College moves toward offering GLBT studies

by Carl Burnett | 5/23/02 5:00am

In next year's Organization, Regulations and Courses book, for the first time, students will be able to look for course listings under "GLBT Studies" or "Queer Theory."

Although the headings will redirect students to the women's studies program course listings, the changes to the ORC are nevertheless symbolic of a gradual move at Dartmouth to increasingly embrace the academic discipline of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender studies.

Perhaps the most visible step Dartmouth has taken is to hire Michael Bronski, a gay scholar, author, journalist and activist, to teach its biennial "Introduction to GLBT Studies" course. Bronski, author of the seminal 1984 history "Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility," taught the course in fall 2000, and will return to teach it again this Fall term.

"Dartmouth is fitting very neatly into what is happening across the nation," Bronski said.

"What's happening [at Dartmouth] is on the edge of scholarship," GLBT student advisor Pam Misener echoed. "The idea that we could bring queer scholarship to Dartmouth is really exciting."

Religion Professor Susan Ackerman and history Professor Annelise Orleck co-taught the first "Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies" course at Dartmouth in 1996 and 1998, but the course stems from faculty discussions that began in 1991, Ackerman said.

Several faculty members proposed the course in 1992, and it was approved. But a lack of funding kept it from being offered until the advent of College Courses in 1996, according to Ackerman.

At the time, the women's studies program would have been "perfectly happy to house the course," Ackerman said -- but not at the expense of other courses.

"We pictured it as being team-taught, so it would've meant two other women's studies courses wouldn't have been taught," she said.

The course operated as a College Course for two years, until the creation of the Stonewall Fund, a foundation established at Dartmouth for GLBT-related courses and lecturers in the late 1990s. The fund is bankrolled by an alumnus' donation and by a $250,000 gift from the Carpenter Fund, established in 1985 by a gift from the late Dr. Ralph Elias '32 for the enhancement of the lives of gay students at Dartmouth.

Beginning in 1998, GLBT studies was incorporated into the women's studies program. The program offers Women's Studies 47: "Introduction to GLBT Studies," every two years in alternation with Women's Studies 48: "Topics in GLBT Studies," which last Summer term treated "Gender Blending: Motifs of Androgyny."

Yuval Ortiz-Quiroga '02, who took Bronski's course in 2000, was enthusiastic about the course.

"What I liked the most was that it was taught by an outside scholar not bound by the academy, someone who has been really involved in activism within the GLBT movement for over 30 years," Ortiz-Quiroga said. "It was really cool to watch documentaries -- and he was in them. He was coming from a different perspective, since he's not a professor; he's a cultural critic and an activist."

Bronski said he estimated about half of the approximately 30 students in the class identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender themselves and half did not -- and that both have something to gain from the course.

For GLBT students, "Even though its an academic situation, it's difficult to imagine that it's not an important place to go and feel affirmed in some ways," Bronski said.

For any student, though, Bronski said he hopes the course provides both an introduction to the history of gay activism and to the discipline of queer theory, which he said he hopes students will be able to apply to other studies in the humanities.

Up for ongoing debate is the issue of how to classify GLBT studies.

Making the discipline part of the women's studies program rather than its own program "superficially marginalizes it," Kristen Foery '04 said.

"To set it up as an independent program is to make it known that Dartmouth respects GLBT programs as a valid course of study rather than a concessionary course to 'keep queers happy,'" she said.

"I'm pretty ambivalent," Ortiz-Quiroga said. "On the one hand, with a specific program that's not a department you don't get enough resources. You're weak in the bureaucracy. But if you become a department, I think disciplinarity binds your thinking and doesn't match what GLBT studies is about. It creates a little box that you can't really escape from."

In offering GLBT courses, Ackerman said the College is following on the heels of expansive GLBT studies programs at larger, more urban universities.

"We're more conservative than other schools, and we're also smaller, and critical mass helps. We don't have that, so we have to find different ways," she said.