Discussing Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Classroom with Dr. Tracy Butler – Interview Series #4

With this blog article, I am happy to bring you the next installment in my Interview Series. (There are many more to come!) In May, I talked with Dr. Tracy Butler about her teaching. Dr. Butler is a professor at the University of Houston and teaches in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and in the Department of History. Our conversation is below. 


Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda (AJP): Tracy! Thank you for taking time to participate in my interview series for my blog. I always love talking with people who I know love teaching and learning and thinking as much as I do!

Dr. Tracy Butler (TB): Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for thinking of me.  

AJP: Why do you teach, and why Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS)?

TB: Well first, I had some really great teachers, so they inspired me to teach, but also, I’ve just always been a huge nerd. I was one of those kids who always loved school and loved learning. I wanted to gain as much knowledge as I could about a subject that I was interested in. I loved it so much that I wanted to instill that desire and that love in others.

As for WGSS, I’ve been a feminist from a young age. I grew up in a family of four girls, so it was kind of natural for me to think, “Yes, women are people who deserve equal rights.” I never questioned the validity of feminism, or questioned why we need it. My older sister, Laura, was into women’s studies and taught me a lot, and then I started reading on my own. I wrote papers about it in high school and took classes in college. When the opportunity to start working at Women’s Studies arose and then later the chance to teach classes, it seemed like a natural fit for me.  

AJP: Could you tell us more about your background. Especially, how you identify, and how you balance your own privilege in the classroom?

TB: I identify as a straight cisgender White woman, so I realize that I carry a ton of privilege in the classroom, despite my identity in one marginalized class (as a woman). When I first started teaching, I was really intimidated by my privilege, especially teaching at such a diverse campus like the University of Houston. I’ve learned a lot through reading new material, but also through listening to my students and allowing them to share their individual experiences. This is partly why even when I lecture, I still incorporate discussion into it. I don’t want to take up too much space in the classroom. I’m still working on that.  

AJP: I think we almost all wish we had more time with students in the classroom! What topics, theories, people do you most look forward to teaching, and why?

TB: I think that changes every semester. bell hooks is a favorite of mine, and intersectionality is always a huge hit with students, but last semester I introduced some new material on the social constructions of marriage and sexuality, and I think that was my favorite this time. It was so interesting, new and fresh to me, and really fun to teach.  

AJP: It always seems to help keep the course new and exciting when we change things and when we are excited about the material. Can we talk about intersectionality a bit more? Lately, there have been several articles where the author is very critical about how people are applying the term. One article was saying “intersectionality is not the same as diversity,” and another one was talking about how intersectionality has been “colonized by White people.” What are your thoughts about this? What is “intersectionality” to you?

TB: Well, I haven’t read either one of those articles, so I can’t comment on either one, but to me, intersectionality means acknowledging that people are whole human beings, with multiple aspects of their identity, but many parts of those identities often get ignored within liberation groups because they’re focusing on fighting for a single cause. For example, the feminist movement is often criticized for not being intersectional enough, either because it focuses on mostly white women’s issues, or mostly straight women’s issues, or it excludes trans women. I even observed some of that in some of the testimonials of people who attended the women’s march. The problem is, ignoring the intricacies of people’s identities doesn’t work, because people are multidimensional human beings. Also, there are often parts of people’s identities that are hidden, so people should be conscious of that. For example, you can’t tell by looking at me how I identify in terms of sexual orientation, or religion, or even ethnicity. And making assumptions about people can often be hurtful, and in some cases, even oppressive.

AJP: I really like the way you put that. Thank you. Moving along, are there any authors or texts that have particularly influenced your teaching and research?

TB: Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, since I’m a Latin Americanist/Mexicanist by training and some of what I research is related to intersectionality and also relations between the Global North and Global South, I really like Audre Lorde, Kimberle Crenshaw, but also obviously, Gloria Anzaldua. I also really enjoy Philip Marfleet’s work on the politicization of immigration and the refugee status, which is especially relevant in the current political climate. His work is one of my favorites to teach, actually. I think it’s so important right now.   

AJP: On this note, are they ways in which your research or personal interests impact how you teach WGSS?

TB: Oh, absolutely. I mean, how could it not? This class is all about identity politics, right? I know that instructors disagree about this and approach their classes differently, but we do get political sometimes in my class. I don’t try to tell them what to think, but rather how to think, but I do that by introducing current events and discussing them and asking them to think and talk through them and sometimes students get very passionate, which to me is okay. It is a difficult balance because you don’t want to turn students off if you seem like you’re pushing too much of an agenda, but at the same time, this is ultimately a class being taught through a feminist lens, and I’m honest about that. We may not always agree on things… feminists do not agree with each other about everything anyway, but I do want them to understand feminism, so yes, sometimes it is personal. One of my personal passions is yes, social justice, but more specifically, immigration reform. I’ve been passionate about that issue for years, ever since I started reading more about immigration history during my master’s studies. I include it in this class, which I think a lot of students are not expecting…but I think it’s important and relevant to this class. It’s an issue with lots of gendered, racialized, and class-related implications.   

AJP: For sure, it’s important for students to be “uncomfortable” at times and for them to learn that discussing current events is not only okay but important. Too often people brush aside current events hoping they will somehow “go away.” If you had to name one thing, what would you most want students to gain in your class?

TB: I would want them to gain an understanding of intersectional feminism, of course, but I also want them to be able to apply it to their own lives and learn the best ways for them to take action. We talk a lot about activism and how each person approaches it differently. I want them to find a way to contribute to positive change in any way they can, and that may look different for each person.  

AJP: “Intersectional feminism” – could you tell us more about what that exactly means?

TB: Intersectional feminism is a liberation movement aiming to bring about equality from a multidimensional point-of-view. So while feminism may have originally been born out of the idea of bringing about gender equality for women, the definition of its goals have changed over time to become more inclusive. Intersectional feminism fights for trans rights, gay rights, racial justice, gender equality, disabled people’s rights, economic justice, immigration reform, etcetera, because ALL of those issues affect marginalized groups of people. Its mission is to overturn the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that bell hooks talks about.

AJP: On another note, I about think about how we can get people to see the value of non-STEM courses. Do you have any thoughts on how we can help people see that WGSS and other Liberal Arts-based courses are essential, too?

TB: Oh, I think listening to other students who have taken this class might do the trick. I’ve had many students who tell me how much they enjoyed the course, but others for whom it seemed fundamentally life-changing. A lot of students have told me they wish they had taken this class earlier, or they wish it was a required course. So the students gain a lot out of the class in terms of understanding power and how it influences or colors their lives. Beyond that, obviously, there is the benefit of having regular writing, reading, and critical thinking practice, but I think this course in particular promises much bigger benefits than that.  

AJP: That’s great to hear. I know your students really do love your class! Okay, wow…we’ve covered a lot. Is there anything else you would like to add?

TB: I just want to say that the Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class means a lot to me. I learn so much from my students, and I enjoy teaching them. It means the world when I can see them “getting” it. I still remember seeing some students make connections between different types of injustices, like in the context of intersectionality. A lot of my students, particularly my students of Color, understand this even before they start the class. They just don’t always have a name for it, until we talk about it. It’s really something to see them make these connections and talk about them.   

AJP: There really is great power in learning how to name a given problem and to realize one is not alone. Great. Thanks so much for your time.

TB: Thank you!