Welcome to Girl Museum’s 10th Anniversary year. We have many exciting projects for our community, including this new blog series, Why We Need Girls’ Studies. Each month we will feature an interview with a scholar in the field to get insights about what we are all doing in this space to further our understanding of girlhood and its experiences.
Our ninth interview is with Dr. Michele Polak, Assistant Professor, Director of Composition, at Notre Dame College, South Euclid, Ohio.
Let’s begin with defining our terms, especially since Girls’ Studies is a relatively new academic area. Can you tell our readers what your field of expertise is and how you see it within Girls’ Studies?
I currently work in Writing Program Administration. My academic training is in Composition and Rhetoric with a special topic focus in Feminist Discourses. When I started working in Girls’ Studies—writing about it, teaching it—I didn’t know anyone else working with Comp Rhet and girls; the field is mostly focused on the college writing classroom. My dissertation addressed girls’ writing at the pre-college level and how it affects their writing in the college classroom. The main claims of my scholarly publications have focused on situating girls rhetorically: how girls use their writing for identity exploration and finding agency. Because rhetoric is about purpose and audience—about action—girls’ uses of writing with intention perfectly aligns with my main scholarly field.
Why do you think we need Girl Studies?
I have heard Girls’ Studies scholars, called the “disciplinary homeless” and that really defines us as scholars. Given that history in so many different fields of study considered the roles of men and women and even boys, it’s time we start recognizing girls. Why would we not need Girls’ Studies? Driscoll argues that we have acknowledged girls only in their role as future women. It’s about time for that to change; we need to acknowledge girls for girls’ sake.
There are vast disparities globally in girls’ situations, with incremental improvements in some areas and serious steps backwards in others. From your work in Girls’ Studies, what are some positives you take away from the academic interest in girls and girlhood? What changes can it lead to?
I think one positive consideration is that our formal community is an international one, the International Girls Studies Association. The girl-focused topics discussed in the affiliated journal, Girlhood Studies, and presented at their conferences are certainly one way, for example, that someone like me, coming from a position of privilege, is able to learn about issues I would not otherwise have any insight to. I think the Association is important because they offer scholars a platform for these conversations.
At the last conference, one of the major issues of contention was that too many board members present represented only the western countries. Though the board consists of a community of scholars from all over the world, something such as acquiring access to conference attendance is difficult. The issue was addressed and discussed and turned to how to move forward with the next conference and make certain that these voices are represented. That the field is organized enough in a way that acknowledges the importance of such representation is a definite positive to what we had from when the field started a decade ago.
What are the biggest challenges now and going forward for Girls Studies in an academic world? Do you see Girls’ Studies programs being a reality?
When I first started working in the field—this was at my first university placement—I remember a colleague asking me if I felt it justifiable to be working in Girls’ Studies when there was so much work that still had to be done in Composition Rhetoric. A decade later and I sometimes feel some of my colleagues are still asking this question. I try to remember that essentially, Girls’ Studies is still a young field of study so it will take some time before those of us working in the field no longer have explain what it is. The challenge at this point is how exactly to define the field.
I used to define the field very simply, as a focus on girls between the ages of 8-18. But I have learned that this is way too basic of a definition and frankly, left out the inclusion of so many girls. What about the girls that self-define, such as those with a trans identity? Or the many, many girls that live a young life but don’t have the privilege of experiencing a traditional girlhood? I think the challenge in defining the field begins with recognizing that the traditional definition of girl needs to be revised—this is work that can be done in Girls’ Studies programs. So there is certainly a need for such programs.
We have an ongoing research question we ask everyone we interview: Do you think the Internet is a safe place for girls and why?
This is an interesting question for me as it’s where I entered girls’ studies; online space is the focus of almost all my scholarly work. When I started working in the field—around 2002—I had no hesitation in arguing that online space was a space so beautifully designed for girls, as it gave them the opportunity to play with malleable identities in spaces that were many times, created by girls and for girls which is exactly what encompasses everything that makes us think of a girl culture. But this was early Web 2.0 before social media, before Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram. Now, I think girls need some definite education in media literacy. Because there are certainly online spaces that are not beneficial in helping girls create a sense of agency and they can be really, really damaging.
But it’s really hard for me to let go of believing online space is a positive space for girls. Because there are some amazing opportunities for girls once they learn how to navigate the right spaces. The Internet has been a huge part of transforming girls from consumers to producers. From designing their own websites to making their own videos, girls are afforded a space to call their own, interacting in communities that are populated by other girls. There are so many issues about online space that still need attention with critical discussion, aside from the previously mentioned safety—online access and lack of knowledge using digital tools are only two of the highly problematic issues that girls face when utilizing online space. Yet I cannot help but recognize that girls finding community online can be a positive contribution to girls’ identity construction. I know that had I found a community of girls with like interests when I was a tween and a teen, a lot of things in my world would have been much different.
Dr. Michele Polak is currently an Assistant Professor and Director of Composition at Notre Dame College in Cleveland, Ohio. She teaches courses in composition, grammar, classical argument, and special topics courses related to gender. She is currently working on a book project that focuses on girls’ war-time diaries.
Join us next month for another interview of a Girlhood Studies scholar, Dr. Lynne Vallone of Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey.
Thanks for reading!
-Ashley E. Remer
Girl Museum Inc.