Judith Butler’s Flexner Lectureship Inspires Bryn Mawr’s Intellectual Community

Posted December 8th, 2011 at 5:24 pm.

Butler with students at coffee hour

A selection of photographs by Paola Nogueras '84, embedded above and posted on Flickr, depicts some of Butler's activities during her stay at Bryn Mawr.

During Judith Butler’s three-week residency at Bryn Mawr as the 2011 Mary Flexner lecturer, the  eminent philosopher and critical theorist drew overflow crowds to her public lectures, engaged in discussion with more than 80 scholars from around the region, and spent time with scores of Tri-College students, both in and out of the classroom. She autographed Butler-themed memorabilia created for the occasion; spoke with students on topics ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Lady Gaga; and gracefully received an “Anassa kata,” the Bryn Mawr College cheer.

For many at Bryn Mawr, the Flexner Lectureship was a prime example of the excitement of belonging to a community focused on intellectual enterprise. If students sometimes gave Butler the rock-star treatment, says Flexner Planning Committee Chair Sharon Ullman, their enthusiasm reflected a powerful interest in fields such as gender and sexuality studies and queer theory, where Butler’s work has been foundational.

BMC Professor of History Sharon Ullman introduces Butler's final Flexner Lecture

BMC Professor of History Sharon Ullman introduces Butler's final Flexner Lecture

“Given the number of students and faculty members at Bryn Mawr who engage in gender and sexuality studies as well as queer theory and critical theory, it isn’t surprising that Judith Butler’s residency generated so much excitement,” says Ullman, a professor of history who has published extensively on the history of sexuality in the United States.

Kate Thomas, an associate professor of English who taught Lesbian Immortal, one of five Bryn Mawr courses associated with Butler’s Flexner Lectureship, agrees.

“There was a perfect fit between her field and our students’ interests,” Thomas says. “Butler offers a model of a scholar whose intellectual work is fully engaged with social and political issues. That has a powerful appeal to our students, and the campus was electrified by her visit in ways that reached far beyond the classroom.”

“I loved how the Flexner Lectures served as launch pads for discussion all over campus, not just in class,” says Mary Zaborskis ’12, a double major in English and psychology who is enrolled in Thomas’ course and served on the student committee “It was great to see how conversations about them kept appearing in other places, between students majoring in a wide range of disciplines.”

“I was surprised and gratified at how much discussion the Flexner lectures generated among faculty, staff, and students alike,” says María Cristina Quintero, who taught the Flexner-related course Queens, Nuns, and Other Deviants in the Modern Iberian World. “There was a sense that we were all participating in a shared conversation with people talking about the lectures and activities everywhere: in the hallways, the bookstore, the Campus Center and, of course, in the classroom.”

After each of her public lectures, Butler conducted a faculty seminar at which scholars from Bryn Mawr and other colleges and universities around the region delved into issues raised in the lecture. Scholars from colleges and universities throughout the region were invited to apply to attend the seminars.

“We received almost 90 applications and were able to accommodate most of them,” says Ullman. “The seminars gave us an opportunity to make stronger connections with scholars at neighboring institutions who share our interests. The lectureship as a whole, including the social events and the Center for Visual Culture colloquium featuring Butler, produced an extraordinary exchange of ideas and helped create a real sense of intellectual community.”

Students enrolled in Flexner-related courses found Butler’s class visits equally inspiring.

Kersti Francis ’13, a double major in English and medieval and Renaissance studies who is concentrating in gender and sexuality studies, signed up for both Thomas’ and Quintero’s courses.

“In Queens and Nuns, we discussed Renaissance literature of Spain and the new world,” Francis says.

“Most of the literature we had been reading was unfamiliar to her, but I was impressed by the way she was able to jump in and make connections. It was really great to get her feedback on our application of  theoretical concepts that she had developed in a different historical context to texts of this era.”

“When Butler visited my class, she was witty and down to earth,” Quintero says. “Later, she told me how much she had learned from my students, and she seemed to mean it.”

When Butler visited Thomas’ course, which focused on 19th- and 20th-century texts, the students were discussing two books by Daphne duMaurier, including Rebecca, which became the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Butler “told us that she is a huge fan of Hitchcock and film noir, and she was very familiar with the text we had been reading. We were able to dig into the text really deeply, and we had a great conversation about queer temporalities,” says Zaborskis.

Lauren Smith ’12, a history major who is taking Ullman’s Queering History course, enjoyed Butler’s visit to her class and found her interaction with Butler in a less-formal dinner setting personally gratifying.

Butler with students at coffee hour

Butler with students at coffee hour

“At dinner, the seniors at my table talked to Butler about our thesis projects. In my thesis, which focuses on a scandal surrounding a case of male prostitutes who were blackmailing their affluent clients in London’s West End in 1936 and ’37, I am using an adaptation of some of her ideas about subversive bodily acts-those that reveal gaps in gender performances-to discuss subversive spatial acts, or the construction of queer geographies. When I described my project, she said, “Wow! That’s great!’ That was definitely worth Tweeting about,” Smith said wryly.

Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore students who are affiliated with programs in gender and sexuality studies or philosophy were invited to a coffee hour with Butler, and a group of about 60 students, selected by lottery, attended a dinner with Butler. At the dinner, Butler spent time at six tables, chatting with a group of about 10 students at each table.

“There were a lot of opportunities for one-on-one interactions with her,” says Zaborskis, who served on a student planning committee for Flexner-related events and posted regular commentary on Butler’s work on the Flexner Reading Club Blog. “But I think we were all surprised at how approachable and friendly she was.

“I have to admit that I was a little bit star-struck at the prospect of hosting Judith Butler on campus, but she was really very generous with her time and willing to discuss almost any topic,” Zaborskis continues.” And she was a lot of fun! I was thrilled to be able to talk about Lady Gaga with her, and when she autographed my t-shirt, she remembered the conversation and referred to Gaga in her autograph.”

In an interview with Butler for the for the college news, Zaborskis and co-editor Maddy Court ’12 asked Butler about a variety of topics, including her position on women’s colleges, her relationship to feminism, and her favorite pastime.

“Bryn Mawr impresses me as being intense, intimate, and dedicated to serious study and conversation,” Butler told the college news. The excitement surrounding Butler’s visit reminded the community how valuable and vital those qualities are.

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