A student-led initiative, years in the making, is now gaining momentum. In about two years, LSA students could see a dramatic change to their University curriculum.
A group of students are pushing for a course requirement for gender and sexuality issues, similar to the race and ethnicity requirement. The requirement would mandate LSA students take three credits of classes addressing these issues. Students would still need 120 credits to graduate, but the new requirement would not replace the race and ethnicity one. It could also count for a student’s distribution requirement.
The group, called the Gender and Sexuality Requirement Committee, is presenting its proposal to LSA social science department chairs today. Earlier this week, the committee recommended the proposal to women’s studies faculty members. The students hope to address the LSA curriculum committee early next semester, which is the first step to getting the approval of all LSA faculty.
“A Gender and Sexuality requirement will create new dialogues, challenge hegemonic discourse, break taboos and stigmas, and open up realms of communication between all students,” states the students’ proposal, slowly being circulated among LSA faculty members. The plan would incorporate a wide swathe of issues, from classes on “Hollywood Masculinity” to those on gender and health.
The requirement would not be implemented until the fall 2006 term at the earliest. The committee has worked to create a student-led movement supporting the changes. Members say that to the to the best of their knowledge, this is the first time students have pushed for a curriculum requirement in recent years. Last year, the students circulated petitions and collected about 1,000 signatures, LSA senior and committee co-chair Catheryn Malczynski said.
“This isn’t some activist process,” because the group is working within the bureaucratic process LSA senior and co-chair Laura Cederberg said.
Group leaders stressed that taking a women’s studies class is not the only way to satisfy the requirement. They have compiled a list of about 40 courses from this semester that would satisfy the requirement. Possible departments include: American culture, communications, English, film and video studies, history, history of art, political science, organizational studies, the Residential College, sociology and women’s studies.
“Michigan is obviously dedicated to promoting diversity. We have one of the best women’s studies departments in the country, and there are classes within the race and ethnicity requirement that focus on gender and sexuality,” said LSA alum Avra Siegel, one of the students who started the initiative a few years ago.
“They’re recognizing the need to study these issues indirectly, but they’re not making it official,” she added.
When the student committee presented its proposal to women’s studies faculty on Monday, they received “a mixed bag of emotions,” Cederberg said. Faculty members were concerned that the requirement would focus only on women’s issues. They also expressed concern that the requirement would overrun the small department with students who did not want to be there, sacrificing the intimate academic environment the program cherishes.
While Cederberg said these are valid concerns, the academic advantages offset any problems the requirement would cause. “These are not issues that pertain to just a small group of people who can study them,” she said. “This should not be exclusive.”
“There’s a lot of education that’s mandated and required that you might not agree with at all,” Cederberg said. “You can take it or leave it in these classes, but people need to be exposed.”
Because the requirement would function like the race and ethnicity, student activists often compare the two. In the early ‘90s, faculty members campaigned for the race and ethnicity requirement, citing racial violence as one reason for it. The proposal eventually passed, but only after a failed attempt and contentious discussions.
Unlike the race and ethnicity requirement, no particular event spurred students to act on adding the new requirement. To the group’s leaders, gender issues permeate everyday life, and part of a liberal arts education is to raise consciousness of these matters.
But recent political affairs have added a sense of urgency to their cause, group members said. Ballot initiatives and court cases concerning gay marriage and possible challenges to abortion rights have brought issues of gender and sexuality to the nation’s forefront.
“Those are the kinds of things that we think are very important today and that people should be educated on, like they are educated on race and ethnicity,” Malczynski said.
Given the outcome of the gay marriage amendment in Michigan, there is an increased need to study these issues, group members said. “You can gain so much more insight into the way the world works,” Siegal said. “I think they are essential to gaining a holistic liberal arts framework.”
But the passage of Proposal 2 banning gay marriage and similar unions in November may indicate that the public is not receptive to studying sexuality.
“The reason to be pessimistic is, again, this is a state school,” Malczynski said. “With the way the gay marriage proposal turned out, it showed a lot of homophobia and that people might not be willing to do this.”
Considering these hurdles and the mild reaction from the women’s studies faculty, the committee is considering other options. One involves requiring students to take six credits split between gender and sexuality classes and race and ethnicity classes. In another option, the group would push for gender and sexuality requirements within majors — a number of programs have these, including American Culture.
“As far as the actual requirement goes, there’s definitely a lot of thought that needs to get done,” Cederberg sad.
Because the student committee’s two co-chairs are currently seniors, the group is actively recruiting sophomores and freshmen, mainly because the initiative could take years to implement.