition of a new tenure-track position shared between the IGSF and the Department of Art History and Communication Studies as a sign of progress. “Queer theory is one of several areas that is emphasized in the advertisement for the position. [...] This hire in the IGSF is significant. It is occurring in the face of budget cuts imposed on the University by the provincial government,” Meadwell said.

Thain, however, voiced persisting concerns about the cuts. “We have all felt that impact, in particular how [austerity] has limited our ability to offer a wider variety of topics courses, and of course, I wish we could offer a wider variety of courses on a regular basis to address the many ways that we look at questions of sexual diversity within our teaching programs,” Thain said.

Merely having a minor, Heather added, is not enough – in fact, she suggested, praising the existence of the SDS minor can be a tactic to hide the work that still needs to be done. “No one‘s looking necessarily into the fact that these minors don‘t have the resources or professors or classes they need to exist,” she said. “[McGill] can check that box [by having the minor] but then also not do the work of incorporating these topics or these studies into their main classes that do have the resources and aren‘t struggling.”

Some queer studies courses offered in the Winter 2016 semester:

RELG 271Sexual Ethics
RELG 356Gender & Sexuality in Hinduism
WMST 402 New Directions in Sexuality and Gender: Sex and the Political Imaginary