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PWR 1IYA: The Art and Science of Gender and its Bending

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Artists have been bending gender, destabilizing simplistic binaries, for a long time. Virginia Woolf argued that the artist’s soul must be “androgynous,” the pop musician Prince perfected the androgynous look, and today Jaden Smith wears “women’s” and “men’s” clothing alike. But scientists have also weighed in, sometimes siding with traditional views, and sometimes helping revolutionize ossified perceptions. By researching and writing about the ways art and science have shaped our conceptions of gender, you will explore important questions: Is gender in the body, in the mind, in our culture? How do artists and scientists communicate about it, and whom do we trust more, when? What might Kaitlin Jenner have to tell us, and how might she reach a different audience than the recent National Geographic special issue “Gender Revolution”?

You will explore the ways thinkers from both the arts and the sciences have expressed, conceptualized, and argued for what gender is (and can be). You’ll learn how to recognize the choices and stakes embodied in writings by geneticists and psychologists, stories about real-life gender benders such the American jazz musician Billy Tipton (born a woman and living as a man in the 1950s), and Nature documentaries that trace gender-bending in the non-human world. In your own research, you will investigate, for example, the science and politics of schools’ adaptations to be more gender-inclusive, the complex negotiations of gender in particular cultures, or the way a particular writer, public intellectual, or activist movement articulates its ideas about gender.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) You will analyze the strategies by means of which an author, artist, filmmaker, or musician shapes how her audience perceives or conceives of gender. You might examine the covers of Ms magazine, a scientific journal article about male hormone deficiency syndrome, or the website of the Intersex Society of North America. How can the communicative choices you detect become part of your strategies as a writer?

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) You will offer a critical survey of scholarship on a research question you choose—a foundation for your Research-Based Argument. Comparing texts from a variety of perspectives, you’ll develop your research agenda. You might explore, for example, how the intersex movement and psychologists’ discoveries are changing doctors’ changing practices with regards to intersex infants. How a particular artist—or a genre, such as drag—challenges and shapes our conceptions of gender. Or the ways parenting practices around gender norms are changing. You might consider how gender fluidity can be shaped by economic factors that make it a luxury rather than a right. Or how transgender individuals make use of social media to document their transitions, and with what effects for themselves, their communities, and the larger social discourse.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) Here, you will craft an original argument in response to your research question, drawing on the sources you find relevant and productive: books, articles, films, newspapers, interviews. This essay will be a chance to engage and contribute to the vast interdisciplinary conversation on gender, taking into account the social, psychological, scientific, economic, aesthetic, and historical dimensions that allow us to not only experience gender but also translate it into meaning.