Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 24, 2020

University explains end of WGS Teaching Fellowships

By DIVA PAREKH | December 5, 2019

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Students expressed concerns about a future lack of future WGS courses.

Matthew Roller, the University’s vice dean for Graduate Education and Centers and Programs, informed Todd Shepard, director of the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS), in late October that the University had canceled the WGS Teaching Fellowships. 

Currently, WGS offers six teaching fellowships per year that third- through sixth-year graduate students in any department can apply for. Graduate students who are awarded the fellowships can teach undergraduate courses in feminist theory, queer theory, gender and sexuality, among other disciplines relevant to WGS.

WGS Teaching Fellowships classes will be offered for the last time during the upcoming spring semester, after which they will no longer be part of the course listings.

Jo Giardini, a fifth-year English PhD student, was awarded a WGS Teaching Fellowship for a course they will be teaching this upcoming spring. Giardini and other current and former WGS fellows wrote an open letter and created a petition calling for Roller and other administrators to reinstate the fellowships. The petition has 607 signatures as of press time.

Giardini explained that they were extremely distressed by this decision, particularly in light of national and international political movements including #MeToo and other movements surrounding trans life, visibility and representation which WGS Teaching Fellowships classes tend to explore. 

“This will dramatically, disproportionately affect both the teaching opportunities and the classroom opportunities for queer and trans students and women and feminist scholars,” they said. “It signals to me a real negation of the University’s responsibilities to its students, both undergraduate and graduate.”

Roller justified the deans’ decision to eliminate the WGS Teaching Fellowships in an email to The News-Letter.

“The WGS Fellowships provide inadequate support for graduate student instructors,” Roller wrote. “The stipend is too low, and there is no tuition remission or health insurance attached, as is generally required for graduate teaching fellowships.”

In April, Roller asked Shepard and Katrin Pahl, then-co-directors of the WGS program, to step down after serving as co-directors for seven years. He explained that this decision was made because the WGS program needed a change, with which Shepard and Pahl agreed.

However, Roller explained that the deans were unable to find new WGS-affiliated faculty members to take on the role. Shepard explained that he was asked to serve as interim director for the 2018-19 academic year and told that if he did not accept, the WGS program would have to be put on hold. 

Even if he did accept, Shepard added, he was told that the Teaching Fellowships would be eliminated regardless.

“I don’t understand the decision fully, and I don’t think it was the right move. I don’t think it was based on attention to what the fellowship program has done to serve students in ways that are difficult to reproduce via other means,” Shepard said. “There’s no immediate way to fill these courses or to make up for these courses right now.”

Giardini explained that though undergraduate students can choose to minor in WGS, the University doesn’t offer graduate students an option to specialize in WGS studies, since WGS is not an independent department. Consequently, Giardini added, the only way for graduate students to show future employers that they were affiliated with WGS studies would be through the WGS Teaching Fellowships.

Giardini emphasized that the WGS Teaching Fellowships program has given them the opportunity to develop an original course that doesn’t necessarily fall within the boundaries of their primary department. 

Their course, titled Family Matters: Queer and Feminist Responses to Family Life, will explore 150-200 years worth of feminist and queer writing.

“It will focus on interrogating and challenging perceived notions of family structure,” Giardini said. “The hope is that the course will provide a historical overview of the development of feminist and queer theory while also providing a lens into changing ideas about family as they relate to a number of different critical questions centered around same-sex romance and marriage, surrogacy and questions of race.”

Another way for graduate students to create and independently teach classes is the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship (DTF). Giardini looked into both the DTF and the WGS Teaching Fellowships and found that the WGS Teaching Fellowships offered them significantly more support than the DTF would have.

They outlined some of the primary differences between the DTF and the WGS Teaching Fellowships program.

“DTF classes first of all go through a graduate student’s home department, so they are judged based on how they fit the needs of that department, which are always going to be slightly different than those of WGS,” they said. 

Giardini noted that DTF applications are reviewed by a multidisciplinary committee whose members are often unfamiliar with WGS courses’ material.

“Very often you’re required to not actually discuss the choices you’ve made for your course and syllabus relative to the field it’s immersed in, but you actually have to justify the existence of the field itself to someone who is outside it,” they said.

Giardini felt that the WGS Teaching Fellowships process was more supportive and transparent than DTF’s.

Roller, however, disagreed. According to him, the DTF supports student instructors significantly better than the WGS Teaching Fellowships program.

“I cannot imagine why courses with WGS-related themes offered through the DTF channel should be any less varied or engaging than the courses WGS has offered via its fellows program. In fact, over the past decade WGS has cross-listed upwards of 20 DTF courses that were entirely unrelated to the program’s fellowship courses — roughly one per semester on average,” Roller wrote. “So the program has benefited regularly and for a long time from precisely these kinds of courses.” 

He added that if the WGS program believes that the absence of the fellowship will leave a gap in the course offerings, the program could simply have faculty members teach those courses.

“A search is currently on for a new tenure-track faculty member to be specifically associated with WGS. This person, and others associated with the program, could potentially teach the current WGS Fellow-taught courses if the program leadership decides that exactly these courses must be taught,” Roller wrote. “This is what already happens, and has always happened, with every other interdisciplinary major and minor in the School of Arts and Sciences.”

Shepard, however, highlighted the unique position of WGS Teaching Fellowships courses, noting that the categories they focus on are of particular importance to undergraduate students who are away from home and entering a space of critical thought for the first time, especially in today’s political environment.

“The courses we’re interested in offering don’t presume that women are just a category that we can use or that gender just exists or that sexuality is just self-evident,” Shepard said. “They’re about teaching students and ourselves how to think about these categories, why they matter so much and why thinking about them critically can be helpful.”

He emphasized the importance of courses that are specifically taught and created by graduate students. Shepard explained that graduate students are more connected to undergraduate concerns and questions than tenured faculty members would be. 

He noted that this is because undergraduates and graduates tend to be closer in age and in more similar stages of life.

“Graduate students are a little more in touch with what’s happening in the world and what’s affecting themselves and their students than faculty members whose work is part of a longer trajectory that they’ve been doing since graduate school,” Shepard said. “It’s an opportunity for graduate students to really seize that moment to see what’s new, what’s interesting and what’s meaningful.”

Shepard added, however, that there has been a shift in the conversation about the WGS Teaching Fellowships based on the petition, the open letter and the WGS town hall on Nov. 13 where Hopkins community members voiced their concerns to Roller.

He felt that though the deans seem interested in rethinking some of their original assumptions, there is a very small chance that they will reestablish the fellowship program in its original form. 

However, Shepard still hopes that with student and faculty input, the WGS program and the deans will be able to arrive at a compromise that allows some version of the fellowship program to continue.

For Shepard, the student response to the administration’s decision to cut the WGS Teaching Fellowships was particularly moving.

“The town hall and the open letter were so eloquent and really meaningful to me and to other faculty members who have been involved in the program,” he said. “We knew that our students were incredibly thoughtful, smart and analytically insightful, and that was on display, but they were also particularly energized and engaged in what the program and fellowship had been able to offer to them.”

Isadora Schaller, a student at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), took several WGS teaching fellowship classes during her time at Homewood. 

She identified Beyond the Global West: Gender/Sexuality, Post-colonialism & Global Capitalism: Feminist Inquiries from Asian Perspectives as a course that particularly influenced her view of gender politics and international development in Asia.

“This course in particular provided me with a solid foundation in this region, and in graduate school I find myself frequently referring to the syllabus from this course (and other WGS fellowship courses) to enrich my current course of study,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

According to sophomore WGS minor Elena Taylor, the elimination of the teaching fellowships will create additional strain on an already overextended program. She explained that faculty members who teach WGS courses always have other primary departments that they also need to focus on. 

Taylor added that she signed the petition and believes that it is crucial to show administrators that students are upset with their decision to cut WGS teaching fellowships.

“The WGS graduate Teaching Fellowships provided an incredible opportunity for WGS students to study aspects of the field that are not covered in the core curriculum,” she said. “The decision to cut the teaching fellowships shows a lack of support for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community and will limit my and my peers’ ability to have rich courses that explore important WGS issues.”

Aashna Sundesha contributed reporting.

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