Colleges and universities have a reputation for being radical places where tenured radicals teach radical ideas. Don’t believe it. Consider this: the set of academic departments that one finds in most “colleges of liberal arts and sciences”–history, chemistry, sociology, physics, and so on–has remained remarkably stable for many decades. How, exactly, is that “radical?”
Yet as Mikaila Lemonik Arthur shows in her enlightening book Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education (Ashgate, 2011), some curricular changes have occurred, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. When I went to college in the 1980s, interdisciplinary minors and majors such as Women’s’ Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Queer Studies (the three cases Lemonik Arthur analyses) were in their infancy. Now the first is nearly ubiquitous, the second is growing rapidly, and the third is gaining steam.
How did these new “identity studies” disciplines succeed in finding a place at the already-full academic table despite the residence of many stakeholders? Lemonik Arthur’s answer is complicated, but suggests that the deans are more nimble that we–or rather I–thought. Beginning in the late 1960s, they saw rising demand for courses in these emerging disciplines, some of which was signaled by waves of student activism. They responded by increasing the supply, albeit slowly. The first institutions to do so were of lessor status. Once they showed that the “identity studies” courses were viable in terms of enrollment and didn’t harm (and in fact helped) recruitment and fund-raising efforts, the more prestigious schools followed. Their status rose and the money began to flow. These two developments, in turn, allowed the “identity studies” disciplines to institutionalize, that is, to secure places among (actually, between) departments and in course catalogue.
This is a fascinating study of how even authoritarian institutions (like most colleges and universities!) can sometimes prove responsive to their clients.