Q&A: Professors Kyla Tompkins and Aimee Bahng Take "Keywords" from the Classroom to the Kitchen

Kyla Tompkins Aimee Bahng Keywords book

Gender and Women’s Studies Professors Kyla Wazana Tompkins (also a professor of English) and Aimee Bahng are part of the editorial team for the recently released Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies, which they bill as a textbook meant to travel from the classroom to the kitchen table. Part of a series, the collaborative project (with Tompkins as managing editor) gathers nearly 80 authors —both academics and activists—commissioned to write about 70 keywords from the interdisciplinary field. This project was supported by Pomona College.

This conversation with Tompkins and Bahng, condensed and edited for length and clarity, elaborates on the process and goals of the book, examples of what prisms gender and sexuality must be viewed through, and the state of gender and women’s studies at Pomona.

What was the goal of the book Keywords and what is your takeaway from this experience?

Bahng: What I came away with from the launch is that the volume really does the job that it's designed to do, which is to be teachable, and useful, and not just sort of teachable in the way that it's an encyclopedia where you look something up, and you're done with it. There are also such a series of rich provocations in there that open onto new conversations and really deepen the level of engagement with the field keywords.

Tompkins: Aimee put it beautifully. I think the most important thing that can happen to a scholar’s writing is that it gets used. All of us who were on the collective are all people who teach in gender studies departments that are teaching intro gender studies classes. So all of us were trying to think about how can we create a volume that is the one we want that we don't have. We're all going to keep cobbling together stuff, because it's a field that keeps moving, but it's a volume that is thinking from the center of intersectional feminism, transnational feminism, queer of color critique, you know, as a kind of epistemic center rather than as an additional model. We didn’t want to create a volume that arrives at the conclusion that intersectionality is the place from which to work, but instead actually starts there, and then builds out into its possibilities and limits.

Can you tell me how you came up with these keywords?

Bahng: Picture the keywords editorial collective in a hotel suite with many sticky notes and a whiteboard. Actually, it was just one of those more analog paper versions. And at first, it's just throwing everything you want up at the wall, and then working to pare down and make some prudent choices based on how many pages we have to work with.

It's painful to leave anything on the cutting room floor. But we also had a mind to the moment in which this volume is coming out and the idea that there may be second and third editions. The American Cultural Studies volume, which was the first in the keyword series, is now in its third edition.

For the virtual book launch, I was asked to reflect on how a few of those terms would come together for a feminist science and technology studies classroom. So I took about a dozen terms, everything from “disability” to “trans.”

There were a couple of other surprising terms that you wouldn't necessarily immediately think of in terms of science. But, for example, the term on girlhood really took a deep dive into the “sciencitization” of adolescence itself and the problematic story of development, especially as it's attached to colonial projects. It's really good.

Tompkins: We also thought a lot about what are the sticky intellectual places we find ourselves in our classroom: What are students asking us about that we need to catch up to? What are the hot spots in the field that are either contentious or knotted? We also had a community consultation meeting at NWSA, at the National Women's Studies Association, where we put a list of all the keywords up on the board with about 40 or 50 people in the room. We asked them to tell us what was missing, and out of that meeting we added six more keywords.

Can you each share an example of how gender and sexuality must be conceptualized through the prisms of racialization, coloniality, nation and class, as you indicate in the introduction?

Bahng: It's in every single essay in the volume which is kind of amazing. All of us were committed to telling those stories. In her essay on girlhood, Karishma Desai [of Rutgers University] is telling this history of the conceptualization of adolescence, and the history of evolutionary biology, and the racial science that undergirded notions of social progress and human development. People associate this kind of eugenicist thinking with Nazi Germany, but in the 1920s and '30s, it was also very much part of the U.S., at a time when the rhetoric of development and progress is being used to rationalize the occupation and invasion of other countries and areas that are somehow perceived to be more primitive, or not as developed. Or, unfit for European civilization, the way that a lot of Pacific islands were conceptualized to rationalize the military base expansion and occupation of these spaces that were otherwise dismissed as agriculturally unviable. I was just reading Traci Brynne Voyles' book Wastelanding, which is all about the history of uranium mining on Navajo land, but the introduction sets up that discussion with a story about how 19th century explorers and colonizers described the Southwest as being arid and undevelopable to somehow justify the annihilation of the people there who must have been too primitive to understand that they were living somewhere that was undevelopable.

But at the same time there are these horrid accounts of these second and third wave soldiers coming through an area where the Navajo had already been forced out. But what they left were these beautiful orchards of peaches that they had carefully cultivated over generations that were then just razed to the ground. It was war on the trees, because it was so offensive to these settler colonial occupiers that they were wrong about the viability of the land.

Tompkins: In co-writing the race entry, I learned a lot. Our colleague, Mishuana Goeman who's at UCLA, and is a member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, wrote a whole section on the evolution of the census. And this section on the evolution of the census talks about the strategic moments at which gender is not included. The first census, which is only a census of free people, only genders white people. And then later censuses include Native people as foreign nationals, but only count men as head of the households. And what she shows us is that doing so was a strategic move to disenfranchise Native women who in many nations were the traditional landholders. So the strategic deployment of gender is a way to seize land.

Kyla, you talk about biopower in one of your pieces. Can you explain what that is?

Tompkins: Biopower is a definition of political power in which political power is invested in the biology of humans and non-human animals. Pap smears are one example that I often use with my students, which is that when I was their age, to be given birth control, you had to consent to a pap smear and a STI check. I often use that as an example of the way that biopower is a formation of state power that intervenes into the most intimate spaces of your desires and of your body in such a way as to regulate and manage reproduction and production.

What was most rewarding about editing and contributing to this volume?

Tompkins: Absolutely the most rewarding thing was learning or being affirmed in the sense that collective collaborative work makes everybody smarter. I can't even find a higher reward than the experience of learning with my colleagues in the collective, and unlearning what I thought I knew, and contributing things that I thought I knew, and that we created just something that was bigger and better than all of us on our own. I think this is one of the most important experiences of my professional and scholarly life…It truly was a collective in every way.

What are the strengths you see about the gender and women’s studies program at Pomona College?

Tompkins: People often talk about the decline of the humanities in this period, and the rise of STEM, or sometimes they're generous, and they say STEAM to include the Arts. I think another story to tell is the explosion of interdisciplinary programs, and that gets lost in that story. But our major is booming, and our classes are always full. Particularly our entry-level classes are bottlenecked. They're usually waitlisted for as many students as we can have in the class, and we don't have enough teachers for it. And that's just a good thing. We're a growing program and trying to meet a lot of student demands. We had Pomona students in mind as we worked on the keywords volume, because that's the classroom we have in mind to test the volume against.

Because our students are so smart, my experience at Pomona has always been that my students are leading me, I'm not leading my students. My students are leading me to areas of knowledge that I need to get to because they want to know more about them. My students are leading me because they're demanding, and they're smart, and they ask hard questions. And so I really hope that this is a volume that also serves Pomona students, because they're just an incredible group of people with whom to test the ideas in the book. And they'll tell us what works and they'll tell us what doesn't work.