WMST Archive Interview – Katherine Zelinsky

The following interview was conducted with Dr. Katherine Zelinsky as part of WSF’s Women’s Studies Archive Project. Her answers appear below as they were written by her, with the one exception that any names mentioned have been redacted as part of the interview methodology used.

  1. What does feminism mean to you? How has this changed over your academic career? How do you reflect your feminist principles in your research and/or pedagogy, both when teaching a Women’s Studies course and when teaching a course in another field?

For me, feminism means the ongoing need for struggle and resistance. It’s the bone and blood memories of historical oppression that have led to the gains of the present. It’s the current and future struggle of girls and women to lead lives of their own choosing in a world in which they are unencumbered by hegemonic categorizations grounded in gender, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, physical ability, and appearance. It’s the struggle of girls and women, but it also encompasses the struggles of other people whose lives are defined and burdened by unquestioned, entrenched customs and hierarchies.

Feminism has changed for me in part because of my own struggles and my witnessing of those of others. I came to feminism as a discipline when I was a graduate student, and I immersed myself in the literature of eighteenth-century women writers and the theoretical works of Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir, the works of twentieth-century French feminists and Marxist feminists and literary feminists. My readings broadened over the years to include intersectional and transnational feminists who grappled with the lived experiences of women and others whose lives were defined by systemic injustice, and they challenged my myopic “white” North American vision of feminism. Spending many years in the “academy” as an Instructor” and as a sessional, in particular, also forced me to confront my unquestioned belief in the feminist sisterhood in the university setting. I began to see the larger possibilities and problems facing feminist movement(s) within and outside of the academy.

As an educator in the field of Women’s and Gender Studies and in English literature, I try to encourage my students to look at their readings as political texts that ask questions about systems of power and acts of resistance. I try to engage my classes to examine, through close textual analysis, the interpretive lenses that they themselves bring to bear in their assumptions about what is normal, true, fair, just. I try to encourage my students to ask questions about their constructions of self and other(s).

  1. How did you first become involved in feminist scholarship? When in your academic career did you first become aware of feminist issues and how did it affect your research interests? What made you specifically want to teach a Women’s Studies (WMST) course?

The beginning, genesis: I can’t remember not being some kind of feminist. I was raised by a working-class single mother whose life taught me an awareness of the inequalities experienced by women and by others in a world organized on the principles of dominance and powerlessness (although she never talked about her own struggles in theoretical or feminist terms). More formally, I became involved in feminist scholarship when I was in my Master’s program at Dalhousie when I was first introduced to the multitude of buried and silenced women writers of the eighteenth century.  I went on to write a feminist-oriented thesis and, a year later, I pursued a PhD which combined literary analysis of women’s fiction with feminist theory.

  1. During your academic career, have there been any feminist issues on which you have changed your opinion? What were they, and what changed your mind?

Yes, as I have mentioned in question number 1, I am considerably more skeptical about   academic feminism, in particular, and its claims to a feminist “sisterhood” and to its connection to grassroots feminism.  I have also broadened my understanding of feminism to include the struggles of all people who are denied access to the cultural and social advantages that would help them to live lives of self-determination and agency.  I have also evolved in my view and definition of feminism to be inclusive of all people who are determined to fight against systemic sexism (bell hooks and Audre Lorde have been influences in this regard).

  1. How do you bring feminist scholarship into other departments or fields outside of Women’s Studies, either when teaching or doing research?

I can’t separate who I am essentially from how I teach, so when I teach English literature, rather than Women’s Studies, I don’t construct an opposition between my feminist ontology and my feminist epistemology. I have also worked to affirm my own feminist convictions and ideals in my classes and to be vigilant against both self-silencing and the potential ways in which my pedagogy might silence my students.

 The following questions are intended for participants who have taught Women’s Studies at the University of Calgary for an extended period of time (more than one year, or three or more courses). If you do not fit this criteria, you may still answer these questions if you wish, but they may not be relevant to your specific experiences.

  1. What were your perceptions of the feminist scholarship being done at the University of Calgary during your time there?

I was aware of a number of women academics who were working on feminist scholarship in various fields including English, Nursing, and Sociology. As a sessional, though, I was not aware of the breadth and range of feminist scholarship taking place at the U of C; however, I felt that this lack of visibility was probably evidence of a lack of institutional support for the program and for feminist scholarship in general. On a more personal level, as a sessional, I also felt invisible and vulnerable as a Women’s Studies Instructor.

  1. What was your favourite thing about teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Calgary?

I was fully present to myself and to my students.

  1. What was it like teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Calgary? How receptive were the students to what you were teaching? What was their level of engagement? How diverse were your classrooms? Were there many men taking Women’s Studies?

I had a number of large classes at the first-year level, and I was always encouraged by the level of enthusiasm for Women’s Studies in the majority of my students. Even those who were initially skeptical about the utility and scholarly integrity of Women’s Studies frequently came to see the importance of this discipline to their lives and to their overall learning by the end of term. There were, unfortunately, few men in my classes, but they were among the most engaged, compassionate and open-minded students. They helped to confirm my conviction that feminist movement and transformation must be inclusive of men and others who are engaged in the struggle against power inequities and exclusions.

  1. Did you encounter any conflicts of opinion with students, administration, or other instructors during your time at the University of Calgary? How were they resolved?

I had only minor conflicts with a handful of students, primarily about marking too rigorously. I was always silently “in conflict” with the administration, who seemed to want Women’s Studies to disappear. As a sessional, I never voiced my concerns to the administration because I was convinced that whether I taught in Women’s Studies or not made no difference to the institution.

  1. How did feminist theory evolve during your time teaching Women’s Studies at the University of Calgary? How did this affect your research and/or pedagogy? Are there any feminist topics or issues you wish had received more focus?

I am not sure how to address this question. I never taught a course expressly in feminist theory, although I incorporated theoretical works in my courses. I did wish that more courses would be offered in Women’s Health, and I was very distressed at the news that the course that I was most passionate about teaching (Women and Health) was to be turned over to Nursing.

  1. Why was Women’s Studies important during the time period that you taught it, especially within Calgary or Alberta? Did this importance change throughout your time here and, if so, how? What kind of connections did the Women’s Studies program have with the community at large?

It was a crucial discipline during the years that I taught Women’s Studies for many reasons. It was a time of the increasing restructuring of the university and of the corresponding cuts in Women’s Studies’ courses. On the positive side, the threats to Women’s Studies also incited some expressions of resistance among a few vocal students, who saw an even greater need for Women’s Studies. Unfortunately, in the midst of the politically conservative, profit-conscious climate of the university and the province, I didn’t see a close connection between Women’s Studies at the university and the community at large—-except for cuts to the program.

  1. To the best of your recollection, what was the formal structure of the Women’s Studies program during your time teaching Women’s Studies courses at the University of Calgary? Where was the program located in the University bureaucracy? Who was in charge and what were their roles? What relationship did the Women’s Studies program have with other faculties and departments?

Women’s Studies was a small Department when I was first hired, but there were enough courses to provide some work for a few sessionals and the coordinator. The coordinator changed from the time I began to the last course that I taught.  I believe that some of the courses taught in Women’s Studies were, increasingly, being taught by the coordinator and, in some form, by people in other Departments such as English, Sociology, Social Work, and Nursing.  I was also somewhat puzzled by these questions: what was the formal structure, where was the program located in the University bureaucracy, what were the roles of those in charge, and who was making the hiring decisions and what was their rationale.

  1. To the best of your recollection, what sort of Women’s Studies courses existed during your time at the University of Calgary? How many instructors were involved with the program and how were they assigned to courses?

I don’t recall exactly how many courses were offered when I taught Women’s Studies; some semesters there were 4 or 5, sometimes fewer. There were, however, enough courses to provide some work for three or four (I believe) sessionals. I believe that the courses were assigned on the basis of experience and seniority, and I trusted that there was a consistent course allocation protocol followed by the changing hiring committees.

  1. Did the Women’s Studies program face any challenges to its longevity, stability, or existence during your time at the University of Calgary? What were they and how were they overcome? I have addressed these questions (see especially, section 10).

Yes, from the outset of my three years of teaching in Women’s Studies, there were looming threats of downsizing and eliminating courses. The predictions were on the mark. It appears that Women’s Studies offers fewer courses taught by fewer instructors.

  1. Are there any further comments, stories, or experiences, you would like to share about your time as a Women’s Studies instructor at the University of Calgary?

Some of my most cherished memories of teaching are of the three years that I taught Women’s Studies at the U of C. I still receive emails from students who talk about the impact of a class or reading on their lives. One of my male students emailed me to let me know that he was enrolled in a Women’s and Gender Studies Master’s program as a result of his Introduction to Women’s Studies class with me. I also remember the very disheartening day when someone in Women’s Studies, speaking from an administrative perspective, told me that I was unfortunately “too expensive” to rehire. (Post University of Calgary, Women’s Studies Instructor: I’ve had to seek work in different departments and elsewhere. I teach Women’s Studies at another institution when I can. As I said earlier, my feminist consciousness is an essential part of who I am.)