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June 09, 2013


I've been in China over a week now, so the stay is beginning to take shape as an "experience." My main reason for being here in Shanghai this month is to teach an intensive graduate course, so I'll begin by saying a few words about that.

The course is organized by a faculty colleague at Michigan in History and Women's Studies. Having grown up in the revolutionary period, during which social divisions based on class and gender were relatively muted, she has been deeply distressed to observe the backsliding of Chinese society in these respects over the past couple of decades.

Newspapers in the US, of course, are full of stories about the widening class divides in China. Urban elites are awash in luxury, while the rural poor seem to left further and further behind. The nominally "communist" allegiances of the ruling party notwithstanding, there is no longer any talk of "class" as a social category: a concept that was so critically important in establishing the Party's early claims to legitimacy now appears threatening. Instead, the ubiquitous propaganda announcements focus on promoting "civilized" behavior and "social harmony."

A similar kind of reversal has occurred with respect to gender. The revolutionary period was characterized, at many points, by a blurring of gender distinctions in dress, employment, and political engagement, among other areas, along with an intensely moralizing puritanism. As if to compensate for the excesses of this regime of enforced androgyny and chastity, there has been a turn in recent years to a much more insistent delineation of gender roles and use of sexuality as a form of power and control. Think Mad Men on steroids.

So in any case, my colleague has been able to get support from a couple of major foundations to promote women's studies in China as a way of fostering, at least within the academy, a degree of critical consciousness about the gendered dimensions of current changes in Chinese society. She uses part of her grant funding to bring over UM colleagues every summer to Fudan University to co-teach an intensive graduate-level seminar on recent scholarship on gender from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

The participants in the seminar, who come from universities all over China, include MA and PhD students as well as young faculty members. We meet three afternoons each week for three hours at a time, and schedule additional consultations with each student to discuss their individual research projects.

My co-teacher, a quantitative psychologist, has been lecturing on research methods in the psychology of gender: how might one design a study, for example, to determine the degree to which a particular gender stereotype has any basis in reality? My charge is to introduce both canonical and recent cutting edge work in humanistic gender studies, with an emphasis on comparative women's history, masculinity studies, and cultural theory. Some of this, needless to say, is a bit of a stretch for me, which leads me to think I was invited to join the seminar less for my expertise in the field than for my usefulness in demonstrating 1) that the study of gender isn't just for or about women and 2) that it can and should be incorporated as an analytical framework in many different kinds of work.

I amused the students on the first day of class by telling them the story of how my mother, on hearing that I'd studied only male writers in my first semester of college, threatened to withhold my tuition payment if I didn't sign up for a women's studies course the following term. As it happened, books written by both my mother and Biddy Martin, the teacher of the feminist theory course I dutifully took at Cornell that spring, were cited as exemplary contributions to the field in the very first article I assigned for the class!

The course is one of the more challenging I've taught in China owing to the range in background, preparation, and English language ability among the participants. Some of the young faculty, not surprisingly, are fluent in English and super-sharp, leaving me acutely self-conscious of the utter preposterousness of my presuming to lecture on Chinese women's history, as I did last week, to a gathering of Chinese women intellectuals. The MA students face a bit more of a struggle in wrestling with all the long and difficult readings and post-modern theorizing. I can just hope that everyone taking part will find something in the readings and conversations that will help them advance their understanding by a step or two from wherever they happen to be. That's certainly been the case for me so far!

Posted by dporter at June 9, 2013 09:38 PM


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