Women's Studies Classes and Their Influence on Student Development

By Macalister, Heather E. | Adolescence, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Women's Studies Classes and Their Influence on Student Development


Macalister, Heather E., Adolescence


College-level women's studies classes in the United States were first offered in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the intent of remediating academia's long-standing androcentrism (Brush, Gold, & White, 1978). Research and teaching were accused of being based on white, middle-class male perspectives and experiences, and women's studies-like its older relative, ethnic studies - presented an opportunity to explore traditional topics from alternative viewpoints. As the women's movement uncovered increasing evidence of bias in a variety of domains, its academic representatives began remediation by exposing bias in research and curricula, as well as by reexploring issues from a female perspective (Brush, Gold, & White, 1978). At that time, and throughout the 1980s, a primary goal was to integrate this more inclusive body of knowledge into traditional courses. Although the virtue of such an approach is apparent, women's studies classes are now recognized by feminist scholars as valuable in their own right and are expected to continue making independent contributions to students' education and development (National Women's Studies Association [NWSA], 1996).

The present paper explores how women's studies classes differ from traditional classes and how they contribute to student development. The literature on the structure and focus of women's studies classes is reviewed, and empirical findings regarding their influence on students are discussed. Finally, suggestions are made for future research on the influence of women's studies on students' psychological development.

STRUCTURE AND FOCUS OF WOMEN'S STUDIES CLASSES

Women's studies classes are found primarily in the same subject areas as traditional classes, such as psychology, history, and philosophy. However, the social construction of gender is a central theme. Further, gender is viewed as inextricable from race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, age, sexual orientation, and ability.

The previously marginalized perspectives of different women are moved to the center, which distinguishes women's studies classes from traditional ones (NWSA, 1996). Feminist philosophy is heavily reflected in these classes. Feminist scholars (e.g., Reinharz, 1992) contend that one cannot accurately speak for an "other"; to be properly understood, women's experiences must be provided by women, in their own words. Thus, there are no "facts," but rather the presentation of the individual's subjective perspective, which is open to critique, discussion, and new interpretation.

Traditional teaching methods are often abandoned in favor of alternative approaches to acquiring, framing, and transmitting information (NWSA, 1996). A primary method is personalized learning (Musil, 1992a). Students are encouraged to relate what they are learning in class to their personal lives. As the material becomes personally relevant, students gain an awareness of social constructions of gender, which can contribute to a sense of empowerment and a motivation to work toward change. Personalized learning is encouraged through subjective assignments, such as individual journals, collaborative projects, position papers, and practical applications of class material (NWSA, 1996).

Women's studies classes are typically characterized by a more cooperative learning environment than are traditional classes. Communion and dialogue are encouraged. Class seating is often arranged in a circle, removing the instructor from a physical position of dominance. The decentralization of authority in the classroom opens students to their own authority and to the realization that they can teach as well as learn. As a result, students can learn much more than the psychology or history of women; indeed, their personal and professional development may be profoundly influenced (NWSA, 1996).

Musil (1992a), reporting the findings from a multiple-institution assessment project, indicated that women's studies classes affect students in several ways. …

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