School for Cultural and Social Transformation Challenges Views

By Broderick Sterrett

This upcoming Fall semester will signify the first full year of the newly instituted School for Cultural and Social Transformation — a joint effort of the Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies program. The reasoning behind this shift at the University of Utah was more administrative than anything else. As independent departments, rather than just programs under the College of Social and Behavioral Science, these studies will be able to administer their own hiring, tenure, curriculum and even graduation ceremonies. The administrative and institutional restructuring has been covered before in The Daily Utah Chronicle’s piece, Gender and Ethnic Studies Form New School, by Rachel Folland. However, I didn’t know what that meant for students. What should students expect from this new school?

We do live in an identity politics world today, where it is not only common but expected to critically engage in topics like race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. whenever possible. Few of us have considered dedicating our education to such topics though, so I was surprised when I learned a whole new school within the U was instituted for these programs. As I interviewed the directors of each of these studies, Susie Porter (Gender) and Ed A Munoz (Ethnic), and the Dean of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, Kathryn Stockton, I found that my initial doubt about this new school was based on my lack of knowledge of what it means to be a part of either program.

For starters, these are real majors. It’s easy to dismiss these studies as soft majors or tag-on majors when you’re not face-to-face with the directors of these same programs. Very similar to other majors (like those in the Humanities), what the Gender and Ethnic Studies lack in hard skills they excel in interdisciplinary thought. The claim that either program is a soft major is dismissed by Munoz as “totally myth, because these are not novel ideas…it’s been going on for over 40 years and even before the Civil Rights Movement there was a call for Ethnic Studies, and Gender Studies as well.” Both are distinct and legitimate fields of study, but they also see the versatility their subjects lend to other programs. “Even today, the Engineering, the Medical, the Law schools all see the need and importance for an Ethnic Studies curriculum, or a more well-rounded curriculum.” Same goes with Porter, Director of Gender Studies, “I think it really depends on where you want to go as a student. If you want to go to graduate school there are programs that are solely in Gender Studies and so getting a degree in Gender Studies would move you perfectly in that direction, giving you that interdisciplinary base to apply to leading programs where you might get a MA or PhD in Gender Studies…there are some career goals where having a Gender Studies minor in addition to a central discipline would be more appropriate.” For Stockton, the value in these programs lies with the questions these topics inspire. “The issues that we are discussing are so much a part of how people live and present and love in the world in a way which is deeply connected to other people in your life.”

But there is more to the school than just feminist theories and Latinx history. Stockton’s overall goal with any student that becomes part of the programs, whether for a semester or degree, is for transformation. “Our society is always changing, so in that sense transformation is happening all around us and we’re studying those transformations taking place…by raising new questions [and] studying different types of text…that in itself is transformational. Even just to encounter an idea, even if it’s one you aren’t going to believe in or accept, may be a way of transforming a space.” Following that, I asked her about the reception to opposing viewpoints considering these courses may very well be dominated by liberal students, leaving conservatives or those with unpopular opinions left out. She assured that all viewpoints were welcomed: “Our classes are completely open to whomever wants to come and wants to study these materials. I have personally taught students from every possible standpoint, worldview, background, demographic and that is actually the joy of teaching. Let’s raise a set of ideas to you and then you tell me where you sit with these ideas, what isn’t making sense with these ideas, fight with these ideas, come back at me…What I have always found crucial, in terms of teaching, is that what we’re doing is raising possibilities — there is no top-down answer.” In essence, the school will value open dissent and debate regardless of what ideological affiliation a student brings to the class. There are no definitive answers in these topics, but as Dean she is confident that these programs will lead to informed action.  After all, “to act we must think…we want to think with you.”

I asked both Directors of the Gender and Ethnic Studies about how they see their departments expanding in the next five years. Porter said, “one of the things we want to do is create a coherent path through community engaged learning and internship opportunities for students. We have some great classes where students can take in-classroom learning and apply it to practical circumstances…and take those out of the classroom experiences and reflect on what they learned in the classroom based on those experiences…we want to build on that.”

According to Munoz, “we see our majors growing in numbers, we also want to develop a graduate program within Ethnic Studies…maybe a combined Masters degree between Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies…and we also think we can team up with other academic units on campus. In five years I see us as being even more of a major player on campus than what we are right now.”

[email protected]