Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Teaching Fellowships: An Open Letter to the Deans of Johns Hopkins University

In a recent email, Professor Todd Shepard (Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS)) broke the news to Johns Hopkins’s WGS program that its longstanding Graduate Teaching Fellowships will be discontinued after this academic year. As his email makes clear, this decision came from the administrative leadership of the university, communicated through Vice Dean Matthew Roller, and was not determined in consultation with WGS affiliated faculty, nor in conversation with or through consideration of the years of highly accomplished Teaching Fellows.

We, the signatories to this letter, represent a substantial cohort of WGS Graduate Teaching Fellows. We write to express our concern about the process by which the decision to suspend the fellowships was reached, to protest the way in which the deans have avoided communicating their decision to the Johns Hopkins community, and to enjoin the deans to reinstate the fellowships as a crucial part of strengthening the university’s support for interdisciplinary feminist and queer scholarship.

JHU graduate students have offered WGS courses that not only expand the range of feminist and queer scholarship at the university, but also provide forums for the critical study of race, culture, and comparative methodologies which don’t have a clear home elsewhere. Although the Dean’s Teaching Fellowships provide one alternate venue for graduate students to teach specialized courses of their own design, the fact that those course proposals are evaluated by an interdepartmental committee, often with little to no expertise in the fields covered by the proposed course, means that students must frame and design their courses with different expectations in mind. The WGS Teaching Fellowships have, historically, provided a great deal of disciplinarily specific training and mentorship both in the initial stages of course design and as teaching fellows conduct their courses.

The opportunity to teach explicitly under the umbrella of WGS also has a demonstrable effect on the hiring outcomes of JHU graduates. Because JHU does not support a graduate program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies, nor does it offer a certificate or focus option to its doctoral students, those whose scholarship is engaged with the field often have trouble demonstrating that they do indeed have the requisite research and teaching competency. Since we teach as affiliates of the WGS program, Teaching Fellows are able to demonstrate (in their CVs and teaching portfolios), that they are equipped to work in WGS-specific programs, and hold WGS-focused positions and appointments within other departments. Several of us have secured tenure-track positions in a range of departments at other universities, positions for which we would not have been competitive candidates without the disciplinary-specific pedagogical mentorship, teaching experience, research advising, and WGS-affiliation that the Teaching Fellowships enable.

Courses taught under the WGS Graduate Teaching Fellowship have historically been popular, rich in content, and received strongly positive feedback. They have offered undergraduates opportunities to engage with contemporary critical scholarship in a disciplinary field which has department status and support at many other universities. The Teaching Fellowships have challenged graduate students to develop their pedagogy in WGS and translate their research into public facing content, which has helped JHU be recognized for its contributions to scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. If Johns Hopkins University’s mission remains, per the institution’s website, “to educate its students and cultivate their capacity for lifelong learning, to foster independent and original research, and to bring the benefits of discovery to the world,” then the teaching fellowships have entirely been in keeping with the broader goals of education, cultivation, and dissemination. Suspending the fellowships, especially without a publicly stated rational or consultation, represents an abnegation of the University’s mission on the part of the deans.

Suspending the fellowships sends a message that is particularly disheartening given recent events on campus which highlight JHU’s struggles to support women, trans, non-binary, and queer scholars, staff, and students. Last academic year, two JHU professors left the university after having been found in violation of university policy on sexual misconduct. Importantly, this only happened after concerted efforts on the part of the university’s student body to register these professors’ behavior. Students have also recently been questioning the length of time it takes for the University to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct, how transparent the University is in its Title IX processes, and the oversights which allowed the University’s Title IX office to block eighteen complaints of sexual misconduct from being processed. As Provost Sunil Kumar and Vice Provost Joy Gaslevic wrote in a recent email about the results of a sexual misconduct survey, “JHU is lower than AAU peers … in the percentage of students who believe campus officials are very/extremely likely to take a report of sexual misconduct seriously and in the percentage who describe themselves as very/extremely knowledgeable about campus policies and resources.” In this climate, the Deans’ efforts to remove resources and opportunities supporting WGS scholarship strike us as likely to exacerbate the perception that JHU does not provide as welcoming an environment for women, trans, non-binary, and queer students as its peer institutions.

We question whether the Deans actually have the best interests of the program at heart in their decision-making process. Time and again, decisions have been made with repercussions only being considered after the fact. The decision to seek new leadership for the WGS program, without having first ascertained whether any affiliated faculty were available for the role, directly resulted in a delay in new directors being appointed and in Professor Shepard filling in while still accountable for a year’s worth of WGS programming. The decision to remove the Teaching Fellowships will also automatically remove five courses each year from the courses offered as part of the WGS minor. This decision has been made without first making plans to ensure the continued sufficiency and vitality to WGS course offerings. The deans must show not only that they are aware of the consequences of their choices, for the WGS program and the university at-large, but also demonstrate foresight and proactive approaches to strengthening WGS in the future.

In light of the above, we ask the Johns Hopkins University leadership for the following:

  1. Immediate reinstatement of the WGS Graduate Teaching Fellowships, so that applications can be received for the 2020/2021 Academic Year;
  2. A commitment to expanding the University’s support for WGS scholarship, such that it is competitive with peer institutions and commensurate to its importance as an academic discipline. This should be done by hiring dedicated WGS faculty, inaugurating multi-year WGS postdoctoral fellowships to support junior scholars while promoting innovative scholarship, and offering graduate students the opportunity to pursue a certificate in WGS studies;
  3. An explanation for how the original decision to rescind funding was made, and why it was not communicated in a transparent, accountable manner. In addition, we demand a plan for how such decisions will be made and communicated in the future;
  4. An assessment on expanding Teaching Fellowship opportunities to other academic programs, such as ‘Race, Immigration, and Citizenship,’ ‘Africana Studies,’ ‘Islamic Studies,’ ‘Latin American Studies,’ and ‘International Studies,’ so as to continue the University’s mission to support diverse, original research, as well as its commitment to student development.

Sincerely,

  • Swayam Bagaria, 2019-2020 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Anthropology)
  • Meghaa Ballakrishnen, 2019-2020 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (History of Art)
  • Mariam Banahi, 2014-2015 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Anthropology)
  • Caroline Block, 2011-2012 Fellow
  • J. Andrew Bush, Fellow, Harvard Law School (Anthropology)
  • Samantha Carmel, 2018-2019 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (CTL)
  • Julia Cummiskey, 2016-2017 Fellow, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Assistant Professor in History, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
  • Yige Dong, 2017-2019 Fellow, Assistant Professor in International Political Economy and Suzanne Wilson Barnett Chair of Contemporary China Studies, University of Puget Sound
  • Noelle Dubay, 2017-2018 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (English)
  • Loumia Ferhat, 2016-2017 Fellow, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Farouk Jabre Center for Arabic and Islamic Sciences and Philosophy, American University of Beirut
  • Ryan Franklin, 2017-2018 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Classics)
  • Joseph Giardini, 2019-2020 Fellow, John Hopkins University (English)
  • Nathan Gies, 2012-2013 Fellow, Lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Towson University
  • Jishnu Guha-Majumdar, 2019-2020 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Political Science)
  • Rima Hussein, 2018-2019 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Philosophy)
  • Amrita Ibrahim, 2010-2011 Fellow, Assistant Teaching Professor in Anthropology, Georgetown
  • Ezgi Ince, 2018-2019 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (CTL)
  • Sungmey Lee, 2019-2020 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (English)
  • Omid Mehrgan, 2017-2018 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (CTL)
  • Maya Nitis, 2017-2018 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (GRLL)
  • Sara Rahnama, 2016-2017 Fellow, Assistant Professor in History and Geography, Morgan State University
  • Sarah Ross, 2018-2019 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (English)
  • Vaibhav Saria, 2013-2014 Fellow, Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Simon Fraser University
  • Megha Sehdev, 2016-2017 Fellow, Mellon Sawyer Seminar Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Humanities & the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University
  • Chad Shomura, 2014-2015 Fellow, Assistant Professor in Political Science, University of Colorado Denver
  • Simone Stewart, 2016-2017 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (History)
  • Túlio Zille, 2016-2017 Fellow, Johns Hopkins University (Political Science)

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