The Interdisciplinary Seminar in Women’s Studies: A Student Reflection
—Peter McLellan, GDR Student
This past fall, my first as a PhD student in New Testament and Early Christianity at Drew Theological School, I took the Interdisciplinary Seminar in Women’s Studies, which was team-taught by Professors Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Traci West. I am not the most obvious candidate to write this article on the experience of taking this course. After all, I spent much of our sessions silent. Certainly, I spoke up to the degree I felt necessary, but as I have experienced in past courses in any sort of gender and race studies as a well-educated, progressively-oriented, male-identified poststructuralist, my struggle to engage further in class discussion was driven by an anxiety over speaking as a straight white man in an explicitly decolonizing space. In the end, what could I say with confidence and certainty anyway in response to any of the pieces in Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating’s This Bridge We Call Home? Was there a way for me to speak in the face of Musa Dube’s African postcolonial feminist biblical scholarship, so different from my own projects in New Testament studies from a white North American experience? Indeed, my paralysis was further amplified by the diversity and vibrant intellects of my peers, whose own academic and activist pursuits—so intertwined—constructed a critically intersectional space each Tuesday afternoon. Such a space, however, also allowed me to embody our discursive struggles, even in my silence, and subsequently explore my own gendered subjectivity. And I found therein the value of this seminar: a constant and active relationality, conversation and struggle incessantly negotiating differences, a process whereby I was forced to break down my own subjectivity as New Testament scholar, as poststructuralist, and as man.
I am well aware that fear over speaking in the classroom is not an unusual experience for the first year PhD student, but while performance anxiety may have seized me in other classes this semester, my silence in the women’s studies seminar was of a different sort. Certainly, the sheer volume of authors, texts, and theories to which we were introduced this fall was incredible. Yet, these encounters with notions of intersectionality, standpoint theories, womanist scholarship, and posthumanist feminisms were notable particularly for the ways each of us students embodied these discussions. In fact, we carried them further as peers from differing lands of origin, gender identities, sexualities, and ages engaged with one another through our discourse. Indeed, for someone like myself, so taken by theory in general, to say something—anything—in the face of so much difference and intense intellectual negotiation felt impossible in the most Levinasian sort of way.
In other words, the intensity of this seminar, with its theoretical volume and complexities, forced us as students to both examine and construct intersectional subjectivity, an endeavor which required a dismantling of our own selves, importantly including our gender identities. And I recognized early in the semester the degree to which I might lose myself in this experience. Our participation was a risk, to be sure, as we were forced to lose ourselves in the lives of our fellow scholars. Gender was simply a vehicle for the conversation.
All of this is to say that I internalized our discussions with one another as colleagues and with texts and authors, allowing them to reconstruct my own white masculinity. I would not say that before this semester I was unaware of the situated and constituted character of gender identities—to the contrary, I was quite conscious of the phenomenon—but the intensity of our in and out of class discourse forced me to experience it more profoundly. In fact, I was, perhaps for the first time, aware of my gender identity’s own construction as a process; my own body was under negotiation. Such consciousness would not have happened, I believe, without the diversity of my peers and their commitment to an academically responsible and ethical conversation. Through a classroom atmosphere both intellectually and interpersonally intense, as well as a syllabus that demanded constant engagement, I became re-aware of my own gender identity only in relationship to those with whom I was in relationship, so diverse and so intertwined.