Season 4, Episode 7: An interdisciplinary discipline: How women’s studies connects topics beyond gender
Politics, socio-cultural climates, oppression, and anti-racism are all disciplines that come into play in a women’s and gender studies course. But Maki Motapanyane, an associate professor in Mount Royal’s department of women’s and gender studies, takes the conversation beyond readings and lectures and asks her students to position themselves within the context of the issues.
Meg Wilcox: (00:00)
I’m Meg Wilcox and this is teaching strides MRU faculty daring greatly. What do anti-racism, feminist theory, and anti-oppression have in common? A lot, but in this case, they all live in a Mount Royal classroom. Dr. Maki Motapanyane is an associate professor in MRU’s department of women and gender studies. But her classes, they range beyond lectures and encourage students to engage in self-understanding and positioning themselves within the content rather than just being observers of it. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today.
Thanks for joining me.
Maki Motapanyane: (00:37)
Thank you for having me.
Meg Wilcox: (00:39)
So you teach what you call a dialogue style course. What exactly does that mean?
Maki Motapanyane: (00:45)
Well, within the history of the discipline in which I research and teach, which is women’s and gender studies; so the history of that area as an academic discipline is. What’s interesting about it is, it is an academic area that comes out of a social movement and that makes it a little bit different than some of the other disciplinary traditions. So the first introduction of a women’s studies course or courses on women’s history or women writers for instance, in the context of English departments, the push for that came out of the feminist movement and the women’s liberation movement in the United States and Canada. So that’s a really interesting historical trajectory for an academic discipline to have because of that genealogy experience and a kind of groundedness was always an important part of the academic exercise within the discipline.
Meg Wilcox: (01:55)
So dialogue is a big part of your classroom, but you also by virtue of your field use an interdisciplinary curriculum. So I’m curious as to what you pick from and why that really depends on the instructor and the course.
Maki Motapanyane: (02:11)
Absolutely. Women’s and gender studies is an interdisciplinary academic discipline, which may sound a little strange to some in the sense of, well, is it a discipline at all then? But yes, it is in the sense that we do have specifically, feminist rooted ways of doing research or research methods and methodology in terms of how we ask questions and the kinds of tools that we apply to doing research. But we’re interdisciplinary in the sense that, well, that is initially the formation of the discipline as an academic area is.
There was no such thing as graduate feminist studies programs when women’s and gender studies or courses that centered feminist analysis were first being introduced to universities in Canada and the United States. So the women who were really at the forefront of bringing this into the academy were themselves situated in various academic disciplines as sociologists, historians, people who were in English literature, and so on.
Meg Wilcox: (03:36)
And so thinking about, as you mentioned, bringing this to students in the classroom, for example, let’s say a first year course, what are some of the topics that you’ll touch on with students?
Maki Motapanyane: (03:45)
So the first year course is often a survey course. It’s broad-based because we’re aware this is often people’s first introduction to gender-based analysis and to feminist literature. And again, that really depends on who’s teaching it and how they choose to organize that curriculum. But in my case I would organize it around themes. So things like health, Politics, the socio-cultural sphere, popular culture, the realm of representation and images and language. Did I mention health? Now I can’t remember.
Meg Wilcox: (04:30)
You did, but it’s important we can mention it twice.
Maki Motapanyane: (04:32)
So those would be examples of just thematic organization. And then with within those units, then I would make sure that I was highlighting the diversity of feminist approaches and thinking within those areas.
Meg Wilcox: (04:55)
So before coming to Mount Royal University, you taught at St. Louis University in Missouri. And I’m curious, what were the different dynamics do you find teaching the content here at Mount Royal is different than you were when you were in St. Louis?
Maki Motapanyane: (05:09)
There are some really interesting differences. That is a private Jesuit university. I didn’t know anything about the Jesuits before I got there. And then I realize, ‘Oh, they’re part of the more liberal tradition within Catholicism.’ And I found that very interesting because I teach in women’s and gender studies. I thought, ‘Oh geez, I’m going to a Catholic university. Like I don’t know what that’s going to be like.’ That university is located in the South part of the city and it’s a very segregated city. So the North part of St. Louis is majority African American and it is not impossible for someone to live either in the South or in the North and to not really have to go beyond the boundaries of their area because there are shops, banks. And if you work in that area as well, you really don’t have to cross those boundaries. And that creates a certain kind of atmosphere of separation, of different lives. It can really cement different people’s different perspectives.
The majority of my students came from affluent families and had gotten a pretty elite Catholic education, quite different from our student body here. So a lot of the conversations we had were around what does it mean to live in St. Louis the way that it is. Interestingly, the year after I left that is when Michael Brown was killed. That is when that whole thing happened in Ferguson, Missouri, which is North. And all of the discussions around racist police brutality, which were really at the fore. Anyway, when I was there, you could feel it, it was palpable. So we would talk a lot about why it is that so many of them had found their way to Nicaragua to Guatemala, but not to the North of their own city. And what they thought that was about. I mean, some of it was, well, ‘I don’t know anybody and why would I just aimlessly get into a car and just start driving up there by myself?’ And okay, what does it mean to have lived here, you know, for 20 years of your life and you don’t know anybody, why do you think that is? It’s really only a 15 to 20-minute drive away from the university. So we would have those kinds of conversations. Why do you think that it’s easier to travel thousands of miles to another country and connect to a community in need? But have little to no connections to people in your very city. And again, very different to have those kinds of conversations.
There are similar conversations I have with students here around Indigenous communities and the way that we are neighboring indigenous communities and again, just have very little meaningful links or conversations to members of those communities. But the big difference there would have been here I’m talking to people, students, who are working two jobs and studying at the same time. And there I was speaking with again, very, very affluent students with resources and means but not always different topics of conversation, but lots of commonalities.
Meg Wilcox: (09:02)
And so as you mentioned, for many of these students, this is the first time that they’re learning about these topics in this context. It may also be one of the first times that they are interacting in a field that takes from so many different disciplines and you’re doing a bit of everything in that case. How do students tend to respond to that?
Maki Motapanyane: (09:19)
Often they’re surprised, I think because there is not a very good popular understanding of what happens in a women’s and gender studies class. And I do think there are still persisting negative connotations to this kind of education and some expectations. I know that there have been silly accusations of indoctrination and that kind of thing. So sometimes students will, I think have a very limited understanding and perhaps expectations of what will happen. And so they’re quite often surprised that they’re learning economic theory and quite surprised when we get into electoral politics, the lessons around governance we spend the first week or two just establishing the space as a space of learning a space where people don’t have to worry about, something like ‘Am I going to ask a stupid question or say something stupid or be judged or does this instructor have a particular kind of stance and am I expected to replicate that stance or be punished for not doing?’ So we get through all of that by discussing what it is we’re there to do together. And really, the core of what we’re there to do is to engage in a rigorous academic exercise to sift through that material, to give it the attention that it deserves and to learn how to develop defensible articulations of what we think and our positions relative to what we’re reading.
So there’s room for disagreement and there’s room for a diversity of perspectives in that space. But again, the challenge for all of us in that space is that they have to be thoughtful. You have to have given proper attention to different points of view and really give that, that proper consideration so that when one disagrees, they are disagreeing from a position of really having listened.
Meg Wilcox: (11:50)
And I guess that’s my thought, especially when I, in the classroom being a journalism professor and talking about news and current affairs, trying to negotiate differing viewpoints, letting people have their voices be heard, but also making sure that there are certain things. Obviously like in my class, you know, we aren’t going to have any racism, we aren’t going to have any bigotry. We’re going to be respectful. What are some rules that you use or guidelines that you use when you’re working in the class to help ensure those types of conversations?
Maki Motapanyane: (12:22)
Yeah, so some of them are rudimentary and they start at the very beginning when we first meet each other and those are the obvious ones, you know, give people room to speak one at a time. Be respectful. Think before you speak.
Meg Wilcox: (12:40)
Thank you so much for joining me.
Maki Motapanyane: (12:41)
Oh, thank you so much for the conversation.
Meg Wilcox: (12:49)
That was Dr. Maki Motapanyane, associate professor in the department of women and gender studies in Mount Royal. You can find her on Twitter @MakiMotapanyane. Teaching Strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Center at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. We’re proud to broadcast from the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe, Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3). We look forward to sharing the stories and experiences of the many people who live, learn and teach in the treaty seven region. You can find us wherever you podcast and at teachingstrides.ca.