He Said, She Said: Class Investigates Gender Issues at Mason

Posted: December 1, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Students at gender research conference
Brianne Russell and Susan Miller, both interdisciplinary studies graduate students with concentrations in women and gender studies, participated in the Gender Research Conference held last May.
Photo courtesy of Amy Best

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Like Dian Fossey among her apes or Jane Goodall and her chimps, some Mason students are living among their research subjects.

Amy Best
Amy Best
Photo by Evan Cantwell

The minor difference? The students in Professor Amy Best’s Feminist Approaches to Social Research course aren’t off in the wilderness studying animals — their research focuses on fellow Mason students.

Along with Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, program director of the Women’s Studies Research and Resource Center and an associate professor of sociology, Best developed a two-course sequence “where students could learn research methods that would enable them to study gender on campus,” Best explains.

WMST 410/610 was offered for the first time in fall 2007.The course is open to upperclass and graduate students with experience in women’s studies course work or sociological research, says Best. Subjects studied during the class included the dating scene at Mason; the Student Senate; the staff of Broadside, the student newspaper; and the University Scholars, Mason’s undergraduate merit-based scholarship program.

“Most studies of gender on campus tend to be quantitative in focus, and they also tend to be faculty-directed,” says Best. “But we thought maybe we could do something that would involve the students since we would be studying the students.”

In the fall class, students learn about feminist theories of social research and gain the tools necessary to conduct their own research, such as how to develop research questions, effectively interview subjects and take comprehensive field notes.

Last year, 21 students worked on preliminary data collection in small groups. Nine of those students continued on to the spring class, WMST 611 Gender Research Project.

In the spring semester, the projects students started in the fall are fleshed out and continued after being approved by Mason’s Human Subjects Review Board in the Office of Research Subject Protections.

The academic year is capped off in May with the Gender Research Conference, where students in the classes present to faculty, staff, students and community members.

Katherine Roddy, BA sociology’08, who took the class last year, recounts her experiences.

“The final seminar was such a fun culmination of our project. Being able to present our papers to interested attendees was really a rush. It made me feel like a professor for a day. I really built up my confidence by looking back over all the work I’d done and seeing how much I had learned.”

The goal is for this student-led research to form the basis for a comprehensive project on gender: The Gender Research Project. Best, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology, hopes that the class will last for five years; it’s now in its second year.

“We archive the student reports and construct video archives of the conference. One of the things we’d like to do this summer is look at all of the data together. What sort of consistencies might we find, what sort of patterns emerge?”

Best points out that research opportunities like these are few and far between for undergraduates at many universities, but that having students lead the projects is an important part of the mix.

“With community research models, the people whose lives are being studied play a role in directing the research,” Best says. So it makes a lot of sense for students to engage with other students, she says.

“My favorite part of the class was going out ‘into the field,’ sitting in dorms and study rooms with my participants, hearing their stories,” says Jade Perez, a sociology grad student who took both courses last year. “Having participants give us that sort of access to their lives was very eye-opening.”

But most important, students are able to learn by doing, not by listening.

“Field research took what I was learning how to do in the classroom with Dr. Best and gave me real-world experiences to discuss as a researcher,” says Perez.

“One of the things that I tell students all the time is that gender will reveal itself in our research in unexpected ways,” says Best. “What we think about how gender works won’t necessarily appear in our research. We have to let the research direct us. It’s a really hard lesson,” she admits.

But her students say it’s definitely worth it.

“The assignments were challenging,” says Roddy. “But they were an accurate depiction of what real research is like — very time consuming, but very rewarding.”

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