Women of BU: Dr. Carrie J. Preston

Dr. Carrie J. Preston, apart from being known to host weekly “Chocolate Chats,” is the current director of the Kilachand Honors College, and has an appointment in the English department and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at Boston University. With a Ph.D. in English and a certificate in women and gender studies, Dr. Preston has seen the field evolve and grow, and her interests have followed suit. In this interview, she talks about her background in teaching, memorable moments in her teaching experience, the value of a liberal arts degree, gender-based violence in refugee camps, and Brett Kavanaugh’s recent appointment.

Responses in this interview have been edited for length and clarity.

Clara Martiny: How did you get into teaching? Where did you start?

Carrie J. Preston: My interest in being a professor really didn’t emerge until midway into college. I went to Michigan State because I was accepted into their medical school program as an undergraduate student, so when I was 17 applying for college, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I started taking courses at the medical school while I was also doing my undergraduate work. I was a biochemistry major initially, and in one of the medical ethics classes that I was taking my first year, they brought in an English professor to teach us Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I fell in love with Frankenstein. I was taking that class with a lot of students in the medical school who were far more advanced and looking forward to medical careers, and they weren't that interested in the novel, but I was fascinated by the approach that the English professor was using and I started to doubt whether I really belonged in medical school.

After pondering a little bit and exploring, I became an English major with a dance minor (I had danced since I was a child) and started to pursue those interests. Additionally, in my freshman year, I took a poorly-named women's studies class (“Issues In Women”, it was supposed to discuss issues in women’s health) as an elective that really got me interested in gender studies. I continued to pursue this interest as an undergrad and applied for a Ph.D. program my senior year. I got a Ph.D. in English with a certificate in the Women and Gender Studies program at Rutgers University.

 Frankenstein is now being taught in the freshman writing studio at Kilachand Honors College.

CM: What specifically are you interested in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies?

CJP: My interests have evolved as the field has evolved. When I was a student, most women’s studies programs were called “Women’s Studies” and were focused on feminist theory and disrupting the typically all-male, all-white canon of texts, histories, and philosophies that were often told. Largely through the success of that work, the field changed, and with the advent of Gender Studies and Queer Theory in the late 80s and 90s, my interests shifted in many ways with the field. I was reading some of the earliest works in queer theory shortly after they were written, and that really got me interested in the intersection of gender and sexuality and more activist-oriented theories. In terms of teaching, I’ve always been interested in teaching classes that bring those interests together -- performance, gender, theories of gender, and sexuality.

Kilachand has pushed me to experiment more with my teaching, so I’m doing far more interdisciplinary teaching: I’m teaching with a biomedical engineer and a doctor in the school of public health in the spring course this year. I’m also developing a strong interest in interdisciplinary refugee studies, both as a teaching interest and a scholarly interest, and part of that is taking Kilachand students on experiential learning trips, so we're going back to Lebanon to work in refugee camps again. Working with the students in Lebanon and going to the refugee camps and doing research with Syrian refugees and trying to understand their needs to develop ideas towards solutions that will promote their health and wellbeing is a really incredible experience.

Students conducting research in the refugee camps in Lebanon.

CM: What would you say is your most memorable or favorite experience either with a student or in a class?

CJP: I had a student in my “Gender Theory and Activism” class who I could tell was quite resistant to some of the challenges to our conventional way of thinking about gender and sexuality, but I didn’t realize how resistant he’d been until he wrote an article for the Daily Free Press about how he had taken the class specifically to fight with me and the other students. But in this article, it’s a really remarkable piece, he reports the changes he experienced. He then got really involved in the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, and it really transformed him. We even ended up doing a UROP project together! I hadn’t realized how much of a resistant student he was until he wrote that article, but at that point he was already changing. I think that as a teacher you don’t often get that evidence —that what you're teaching has made a huge impact, but his own self-reflection made me think that it’s possible for professors to change people’s lives.

CM: What would you say to a prospective Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies student to encourage them to pursue that interest?

CJP: I would certainly encourage to do the WGS minor here at BU, regardless of the field that they’re in. It’s an interdisciplinary minor, so some of your courses for the minor will come from your major courses. It will deepen and enrich their understanding of women, gender, and sexuality, because increasingly it’s a part of every discipline of study. That was the early goal in Women's Studies programs, when gender and women’s concerns, texts, and histories were not really part of all the disciplines across the university. A WGS minor is not like entering into a separate field, it’s actually bringing in a new perspective into your major’s field and your interest.

CM: A lot of people critique WGS Studies, often asking, “What are you going to do with that?” What is your response to this?

CJP: This question of “what are you going to do with that?” is a question that plagues almost every student pursuing a liberal arts degree, because there’s no direct connection between your major and what you're going to do next. I think even then there needs to be (and there is, at BU) a focus on the rich learning experiences of the liberal arts and all of the other reasons why you’re in college, not simply to get a job in the end. I would encourage college students as much as possible to kind of set aside those concerns because everything you learn at the university will shape who you are, and ultimately it’s about who you are that will determine what you’ll do. It’s your ability to learn and think critically and to analyze texts and ideas, history, and cultures that matter. Liberal arts opens lots of opportunities, so you will be able to do many things and find your own path: you’re not locked into any particular profession. One of the problems I see with trying to educate college students for particular professions is that our world is changing so rapidly. You can’t learn specifics to prepare you for one profession. You have to learn to learn about the world since it’s going to be constantly changing, and new profound challenges will arise. You’re learning how to face those challenges.

CM: What do you think is a current issue related to WGS Studies?  

CJP: There are many that jump to mind. In my research right now, I’m thinking about sex and gender-based violence in refugee camps, but of course, that is absolutely interconnected with our national concerns with sex and gender-based violence from #MeToo to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings here in the US. I see deep connections between the crucial work of protecting refugee women and children to help establish the future of the Middle East, and our own coming to recognize the deep damage that sexual harassment and gender-based violence here in the US have done to both women and men and people of all genders and sexuality.

This concern jumps to my mind first as one that is really prevalent and crosses bounds between nations and the world, because it’s something that’s faced by every country around the world, aggravated in unstable situations like refugee crises during violent historical moments, but here in the US where women are incredibly privileged compared to many around the world, we’re still facing really dramatic instances as documented by the instances of the #MeToo movement.

CM: What can people do to help this issue?

CJP: Students in the US are part of a dramatic moment where for the first time, there’s a recognition of the damage relatively ‘moderate’ forms of sexual violence, harassment, and abuse (not to say that those are moderate, but we often think that there is rape and then nothing else) can cause, and that they’re damaging to both men and women.

The Brett Kavanaugh hearing was a really important moment where the country in many ways was asking for a man to be held accountable for nasty behavior as a young man in spite of what some people would consider an exemplary career after that. I think this is a moment where a lot of young people can take stock. What would they want to be known about their behavior when the ‘moment’ your life comes up as a ‘hearing’? I think there was so much turmoil over this and so much hurt on both sides. Many feminists were extremely troubled that despite these allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, he was still confirmed, and I think they were just as troubled about President Trump’s mocking of women who had accused Brett Kavanaugh of abuse and assault.

The silver lining for me is that for the first time we’re really talking about a spectrum of bad behaviors that are abusive not just for women, but for men who think that to be ‘men’ these forms of masculinity are the correct forms of masculinity (when really, they aren’t). That's damaging to them as well. While our culture is not the same culture that Brett Kavanaugh was coming of age in, we can see a lot of similarities with party and hookup cultures and the ways that young men and women are trying to navigate masculinity and femininity and gender identity, and that a lot of those ways are damaging and abusive to them. I think as tough as this cultural moment has been for many in the US, I think it’s also a moment of really taking stock and taking a hard look at what forms of masculinity are similar to the ones that we learned about at ‘Georgetown Prep’ and at ‘Yale Law School’. These conversations, as tough as they are, are really important, and we could be at the brink of some widespread recognition and deep cultural change that’s my hope, anyway — that young men watching those hearings might think about the ways that these forms of masculinity are damaging to friends, women, and themselves.

Young people are at a point where they can remake and reshape the culture and conversations around sexual harassments and assault and abuse. I think in that sense young people are really powerful. I would hope at this moment students in the US will take up that challenge and educate themselves, think deeply about the culture that is raising them, and question it. Older people haven't left young people with the best options and the best models for how to navigate the complex world of gender and sexuality, and young people have a lot to teach us I’m learning all the time from the way young people are changing the way sex and gender work for them. There’s a crack in the edifice of humanity and I hope that students will take up that challenge.

 

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