WMST Archive Interview – Rebecca Sullivan

The following interview was conducted with Dr. Rebecca Sullivan 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?

I am not trained in Women’s Studies, my PhD is in Communications. But my supervisor was the first feminist Communications scholar in Canada – Dr. [redacted]. Feminism was my “natural” intellectual state: the questions I kept asking myself circulated around the absence of women in the curriculum, the stories we weren’t telling.

I was involved in feminist activism in bits and spurts, and often pulled away sharply because the dynamics in the eighties and nineties were really unpleasant. A lot of shouting at each other, a lot of accusations that you weren’t feminist enough, and honestly, some creepy predatory attitudes by older women. I found my feminism was best expressed within the security of the academic environment more than as an activist.

When I began my career as a professor, in 2000, I naturally gravitated toward courses that had the word “gender” in the title. When I designed non-gender courses, I always included at least one week on gender / feminism / queer – something to offset the default Dead White Man syllabus. I would introduce feminist issues or critiques into other areas during lectures – not something all students appreciated. I often got criticisms that I was bringing an agenda to the class and not being objective. This, of course, inspired me to double down and introduce more feminist/queer content into the syllabus, not less.

When I took over as Director of the WMST program, I took some time to learn about the specific dimensions of a WMST classroom. I asked people like Joe Kadi for advice, read articles on both feminist and queer pedagogy, but also on Women’s Studies intellectual history. I adopted a number of practices like “braver space” and “content warnings” into my classroom, and changed a lot in my style of teaching so that students could spend more time exploring their feminism.

  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?

I think I answered all this in my long answer above. I can add that I decided to take on the administration of the WMST at a time when it looked like the program would be closed. Not because I thought that would make it easy, but because I felt that the person who had been running it for so long deserved to be spared the pain of presiding over its closure. I tried a bunch of things to keep the program from closing and, well, one of them must of worked. That said, the decision not to close the program came with no resources or administrative support.

I like teaching WMST courses because at this point in my career, I’m much more interested in activating education toward social justice. Teaching theory has become boring to me.

  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?

I would have to say that trans theory is arguably the biggest transformation in my growth as a feminist. I was trained during the eighties and nineties, when “social construction” and “performativity” were Gospel. Both feminist and queer scholarship denied the idea of any kind of essential gender identity. Growing up a “tomboy” (I know that word is problematic nowadays but to lose it is to lose a big chunk of my childhood self), social construction appealed to me. I hated wearing dresses and make-up, most of my friends were boys, I actively disliked a lot of what was “girl culture.” Early trans theory used a lot of language like “I always knew I was really a girl because I liked make-up.” Well, I was fighting against HAVING to wear make-up BECAUSE I was a girl, so arguments like that felt erasing and confining to me. Also, because so much feminist theory and history on the medicalization of gender revealed outright abuse and exploitation of women’s bodies, the idea of medical fixes to gender frightened me.

It took awhile for my ideas to mature, for feminist theory to mature, and for trans discourse to mature so that I was able to realize the inherent phobia in my own thinking. When we as scholars and activists were able to discuss the difference between identity and expression, to connect embodied subjectivity to structural ideologies, it all became clear to me, and I did a full 180. I wasn’t ever explicitly, rabidly transphobic like Sheila Jeffreys or Janice Raymond. Scholars like that repulsed me for so many reasons. But I was uncomfortable with the implications of trans on my way of thinking and kept looking for a way through it all so that I could reconcile my commitment to gender justice for everyone with my own set beliefs and attitudes.

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

I think I answered that above. Every class I teach includes feminist / queer and now trans content. In research, I insist of others not doing “gender” to explicitly state why, to explicitly state who is the subject of their research, and to explicitly account for how their argument would change if they incorporated a gender lens. My own research always has a gender lens, it just comes naturally to me.

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 don’t see a cohesive community of feminist scholars at the University of Calgary. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not something that I want to spend a lot of energy to redress. I find my colleagues and build my support networks where I can.

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

The students. I know that sounds like a cliché but right now there is so much energy and creativity around feminist scholarship that I find sustaining and energizing.

  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?

Different courses bring different dynamics and different experiences. I’ve begun to feel that professors are the least influential to the classroom, and the composition of the students the most.

Negative experiences are students who really aren’t there to learn or to challenge themselves and just want to play devil’s advocate or scream their opinions or claim they have the right to be disruptive/absent in the classroom because they paid for the course. I really wonder why they’re even at university.

Positive experiences far outnumber the negative. Students who make an effort, any effort, within the boundaries of what they are capable of at this point in their lives, mean everything to me. I don’t care about grades, I care about effort.

I have certain “set” speeches I make at the outset now in every class about how being in my course is a self-determined decision made from a position of privilege. Different levels and circumstances of privilege, sure, but if you’re in my class there really is no reason why other than you decided to be there. So, if you don’t want to be there – leave. It’s harsh on one level, but it also stops the disaffected entitlement in its tracks. Some people stay and maintain their disaffected entitlement, but it’s interesting to see how their friends in the classroom drift away from them over the course of the term. I have “girl gangs” in almost all my courses – women who sign up for courses together because of their social circle. I’ve rarely seen that social circle remain intact after one of my classes. At least one of the members begins to develop a stronger, more independent sense of self.

More and more men are coming to my classes. The funniest moments occur in my porn classes. When I first started teaching porn, some men signed up just to be shit disturbers, and take down the anti-porn feminazi (I love eavesdropping in the library on conversations between men: “Dude, some feminist prof is teaching porn! Let’s take it! That’ll fuck her up!). It was interesting to see who quit and who stayed. Some who quit would take the time to write to me to say that they expected me to be different and instead made them question themselves so much and they weren’t ready for it. I always respond positively and invite them back – to me, that’s incredibly brave for a man to admit that. Others stay for the ride and have incredibly honest conversations with me about their sexuality, their relationships, their changing attitudes about porn.

Similar but not quite as dramatic experiences happen in all my classes. I think a lot men are surprised by the fact that I discuss masculinity as a problematic gender construct because no one ever told them that masculinity is just as messed up as femininity. They’re there to discuss women, not themselves. Again, some men aren’t ready for that conversation and they leave. But the ones who stay often become incredibly brave and honest with me. Those moments really count.

  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?

When I first arrived at the university, WMST was in the old Faculty of Communication and Culture, which was a very toxic environment. A professor there was in an open feud with the new Dean and used a lot of nasty tactics just to create trouble. One of them was starting a whole bunch of rumours about me with the sessional instructors who were teaching most of the WMST courses. I was in a vulnerable position employment-wise, so this was really stressful. I was being considered for two different permanent tenure-track positions, one in COMS and one in WMST. I told the hiring committee that if they hired me for WMST I would take the job but stay on the market because the environment was too hostile. That professor left after my first year in Calgary, and then two new WMST profs were hired. I now had a tenure-track appointment in COMS. The two new hires took an instant dislike to each other, which created a different but just as hostile environment in the WMST program. Thus, I avoided the whole program like a plague for the first ten years of my career. It was only after the faculties were amalgamated and the two profs moved to different departments, leaving the WMST unstaffed, that I decided to get involved. By that time, the theoretical and political climate of feminism had also changed in ways that better fit with my own way of thinking, and I finally felt like I could be at home in the field. That said, I still find myself very frustrated and even disgusted by a lot of what happens in Women’s Studies nation-wide, and feel much more at home in gender and sexuality studies – even though much of my research is on feminism and heteronormative femininity.

  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?

A better, more socially grounded framework for queer theory; the introduction of trans studies; and the development of intersectionality all re-ignited my passion for feminism.

  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?

WMST had very few connections to the community at large as far as I could tell. That’s been important to me – to connect WMST to community organizations. I think WMST is more important than ever today because of all the amazing activism and creativity going on.

  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?

I joined the university in 2000. WMST was part of the Faculty of Communication and Culture. It was a non-departmentalized program that offered a Minor, Major, and Honours degree. When the faculties amalgamated (can’t remember what year but maybe 2010?), WMST was just floating around. The Director at the time changed their appointment to a different department, as did I. All the interdisciplinary, non-departmentalized programs suffered under the amalgamation. No one knew who had decision making authority, the programs had no budget, some of them had no dedicated full-time faculty, and Department Heads refused to let faculty members teach in the program. It was a mess, a colossal failure of leadership right up to the Dean. In 2015, WMST moved to the Department of Philosophy. Both the Department Head and I acknowledged this wasn’t the most ideal situation, but it was way better than what we had and since the Head is a feminist and cares about the program, it was by far the best solution to the administration’s screw up.

  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?

Things have been in such flux, and the curriculum has changed so many times that I can’t review everything. The most interesting transformation has been from a program that really only focussed on women’s experiences, to one much more invested in gender diversity and fluidity, as well as incorporated aspects of sexuality studies.

  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 think I covered that in Answer 11.

  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?

I think we are at a moment of incredible growth and vitality. Since I became Director, the program has doubled its number of majors, the Women’s Studies and Feminist Club was founded, and so many other successes. Yet, we still struggle for attention and respect by the administration. No hires have been made in the program, even though other, smaller programs have received new appointments. I see this as evidence for why we still need Women’s Studies: sexism pervades the institution so that the achievements of feminist scholars are easily ignored and support withheld.