Gender and Diversity Studies (GDST) Program and the Department of Sociology Join to Form New Department

Apr 14, 2021

During the 2018-2019 academic year, the faculty in the Gender and Diversity Studies (GDST) Program and the Department of Sociology made plans to join one another. Together they established the new Department of Race, Intersectionality, Gender, and Sociology (RIGS), which houses the two distinct, yet complimentary, academic programs. Since 2019, the new department has worked to recruit new faculty, expand their programs, and establish a distinctive identity that responds to student interests. In conversation with Kristen Renzi, Associate Professor of English and the first Chair of the joint department and Kandi Stinson, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Sociology Program, we learned more about the department and its plans to serve the Xavier community moving forward. 

Q: To get us started, why did you decide GDST and Sociology would be a good match?

Kandi Stinson (KS): For one thing, Sociology already offers several courses that count toward the GDST program requirements, and so we had been contributing to the program for some time. Given that the courses in our Sociology Program were increasingly moving toward an emphasis on issues of diversity, globalization, and justice, this seemed to be a combination that made sense. 

We’re seeing now, nearly two years in, there’s a growing number of students who are either double majoring or majoring in one program and minoring in the other, and so that's really heartening, because it means that that students see the connection as well.  

Q: Once the merge officially occurred, what were some of the first steps made to build the new department?

Kristen Renzi (KR): After the merge officially happened in the fall of 2019, we knew we would be hiring what we thought would be the first GDST faculty member. The GDST Program had always existed as an interdisciplinary space so we never had a faculty line dedicated to GDST.  

Q: So that meant that anybody who taught in the GDST program was primarily teaching for another program or department?

KR: Exactly right, there was never a position dedicated solely to GDST.  So, in the fall of 2019 we were given permission to search for the very first GDST faculty member. As part of that search, we also were cognizant of and responsive to the Stained Glass Initiative’s recommendations that we have an academic on our campus who had studied the legacy of enslavement, particularly in America and the broader Americas context. We also felt strongly that we wanted someone who had studied Critical Race Theory or Black Studies. We were incredibly fortunate that we actually were able to hire three faculty from an extraordinary pool of candidates. 

KS: Yes, the hiring of three new faculty members is something that can't be overlooked in the success of this because it really put in concrete terms our commitment to Critical Race Theory and really engages our students in issues of race. 

Q: What challenges, if any, have there been in facilitating collaboration or a shared identity within this new academic home?

KS: I think we are still in the very early stages of faculty in the department collaborating across programs for two reasons. One is that it's been less than a year that we've had the new faculty members, and secondly, and probably most importantly, is because of COVID-19 we have never met together in the same place and I think that's just absolutely, critically important for community building.  

Q: Now, given that RIGS is taking shape during a time when not just our campus, but our country as a whole, is forced to pay attention to issues of racism in ways it hasn’t for quite some time, what role do you see the department playing in helping Xavier students become better educated in issues related to racial equity?

KR: I think it's imperative that we have a flourishing program on campus that focuses on Gender and Diversity Studies issues and particularly race studies issues simply because racism is so much a part of the fabric of our society. In order for us to make progress around racial equity, it's going to require a significant number of our community members 1) to be educated around these issues and be able to articulate to others the ways in which racism is not merely a problem with individual psyches, but rather a systemic issue that we face.  And 2) we need to have more education around strategies to use to combat racism. That’s work that needs to be done in a variety of different ways. The academic study of issues related to race is essential because it allows students to see how race and racism have affected and continue to affect the lived realities of large numbers of people, from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives.

Many of our students know these things from their own lived experience, and so coming to an academic institution where there is an academic discourse around and invested in the study of things that are lived realities that are felt for a student can be extremely liberating, but for others of our students who have not encountered the visceral lived experience of racism -  because of their own identities and communities - it can be eye-opening to be asked to grapple with the depth of this issue.

Q: With so many new faculty now joining this department, there are new course offerings from the GDST Program. What are some of the new courses that you were most excited about now being taught?  

KR: This is a really tough question because all of our new classes are so exciting to me.

Mich Nyawalo, Associate Professor of GDST, comes to us with a Comparative Literature degree and he also has significant experience in languages and in global cultures. He's going to be able to offer a wide variety of global courses. In the fall of 2021 we're going to be offering for the first time a class called Black Transnationalism, which will highlight the way that Blackness is a meaningful yet also varying concept in a variety of different national landscapes.

Kayla Wheeler, Assistant Professor of GDST has a Religious Studies degree. Her classes are all intersectional classes that focus on Blackness and gender in some way. She’s also able to offer courses that intersect with questions based on religious practices, which is really exciting. Wheeler is offering a course now called Race, Gender, and Islam, which is a cross-listed course with the Department of Theology. She’s also teaching a class currently called Medical Racism that was filled in seconds during registration. So I anticipate we will need to offer that on a regular basis as well. 

ShaDawn Battle, Assistant Professor of GDST, comes to us with an English degree. She is offering courses that tackle questions around race and gender as well, but from a literary and cultural perspective. She also does significant work herself in embodied practices of resistance to racism, so she's currently working on a documentary film about Chicago footwork. Battle has taught a First-Year Seminar course that was very popular on the theme of state-sanctioned violence. Battle is the first faculty in residence with the Stained Glass Initiative, so she is purposely targeting some of her courses to address the legacies and after effects of enslavement.

Q: What are you are most looking forward to as RIGS continues to develop and grow?

KS: Now that the programs are combined, one of the things I hope that we talk about more is the possibility of a capstone experience that would serve both Sociology and GDST majors at the same time. That’s something that’s very difficult to maintain without a significant number of faculty to support it. I think the new possibilities the growing department allows us are really exciting.

I also think more systemically and intentionally embedding community experiences into the programs is something that now is possible with the two programs combined and a greater number of faculty, especially since there’s a lot of overlap in faculty members’ interests. The potential for integrating real community service and community learning into both programs is more a possibility now than it was before. 

KR: I would add that faculty in Sociology and GDST are really excited to respond to the particular needs of our community, so in almost all of the departmental meetings these questions constantly come up: What do our students need? and What do our students want? We are actively seeking to invest in areas that are of significance to our communities because that's a part of the praxis that is central to our identities as teachers, but also to our identities as researchers and scholars. 

And so I would just use that as an invitation for students to reach out if there are things that we are not doing at Xavier that are missing curricularly or otherwise, I know my faculty are eager to do what they can to fill in those gaps, and if it's not something that we can currently fill, we can lobby for change.

Feature image curtesy of University Archives and Special Collections, Xavier University Library



You might also like: