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The Genius Behind GWSS Department Status

June 9, 2016

Photograph of Naomi Scheman

Photograph of Naomi Scheman
Photo: Lisa Miller

Core founding faculty member Professor Naomi Scheman has long been a pivotal and innovative force in the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. While chairing the then Women’s Studies program from 19861989, she discreetly upgraded it to department status by simply ordering new stationery and correcting everyoneincluding deansto use “department.” Her subversive spirit in and outside of the classroom is one of the things that makes her a true GWSS treasure and we are delighted to have the opportunity to honor her and her career on May sixth at the GWSS Retirement Celebration and Legacy Gala.

Since joining the University in 1979, Scheman has been a top contributor in making GWSS what it is today. She has taught numerous undergraduate classes and graduate seminars, as well as advised multiple doctoral dissertations during her tenure. Her classes have been, largely, advanced theoretical courses in feminism, sexuality, and gender and include the university’s first transgender studies course. Her final course, which she is teaching this semester, is a seminar team-taught with Roy Cook, Associate Professor of Philosophy. GWSS 8230: Cultural Criticism and Media Studies examines the icon of the superhero in comics, film, and television through the critical lenses of gender and sexuality; racialization and alien otherness; and (dis)ability.

Scheman’s use of critical lenses has always been an integral part of her work as she pushes the boundaries of what we think we know. In all of her classes, Scheman urges students to carefully dissect familiar categories, like race, sexuality, and gender, and ask ourselves what we can really discern from them: “We think we know what gender is, but we don’t,” she says. “It is what we do with it, and in today’s day and age those practices are a messan exciting mess that is messing with clear, rigid gender divisions for good reason. ‘Gender’ is a word that has a lot of meaning to it but that meaning is contested and contradictory. Thinking critically needs to include living with complexity and ambiguity.”

Scheman’s work in GWSS, as well as her contributions to philosophy and the College of Liberal Arts, all look to these more intricate questions, valuing what she refers to as the “critical spirit” of those to ask more epistemological questions of our world. In May 2016, Scheman will be heading off into retirement and while we will miss her intellectual prowess and good humor considerably in GWSS, we are forever grateful for the legacy she leaves behind. “Philosophers are those people who were developmentally stuck at age three. They are the ones that always ask ‘why?’ Grown ups tend to think a good question is one that you can answer and, for me, that’s certainly not always the case,” she says. “I value those who are intellectually bold and love thinking hard. Minds are so much fun and thinking hard is a hoot; anyone can do it. My advice to students, colleagues, anyone, is to not press forward and never let people who throw fancy stuff around intimidate you.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.