May 2020 | Volume 21 No. 2
As the new ‘I’ of ‘inclusivity’ was unofficially added to the University’s mission statement in 2015, the question of instituting gender studies as an academic programme became central to the pursuit of establishing that inclusivity within the curriculum. In December 2015 Arts Dean Professor Derek Collins established a Gender Task Force which became the Committee on Gender Equality and Diversity (CGED), chaired by Professor Gina Marchetti. The CGED hired Dr Elizabeth LaCouture who, alongside Professor Julia Kuehn, then Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Arts Faculty, proposed the programme.
Launched in the first semester of 2018, the major is based on three questions: Who am I? The programme helps participants understand their identity. What is my relationship with larger communities and structures? This involves exploring the relationship of individuals and groups to larger cultural, social, economic, and political spheres, and examining how gender and sexuality intersect with other categories of social difference, such as, race, ethnicity, social class, and ability. And, how can I change the world? Gender Studies emphasises transforming theory from the classroom into real-life social action.
Uniquely Hong Kong elements
Dr LaCouture is keen to emphasise the uniquely Hong Kong elements of the programme. “For me at HKU the three questions developed organically from teaching students, responding to their questions and interests as well as to the local situation in Hong Kong. From the beginning, I have wanted our programme to be firmly grounded in a local context. HKU is a global university, but we are in Hong Kong and in Asia. I want our programme to reflect that.”
Inclusivity is a key term within the programme. “We practise inclusive pedagogies because that is core to our discipline,” said Dr LaCouture. “We highlight inclusivity from day one in every class. We write it into our course syllabi. We are also aware that inclusion at HKU has unique elements. Language, for example, is a major issue of inclusion in Hong Kong, so when students do group work I tell them to first pick a language for their group that is inclusive to all members and that the process through which they choose the language must be inclusive.
“When doing final projects in ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’ we spend time in class developing best practices for inclusive group work as a class. The time we spend talking about inclusion pays off. In their reflection essays for group work, students talk about how inclusive their groups were; some of them say it was the most inclusive group they have ever joined at HKU; others who don’t normally participate in groups say that now they participate more. And when students who have taken our classes go on to organise student groups and activities, they take these lessons of inclusion with them.”
‘Spots of Light: Women in the Holocaust Exhibition’, co-hosted by European Studies, Gender Studies, Committee on Gender Equality and Diversity and Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Centre, was held in 2019.
Students having a group discussion in the ‘Introduction to Gender Studies’ class.
The programme has proven popular with students across the faculties. Due to overwhelming demand in year one – the first semester was oversubscribed by 77 per cent and the second semester by 68 per cent.
It has also been busy, staging 13 events in the first year, covering topics as diverse as ‘Race and Asia’, ‘The Compass to Navigating Your Career and Finding Purpose’ and ‘Too Many Americans? Debates on the Population Crisis and the Politics of Reproduction in Post-World War II America’.
Dr LaCouture’s own interest in Gender Studies comes from her background as a historian of China with focus on women’s history. “My interest on gender issues in China was sparked by my junior year abroad, which I spent in Beijing from 1993 to 1994. Beijing was preparing for the UN conference on women and it was a really important moment in the development of women’s studies in China. It was a very exciting time to study gender in China!”
She aims to pass that excitement on now through the Gender Studies programme. In terms of what she hopes the students will get out of it, she commented: “Our majors are going to be uniquely positioned to work in the growing field of diversity and inclusion in Hong Kong, but they can also apply the lessons from the Gender Studies classroom into all fields. One of our goals is to put theory into practice and we are constantly challenging students to think about how the lessons relate to the ‘real world’. We also have a new course on leadership: we are training the next generation of female leaders and the next generation of male and female leaders who care about issues of diversity and inclusion.
“Our students are already bringing the Gender Studies classroom to the world! A group of our majors started an organisation on gender issues that ran a summer project in Nepal. Another pair of students started a talk show on YouTube that touches on issues of inclusion. I am really looking forward to seeing what our amazing students do when they graduate.”
Our majors are going to be uniquely positioned to work in the growing field of diversity and inclusion in Hong Kong, but they can also apply the lessons from the Gender Studies classroom into all fields.
DR ELIZABETH LACOUTURE