In this essay, I intend to investigate the role of Women's Studies Classes/Departments in Universities, laying arguments that should be broad enough that they apply to other Group's Studies classes. The question comes from a perceived incompatibility between the advocacy and/or normative roles of such fields with some of the goals of a university.
In my undergrad, I took some classes by the Women's Studies department, partly out of curiosity, and partly because I liked having a good discussion on topics that mattered. Growing up in a mixed liberal-conservative family with three younger sisters, and then having friends in middle/high school that were various kinds of liberal, libertarian, or apolitical, and being a libertarian (with a few very non-libertarian views that I hadn't resolved yet), I had opinions on the topic but wanted to hear more opinions and have some good arguments. I think at the time I felt that it was acceptable to have laws requiring non-discrimination in the workplace, but I opposed affirmative action.
My Women's Studies experiences in college, and corrisponding experiences with activists, were complicated and enriching. Academic disciplines were crossed frequently in an exploration of oppression, theories about gender and race, and analysis of particular criticisms of society that came from the feminist communities. There was some amount of pushing of theory that came from the classes, but we could engage with it as part of socratic learning. There was also some normativity in the classes, but I later experienced much more with my experiences with various parts of feminist/bi-ga-la activism, which were among the least tolerant people I had met. For the curious, the textbook I most remember was Reading Women's Lives; it was a collection of topical intros and essays, some nuts, many others worth reading.
For a contrast to the Studies departments (that probably should exclude the American Studies field that preceded most of the rest), Moscow University, among a handful of other places, has a Conservative Studies department; there have been calls to have programmes of that sort set up more commonly in the United States. These are relevant in that they help us think about the issues inherent in a Studies department; should we be suspicious of them?
More broadly, the question should be, do Studies departments work from subjective (and essentially political/sectarian) theories, are they normative, and/or does their work amount to advocacy beyond that traditionally associated with academia (in brief: promotion of culture and science)? Are definitions that a department might assume that venture into the normative (e.g. Queer studies versions of gender theory, or as an outside example the axioms of modern economics), either directly (this is true) or less directly (this is important), problematic? Thought experiments to discuss the underlying values are not difficult to imagine; were we to imagine a women's studies department that asked questions like "why do people seek to depart from their natural role in society, and when in their life do they begin to do so?", or other such foreign norms. This is not to indicate a personal stance on this matter (and I do reject the labelling of traditional gender-normativity as natural), but my rejection of such is based on my values, and should advancing values like mine be the role of academia? Is a university an advocacy institution, and ifso should we be funding them the way we do?
There are issues with a flat-out acceptance of universities as advocacy institutions. First, it may interfere with their other roles directly; institutional value-commitments easily interfere with questions of fact that the research side of universities are committed to. It is possible for individuals and groups to deal with hard questions and inconvenient facts, but it is much easier to do so when their commitment to facts comes first, and particularly when the institutional culture they work in effectively asks that values either stay at home or act as a distant second to truth-concerns (even if some means of seeking truth, e.g. the ethics of some research methods, are questionable, the questions asked by the research are askable without condemnation). Second, it reduces public trust in universities as an instution by making reasonable objections to a university connection through instutitional value-commitments. Right now there are (mostly) illegitimate complaints along these lines from various parts of society; giving reality to their claims lessens academia. Third, it threatens to sectarianise universities, either between university departments or between universities; either a university or a certain department, if performing advocacy, would become attached to certain theories (in the non-scientific sense) and clash with rival theories. Clashes are not intrinsically unhealthy, but in areas where there is no underlying set of facts (just a value configuration) and where calm aesthetic arguments are not a norm that keeps the temperature low (e.g. moral philosophy departments), this seems hazardous without benefit. Fourth, the more involved in advocacy, the more difficult it is to retain a commitment to truth, and thus the more damaging to academic standards this kind of activity would be. The light separation in various fields when more than one broad scientific theory might be valid is damaging enough; having, say, Democrat and Republican studies imports the low quality discourse from broader society into academia and makes cross-peer-review very unlikely, and just as in mainstream society but possibly moreso with specialised scholars, once full intellectual speciation is complete, the broken-off communities easily lose ties to reality (it is through efforts to engage the mainstream, and on a smaller level with others in general, that we remain sane).
If advocacy is a problem, perhaps we could avoid being normative in Studies departments, or at least not be so normative that the enterprise breaks. This could be challenging because of how academia works; once something is a department (and later recognised as a field with its own journals), it develops its own methods and cliques, and those are continually shaped by the people who enter that branch of academia. What would a good culture for academics working in a Studies field look like? Activists? With what degree of pluralism? The closest model I know of that might work would be in a field like political philosophy, where professors generally have a known and very public opinion, and there's considerable diversity between such professors (even as a department in a university often has a strong bias between at least continental or analytic philosophy). For those departments to work, one expects a willingness to calmly engage with different positions; something often alien to social justice movements. The departments ideally would always have several members who do not belong to the topic of the Studies, they would primarily focus on factual matters and surveys, they would incorporate critical voices (both of the existence of and the specific theories of the oppressions they're partly about, as well as the positive expressions of any communities they touch on), and they would otherwise be aware of and seek to avoid normativity. Whatever frameworks they might decide to use, they would not treat as given facts so much as challengable tools for thinking/structure.
Apart from guidelines for Studies departments per se, we could have the classes without a department, and perhaps without dedicated academic journals either. By being interdisciplinary, and by having the standards for such research set externally (by history departments, or sociology, or so on), the explicit advocacy that one sees in the field would be tempered by the standards of the other, non-topically-devoted fields; contact with mainstream (or at least outside) research would keep academic standards high and hopefully preserve challenges to the dominant values and frameworks (for example, Critical Theory) used in Studies departments. Additionally, not granting degrees in Studies fields would further limit the advocacy culture while permitting academic study of the relevant topics to continue, and would still fit well into outside-the-major general curricula that Universities typically require some credits in for people to graduate.
The goal of this work is not to eliminate Studies as topics in Universities. Universities are not primarily tools to prepare people for employment; they have a role to play in making people better citizens by exposing them to ideas and perspectives that will enrich the rest of their lives. Some of this is a partial antidote to the cultural ill of suburbs (or other monocultures), and some of it is to do the international counterpart of this. College is also helpful in providing accidental exposure to activism that differs from the cultural norms from wherever one's from (equally true of the country and city). Many people have no exposure to feminism, racial conflict, or other parts of the modern world before university, and losing the opportunity for that would be unfortunate. What we should hope to see is vibrant student groups performing activism and debates on these topics, with relatively non-normative scholarship on these topics happening in classes. Departments should be willing to host debates and otherwise act as a stage for this kind of learning and exposure, but there should be reasonably clear lines between that and classroom content.
I originally intended this to be much longer, but I am getting bad about starting essays that I never finish; I may return to this with a much-expanded restatement.