From the Inside-Out: Gender Issues Examined at Mason

Posted: May 18, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Students presenting at gender conference
Students Leah Donnelly, Susanne Kamalieh, Perry A. Threlfall and Sarah Sierralta present their research results on issues of identity at the Second Annual Gender Research Conference at Mason.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Others on campus may not have noticed, but a team of researchers quietly spent the past academic year studying gender issues at Mason. From the effects of the now-defunct gossip web site JuicyCampus to the sociological rules governing pick-up basketball games in the Field House, this team collected information about issues affecting students’ daily life at George Mason University.

This original research was entirely conducted and analyzed from the inside-out by Mason students. Eleven upper-class undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in WMST 411 or 611 Gender Research Project, a course in the Women and Gender Studies Program, chose their own research topics and used various methodologies — questionnaires, interviews and focus groups — to answer their sociological queries.

On May 7, the researchers presented their findings and received feedback from professors, students and community members at the day-long Second Annual Gender Research Conference.

“The opportunity to engage inquiry and not from the sidelines — to think through the process of formulating research questions; to collect, work through and analyze the data; to produce an analytical account of the data — is a transformative process for many students,” says Amy Best, associate professor of sociology and anthropology who teaches the courses.

Starting the Gender Research Project

The conference wasn’t merely an innovative final exam for these students. Rather, it was part of a five-year study to assess gender issues on campus.

instructors talking with a student
Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, director of the Women and Gender Studies Program, and Amy Best, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, talk with a conference attendee.
Photo by Nicolas Tan

Nancy Weiss Hanrahan, director of the Women and Gender Studies Program, says the idea for a campuswide investigation into gender issues stemmed from an influential study done by Duke University a few years ago.

But rather than employing a “top down” approach as Duke did, Hanrahan had the idea to start with students instead of professional researchers and administrators. She points out that having students conduct the research “opens up sites to us that have not been investigated by any other campus climate survey.

“It created the possibility of a different kind of study,” Hanrahan continues. “What distinguishes us [from the Duke study] is that students are generating the questions. It’s really coming from the ground up.”

The goal is for this student-led research to form the basis for a comprehensive project on gender: The Gender Research Project.

Laying the Groundwork

Before they enter the research field, students learn about feminist methodologies in addition to the basic training necessary to conduct a sociological study. Students take a three-credit class in the fall, WMST 410 or 610 Feminist Approaches to Social Research, to prepare them for their spring research projects.

But what makes their research feminist? It’s not the methods employed, says Best. It’s the sensibilities and sensitivities that the researchers bring to the subjects they’re studying, she says.

“With community research models, the people whose lives are being studied play a role in directing the research,” Best explains.

Topics covered in this year’s conference ran the gamut of social issues and were grouped into themes of “Issues of Identity,” “Dating, Hooking up and Social Boundaries,” and “Gender, Diversity and Issues of Space.”

Making a Larger Impact

“The conference is the best part of the course,” says Joanna Bosik, a graduate student in the Women and Gender Studies Program with a concentration in sociology. “It’s great to share all of your hard work, but it also feels like you’re making a contribution to others on campus.”

Shannon Jacobsen, a senior who just graduated with a BA in Integrative Studies, echoes those sentiments. “Each of our projects has the potential to make a positive impact on students’ experiences at Mason, as well as on the daily operation of the university,” she says.

The projects are making a larger impact, as well. Two former presenters have been asked to work on a Smithsonian Institution living history project, and several more have used their projects as the basis for their graduate theses.

“The conference has become a nice professional development opportunity,” says Best.

WMST 410 and 610 Feminist Approaches to Social Research will be offered again in fall 2009.

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