“Waste Studies”, Anyone?

Here’s a field of academic endeavor that I’ll bet you’ve never heard of (and may not even want to know about): “waste studies.” And it’s not the study of sewage systems or waste-processing plants, either. It’s about, as its founder, Susan Signe Morrison, an English professor at Texas State University’s San Marcos campus, explained to me in an email: the way “societies are… structured around the control and regulation of excrement.” In other words, waste studies is about social attitudes, not facts on the ground. Heavy influenced by the fashionable-in-academia postmodernist idea that there’s no such thing as reality (there are only “texts”) and Marxist notions of class warfare, waste studies is (in Morrison’s words) about the way “societies are… structured around the control and regulation of excrement.” That means – again in Marxist terms – the way middle-class people maintain their social control by drawing “boundaries” between themselves and the lower classes that involve associating the latter with “filth, rubbish, garbage, and litter” (Morrison’s words).
Morrison, a specialist in medieval literature, introduced waste studies to the academic world early in May at the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan (to read more about the congress in my recent article for the Weekly Standard, click here). There, professors of literature offered their opinions about urine in French farce, the theology of latrines, and excrement in Icelandic sagas. None of the speakers expressed much interest in the way actual medieval latrines worked – because that wasn’t the point. Morrison. who has a book coming out titled Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics, explained to me that she hoped to turn waste studies into an “interdisciplinary” program that would “both understand waste…and draw attention to it.”

Hmm, time was when an “interdisciplinary program” at a university meant what it said: a specialized course of study based on the bodies of knowledge and methodologies of two or more academic disciplines – such as Soviet studies, in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice obtained her doctorate in 1981, a combination of intensive Russian-language training along with analysis of Soviet politics and history. Nowadays, however, an interdisciplinary program often means something quite different: training in a fashionable ideology, often based on the perceived victim status of some group and even more often embodying an animus against the white, heterosexual, European-origin males who are supposed to dominate Western society.


If you don’t subscribe to the ideology, harbor the animus, or talk the jargon, you aren’t a genuine interdisciplinary scholar, no matter how solid your academic grounding might be in any of its components. You may be a skilled physical therapist, for example, with up-to-date knowledge of the most effective ways in which people in wheelchairs can be helped to lead productive lives, but that will get you nowhere in the field of “disability studies,” a creation of the 1990s that was also the focus of several sessions at the medieval conference I attended. The Society for Disability Studies, which sets guidelines for college-level programs in the field, specifically opposes “the view of disability as an individual deficit or defect that can be remedied solely through medical intervention or rehabilitation by ‘experts’ and other service providers.” Instead, according to the society, disability studies is really about “attitudes toward disability” The University of Illinois’s Chicago campus, which offers a Ph.D. in disability studies, calls it the study of “social, cultural, and historical dynamics that have identified an array of human differences as exclusively detrimental.” In other words, there’s no such thing as a disability; there are only people who are classified by society as disabled because they are different (although, in an apparent contradiction in terms, the Society for Disability Studies requires that a certain number of its officers be “disabled”)..”Advocacy” and “empowerment” supposed to be key goals of disability-studies programs, according to the society.

The granddaddy – actually the grandma – of today’s heavily politicized interdisciplinary programs is women’s studies, which started making its way onto college campuses during the 1970s. Women’s studies, or as it is often known these days, “gender studies” (since gender traits, like disabilities, are deemed to be socially constructed, not inherent), have as their goal “challenging existing power structures and working to create a world built upon principles of social justice,” as the website of the National Women’s Studies Association declares. That association cultivates a laundry list of overtly political issues, ranging from defending Hillary Clinton against supposedly unfair media coverage to campaigning against sexist attitudes on television to… fighting efforts by budget-conscious universities to eliminate their poorly subscribed women’s studies programs (as is the case at the University of South Florida, where the women’s studies department boasts eight faculty members but only eleven undergraduates interested in majoring in the subject).

You can be a distinguished women’s historian, such as the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007), author of several highly praised studies of women in the Old South, but if you believe, as Fox-Genovese believed, that women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers came to them naturally, there is no place for you in women’s studies. In the early 1990s Fox-Genovese resigned from the Institute on Women’s Studies that she had founded at Emory University in the face of unremitting hostility from students and fellow faculty members.

Similarly, Cornell University’s lesbian, bisexual, and gay studies program baldly announces on its website that only those courses that devote a significant amount of their time to sexuality and to questioning the historical institution of exclusive heterosexuality qualify” for lesbian, bisexual, and gay studies minor at Cornell. Cornell’s peace studies program is directed by Matthew A. Evangelista, a government professor who has devoted much of his career to criticizing U.S. military policy from the Cold War to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Postcolonialist studies,” inspired by the late Edward Said’s diatribes against Western imperialism in the Middle East, is (in the words of a postcolonialist website at Emory) involves “the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period.” Those societies don’t include America, however, even though our nation was formed out of thirteen British colonies. That’s because America indulged in “displacement of native American populations, and…annexation of other parts of the world in what may be seen as a form of colonization.” That makes America an evil “settler” nation instead of a virtuous victim nation – and self-proclaimed Third World victimology is the chief prerequisite for qualifying as truly postcolonial.

In sum, interdisciplinary programs have come a long way from Soviet studies to women’s studies, disability studies, gay studies, peace studies, postcolonial studies, and now, perhaps waste studies. A long and politicized way that reflects the unfortunate politicization of many academic disciplines themselves.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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