NWSA Conference Redux

Just over a month ago I was just starting the main part of the National Women’s Studies Association conference. I finally have a few minutes now to share with you some of the ideas and sessions I went to at the conference.

Sorry it’s not liveblogging – there wuz no Internetz at the conference center *gasp*.

I pretty much just sat in the science and technology studies sessions, with the exception of the initial keynote address. A caveat – if you are the author or also attended the session, please feel free to correct my recollection! NWSA is a hard conference for me to sit in, as it requires me to activate my women’s studies language acquisition, and I am quite sure I interpreted (or copied down) things incorrectly.

  • The keynote was given by Patricia Hill Collins, who gave a very engaging talk titled, “Winning Miss World: The gendered contradictions of colorblind racism.” There was a lot in this talk, but one main gist I took away was some problems with the (weird) rhetoric that to “see” race is to create racism. In other words, one way that whites avoid dealing with racism is to construct the idea that seeing race – their own, others – is to be racist. She then talked about the concepts of racelessness, colorblindness, affirmative action and anti-descrimination legislation through a 2×2 matrix. She described racelessness as a structural way of organizing society such that race, if it exists at all, has no value in determining social hierarchies. That is, it may impact experience, but it doesn’t govern power. Colorblindness then consists of strategies that individuals, groups, and social institutions employ in efforts to achieve racelessness, but which actually creates colorblind racism. She pointed out that this strategy requires white people willingly embracing a metaphor of disability (blindness) to avoid seeing social inequalities. For people of colour, colorblindess requires performing a dual blindness, both to self and to others, and results in the philosophy of assimilation. In contrast, affirmative action requires going “through” race to get to racelessness, and anti-descrimination legislation tries to use colorblind policies to achieve racelessness, VERY SLOWLY. She then maps these ideas using the logic of gender, arguing that the public sphere and its basis on markets is by definition colorblind, but that the private sphere of organizations and families represent the right to discriminate. There was a whole bunch more (I took 5.5 pages of notes, and currently we’re on p. 2) but now we get into nation-states and such, and I understood even less, so I will stop with this description and move to the next.
  • In a session on the technologies of citizenship, Banu Submramaniam of the University of Massacheusetts-Amherst talked about the developing practice of doing DNA maps to understand your heritage, and then linked into a discussion about how caste is argued by some activists as analogous to race, and then DNA scientists go in to study caste with no sociological or historical theorization of what it means.
  • In the same session, Virginia Eubanks of the University at Albany-SUNY talked about how information technology makes citizens, particularly exploring information rights in the welfare office as mediated by computers. She points out that how a social services program is administered teaches people about government, impacts how people participate in formal government, and asks whether IT has the same effect on how people think about both technology and government, as technology becomes the face of government as people on welfare often experience it.
  • Also in the same session, Deborah White of Trent University talked about the medical-legal response to rape through the development and use of rape kits. Through her study, she found that their use often had little effect on the legal outcome of a rape prosecution and didn’t predict someone’s conviction. Instead, she found that the police were more willing to believe women who submit themselves to the invasiveness of the kit. She explored the assumptions about rape that are implicit through the kit, including the need to identify the rapist, except that 80% of assaults are commited by someone the woman knows already. The kit lays out a process for assessing whether a woman has experienced emotional damage, but women often don’t as a coping mechanism for what they have experienced. She argues that the kit represents a gendered technology that reinforces norms that women lie about their sexual assault, and that women have to put themselves forward on the state’s behalf and on the state’s terms to get their cases through.
  • I helped facilitate a session on the future directions of feminist science and technology studies (well, I mostly took notes and Virginia directed the conversation). The discussion moved around the questions of what are the interesting research questions in FSTS, and where are the gaps? and How do we develop this community of scholars? This convo deserves its own post, which maybe I’ll even get to soon. 🙂 There were about 21 people who attended, which was FABULOUS – so good to see colleagues “out there!”
  • I went to a session on complicating two-way streets between feminism and science. There were two papers, one by Cora Olson of Virginia Tech on the story of how the ginko tree was discovered as situated in a general biology class, and how we should use it to problematize the narratives of race, and the exotic and wise East that represents ancient wisdom. Jane Lehr of Cal Poly-St Luis Obispo talked about using a feminist perspective on doing research about science that didn’t have to do with gender – in particular, she suggests we talk about non-science majors or people who drop out of science as “future non-scientist citizens,” and that we acknowledge that the argument that people do science in their everyday lives privileges science as something that is inherently desirable and important, and the best way of knowing things.
  • I went to a session organized by Mary Wyer of NCSU around the new edition of her book and about the process by which the book came about: through conversations spanning a decade with a reading group. I got lots of good refs in this session that I now have to check out!
  • Mary and her students Jennifer Schneider and Felysha Jenkins also gave papers in another session on curriculum, stereotypes, and STEM education on some research they’re doing on the impact of some innovative pedagogies they’re doing in a class, and are looking for subjects to participate! Banu Subramaniam also talked about a class she teaches called “Introduction to the Biology of Difference” – there’s a little more about it here (.pdf).
  • I went to a session on editing a special issue of the NWSA Journal, in particular focusing on how to write an effective and successful proposal on a topic. I’m thinking about proposing one on gender and technology that will support new research – email me if you’re interested in finding out more!
  • Angela Ginorino of the University of Washington talked about the problems of doing research on small numbers, particularly in the context of looking at women of colour in STEM faculty positions. She talked about the Nelson Diversity Surveys, which I was shocked to learn no one else in the room knew about! So, the Nelson surveys report populations of women and people of colour in faculty positions in the top 50 departments of various kinds of science and engineering. The key thing is she reports *populations*, not samples, and this changes how you can report the data as individuals are identifiable. For example, Donna Nelson herself was the only Native American female chemistry professor in the country; she tells stories about how other women can identify their friends and colleagues too because there are such small numbers in each cell. Ginorino was arguing that the IRB Belmont report argues for the principles of respect for persons, beneficients, and justice, and that this usually means anonymity when reporting on data. But with such small numbers, it’s hard if not impossible to keep these data anonymous, and so the result is that those people are subsumed into other groups, or are excluded altogether, even though the fact that the numbers are so small clearly indicates their stories need to be told. So she was advocating for a new way of doing IRBs.
  • Shelley Erickson at ASU talked about how women described learning to be graduate students in engineering, and how it seemed to be a completely ad hoc and social-capital network way of learning, which seems to be a problem.
  • Finally, the last session was about how and where to publish in women’s studies fields, particularly with respect to publishing books. Coming from engineering, I knew next to nothing about how you go about getting a book published, but questions one needs to answer in a book prospectus include: what is the audience for your book? what is the hook? (first book on….) why should someone publish it? what should be included in a 5 p book prospectus? There was a lot of information about networking in order to get your work considered – such as volunteering to review for journals, or volunteering to write book reviews (in journals that publish such things). The editors of Signs and NWSAJ (senior associate editor, actually) was there talking about the different types of submissions they get (through commissions or open submissions), how the review process happens, what happens with conflicting reviews (which, one pointed out, may be the sign of an interesting piece), and so on. A very interesting way for me to end the conference!

After that last session, I headed back to the ranch, and collapsed for a day. Two conferences in a row is really too much, especially when they are so intellectually heavy. But one of the outcomes of the NWSA sci/tech meetings was an increased online presence, and yours truly is helping with that. So if you are into feminist science and technology research, watch this space for a new blog announcement in the next few weeks (hopefully before the semester starts) or send me your email and I’ll let you know when the new blog launches.


  1. #1 Peggy
    July 31, 2008

    Thanks for writing about this conference – wish I could have been there, especially the session on FSTS!

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    July 31, 2008

    This all sounds really interesting, but a bit hard to dig into. I often feel intimidated by gender and feminist rhetoric – I feel like I don’t know what the words mean and I don’t know enough background to even know where to start. I suspect that’s a similar reaction to the one non-scientists have sometimes when reading/hearing science reporting.

  3. #3 Zuska
    July 31, 2008

    Great post! Wish I’d been at that conference, from the sounds of it. Very depressing, though, that the Nelson surveys weren’t known even in that audience.

    About those book reviews…are you interested in doing book reviews for Signs? I have corresponded by email a little with the editor and would be happy to introduce you to her as a candidate for doing book reviews on science/tech/gender stuff.

  4. #4 Pat
    July 31, 2008

    I haven’t been to an NWSA conference for years; but Alice if you can get more of a feminist STEM presence there; I will so join you. Let me know what I can do to help.


    PS ScienceWoman you are so right about the language issues. When I need my daughter, the feminist linguist, to translate for me it’s pretty clear that whatever is being done is not being done in a way that will change the world. Perhaps our role needs to be as contributers and translators.

  5. #5 Zuska
    July 31, 2008

    Yes, I’ll echo SW and Pat on the translation issue. I love me some feminist theory but do not love wading through the sea of jargon. There has to be some way for the feminist theorists to communicate better with the very people whose lives and work they are analyzing!

    Oh, and here’s a trackback for ya.

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