- Powerful Subjects: Are Women Really Taking Over the University?
Are women really taking over the university? In terms of numerical dominance, the answer appears to be yes, as women enjoy a slight majority in their enrollment in higher [End Page 362] education. However, how has this mass participation of women in the academy impacted the curriculum and culture of higher education? What kind of power do these women students exert in what has traditionally been a male domain? Does women's participation in higher education engender a sense of empowerment for them? These are some of the questions that Jocey Quinn examines in her book, Powerful Subjects.
Quinn's work concurs with and expands upon existing literature that asserts that increased access to higher education requires major changes to the status quo, as opposed to "mere tinkering with the system" (p. 8). Her ethnographic research, framed in a feminist perspective, examines the academy's impact on women, as well as their impact on the academy and how knowledge is produced.
The first chapter introduces and provides context for Quinn's work. She conducted in-depth case studies of the educational experiences of 21 diverse women students who attended one of two universities, located in the UK, that committed to increased access. The women were second-year students enrolled in American Studies and Environmental Studies courses. Quinn intentionally selected these areas of study for several reasons: (a) the courses are mainstream rather than marginal; (b) traditional one-subject disciplines, such as English, had already been explored in past research, thus she is filling a gap in the literature; (c) these fields are not predefined by gender in the way that other subjects (e.g., science) are; and 4) she reasoned that the interdisciplinary nature of these courses would provide access to a wider range of curricular discourses. Her data collection consisted of focus groups, one-on-one in-depth interviews, the review of diaries kept by the women, class observations, and analysis of course materials and other key documents.
In chapter 2, Quinn provides an overview of the current gendered nature of the academy. Women remain overrepresented in certain majors, such as the arts, humanities, and education, yet underrepresented in science and technology, fields often associated with higher status and earning potential. Indeed, men appear to have more status in that they earn a disproportionate number of First Class Degrees in the UK and continue to dominate at the Ph.D. level. Quinn asserts that the mass enrollment of women in the academy presents a potential struggle for control between men and women over the "power to name what is worth knowing" (p. 25).
Chapter 3 examines the impact of feminist discourse on the higher education curriculum, and chapter 4 looks more specifically at feminist pedagogy within mainstream subjects. Quinn notes that while feminism has an increased presence in the curriculum, women continue to be marginal to the curricular discourse and anti-feminist pedagogy still pervades in the mainstream. She observed a lack of women featured as producers of knowledge, a rejection of emotional involvement in the classroom (e.g., emotion framed as "anti-scientific"), and women discouraged from aligning themselves with "feminist" subjects (e.g., eco-feminism). In addition, she witnessed an educational environment marked by a heavy reliance on mainstream (e.g., lecture-style) pedagogy, which tends to keep power away from the student, stifle dialogue and difference, and discourage widened participation.
In chapter 5, Quinn explores the impact of social class on women students' learning experiences. A theme of this chapter is the [End Page 363] fact that increased diversity in higher education is often perceived as diluting its quality. In light of this, Quinn emphasizes the need to understand and value the difference that working-class women bring to the academy. She found that the middle- and working-class women in her research experienced higher education very differently. For example, white working-class women were less likely to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. Working-class women were also...