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‘We save lives’: Department chair speaks on power of women and gender studies

Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department Chair Diane Price-Herndl said she hopes to continue her involvement in the Women & Gender Studies field in the future by continuing her research and authorial efforts. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/DIANE PRICE HERNDL

After engaging in a discussion with her neighbor about politics in academics, Women and Gender Studies (WGS) Department Chair Diane Price-Herndl said she offered another perspective on the value of educating students.

“I have a neighbor… we were having a conversation the other day about the political situation, and he was like ‘Well, I think we need to get back to the basics of reading, and writing and arithmetic,’” Price-Herdl said.

“And I said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t disagree with that, but I’m teaching college right now and if the students in college don’t already know how to read and write… I would rather my students learn about gender and racial differences in a classroom with somebody who studies it and can help them understand it, rather than learn about it from Tik Tok. And he was like ‘Oh, yeah.”

Price-Herndl arrived at USF in 2010, joining a WGS department that was disappearing amidst a provost who declared a desire to close the department.

Associate professor of Feminist Pedagogy and Feminist Research Methods at the WGS department Michelle Hughes-Miller said Price-Herndl has had a great influence on the department.

“Her effect on our department has … been profound. From her graduate and undergraduate teaching, to her transformative and public scholarship, to her immense and diverse engagement in service across all levels of our university, to her 10 years as our chair,” she said.

After “starting from scratch” in 2010, faculty members continued to join the department. In 2013, Price-Herndl became the department chair. Hughes-Miller said Price-Herndl’s effect on the WGS program has been incredibly vast, bringing important changes for students and community populations alike.

“Price Herndl has, since becoming chair, done the vast majority of our department’s public community-based presentations on and off campus on a range of topics related to the subject matter of our discipline, like reproductive justice, pay inequity, equality in medicine, International Women’s Day and women in U.S. politics,” she said.

“These talks both help to educate the general public and facilitate a stronger campus-community partnership.”

This is Price-Herndl’s last semester as department chair before she ventures on leave and potentially retires after. She said WGS means “everything” to her, as it facilitates the creation of connections while forming a better understanding of differences between individuals.

“It is such a wonderful way to connect with our students, to help our students understand all of these things in our culture that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense… It opens up all these possibilities about how you can better understand the world, better understand difference, better understand how humans interact with each other and the built environment and the natural environment,” she said.

The impact of the course is felt by students on the emotional level as well, according to Price-Herndl. She said most semesters at least one student will tell her the program made a big difference in their life.

“I don’t think a semester goes by that I don’t have a student say to me, ‘This program saved my life,’” she said. “And when I think about some of the suicide rates among kids, we save lives.”

Price-Herndl said she is not oblivious to the commonly portrayed viewpoint of WGS departments. She said she recognizes the stereotypical view that can be denoted to such departments, with some critics labeling them as ‘indoctrination.’

“That is not at all what we do,” Price-Herndl said. “What we do is help people think… It’s not like students aren’t gonna learn about race and gender… We need to help people learn about it in a way that’s critical, learn how to think about it.”

Too often, Price-Herndl said the general view of WGS fails to recognize the breadth of knowledge such programs possess their students with and the importance of the existence of such departments within university programs. The WGS department will not be deterred by the current political climate and neither will its students, according to Price-Herndl.

“We’re full steam ahead… we’re not backing away on this… People are always going to have an issue, and I would say it’s largely because they don’t know what we’re [actually] doing [teaching]…” she said.

“Our students are furious, our students are adults… you don’t need a legislator telling you all what you can and cannot study…We don’t believe it’s legal or permanent.”

Alongside her department colleagues, Price-Herndl said she aims to highlight the true focus of WGS which looks to empower and explain the variety of differences between individuals, the focus on creative thinking that the department provides and the preparation for real life circumstances that come from being a part of the WGS department.

Though Price-Herndl said it is not an easy task, the WGS department looks to better prepare their students for the real world by showing students how to understand different perspectives than their own – a theme which is central to WGS.

“How do I work with someone who is not like me? How do I understand them better? How can we still be doing really great things in the world, even if we’re doing it differently? [WGS] teaches you how to think and it teaches you how to think about other people who are not exactly like you,” Price-Herndl said.

Price-Herndl said WGS looks to promote equality for all, not just women. The department and its courses push for equality and discuss the need for equal treatment and recognition of men, women and those identifying as LGBTQ.

The department is prepared to continue succeeding and continuing to admit incoming freshmen as well as a new group of graduate students, according to Price-Herndl.

“There’s growth in the future… [The program] is flourishing. We’re doing great. As of next year, we’re becoming Women, Gender and Sexuality studies,” she said.

“People are publishing like crazy, people are getting national reputations, international reputations, they’re giving papers at conferences all over the world. Our students are going out and they’re doing great things. Our alums are all over the place doing amazing work.”