An Inclusive Litany


Arianne R. Cohen '03 justifies her course of academic study at some length in Harvard magazine, March-April 2002:
I can't explain what I study at Harvard.

I am a women's-studies concentrator. After a two-year stint of floating through five large academic departments while regularly switching concentrations and trying to fulfill premedical requirements, I have—to put it mildly—seen all that Harvard has to offer. And I love women's studies.

For the first time in my life, I am actually engaged with my studies. I enjoy writing papers....

Unfortunately, liking one's field and being able to explain what one studies are two different things. I generally try to hedge the topic, but inevitably a fellow student will ask what my concentration is. I usually respond straightforwardly: "I am a women's-studies concentrator." But Harvard students tend to be audacious, persistent, and intellectually questioning people:

"So, what exactly do you study in women's studies?"

"I study gender studies ... it's much more than just women."

"Well, what besides women do you study?"

"Um, well, take gender, for example. The construction of gender is intimately attached to race, religion, class, and a myriad of other identity markers, and can't be isolated into one academic vault. It's broad." ...

So what exactly do I study? I am currently taking five courses in four departments. As in any small concentration, only a few courses are offered each semester, so students actively seek classes in other departments. Maximum freedom results and students develop their own courses of learning, essentially studying what they choose (within reason)....

Still, explaining that I do my studies falls far short of explaining what I study.

I was pondering this dilemma over coffee late one night, after a phone call in which an old friend had denounced my concentration as "pointless."

"Why," he asked, "did you ever leave government?"

In a fruitless attempt to change topics, I countered by arguing, "You just don't get it"—a line of reasoning [sic] that, since its entrance into my pubescent vocabulary eight years ago, has inevitably gotten me nowhere. Luckily, friend and fellow women's-studies concentrator Laure "Voop" Vulpillères happened by just as I hung up. I figured that this lofty senior, a four-year women's-studies veteran, would definitely have answers to my troubles.

"Voop, how do you explain women's studies when people ask?"

"That's so annoying! I can never explain it, especially to my mom."

"Okaaay, so if someone were to say, 'Voop, what do you study in school?' what would you say?"

"I don't know. I usually just try to change the subject as quickly as possible ... whatever we study is really interesting though—why, what do you say?"

"Whatever I say, I end up sounding militant. So I try to say as little as possible."

"Yeah, me too. It's a bummer... hey, after I graduate, can you stay in school for a long time and keep studying women's studies, so you can tell me what to read?"

"Um, yeah, sure, for one more year anyway."

So there you have it: Neither of us has any idea of exactly how to explain what it is that we study, yet we both want to continue studying it forever. So, we continue to study away, saying very little, but enjoying ourselves immensely.

After Voop departed the room, I pondered for a while before telephoning a joint history of science/women's-studies concentrator to help me cope with my inability to explain my academic program. She recalled venting similar concerns in a meeting with a professor. The professor responded helpfully that "women's studies is not a field. It's an area of interest."

My friend went on to explain that women's studies applies to any field. In history of science, it explains how science has created and enforced its own definitions of sex and gender in society. In literature, it examines how various authors portray women and men in different historical moments and, by extension, the changing social construction of gender in society over time. In social studies, it analyzes the gender-based power dynamics of various political theories, and how these theories translate into the daily lives of both sexes. In essence, women's studies is looking at how gender operates in society across many different disciplines, while providing students with analytic tools that apply to any power dynamic. To me, this made sense.

I thanked my fellow student profusely for this explanation, and called Voop to tell her the good news. She was thrilled....

For my own purposes, I use women's studies in reference to my future profession (and current avocation), writing.... [T]hrough the process of intellectually tracing the position of women and gender in various social circumstances, I have learned how to trace the lines of power in any circumstance. It's like a lens with which to scrutinize any situation and instantly see what is happening on multiple planes. This ability is infinitely valuable to a fledgling writer, for whom the capacity to take common information and quickly see an interesting story spells the difference between success and failure....

This is why I love women's studies: because it has become a pivotal piece of my path to writing renown by teaching me how to think in a manner equally applicable to academia and the real world.

In the end, has this new knowledge helped me come up with a succinct answer to the ever-bothersome question, "What exactly do you study?" Not in the slightest....

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