At a March 2010 conference, “Gendering the Divide: Conflicts at the Border of Religion and the Secular” (sponsored by Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict), I had the great fortune to speak on a panel with groundbreaking cultural historian and gender theorist Joan Wallach Scott, the Harold F. Linder Professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. The conference was the fourth and final meeting of ASU’s Ford Foundation-funded project on “Public Religion, the Secular, and Democracy.” In 2010-2011, Scott will lead the year-long seminar “Secularism” at the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science.

Scott is the author of numerous influential essays and books, including the widely cited 1986 essay “Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” as well as The Glassworkers of Carmaux: French Craftsmen and Political Action in a Nineteenth Century City, Women, Work and Family (with Louise Tilly), Parité!: Sexual Difference and the Crisis of French Universalism, and, most recently, the timely and highly praised The Politics of the Veil. Scott’s books are regularly reprinted, and they have been translated into several languages, including French, Japanese, Portuguese, and Korean.

There will be a panel on The Politics of the Veil at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta, featuring commentaries by Carl Ernst and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, along with myself, as well as a response from Scott.

An indefatigable advocate for and defender of academic freedom of expression and speech, Scott served on the American Association of University Professors’ “Committee A” on Academic Freedom and Tenure from 1993-2006, which she chaired from 1999-2005. As Chair of “Committee A,” Scott helped to produce the 2003 report “Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis.”

At the conclusion of the ASU conference, Scott and I met for the following wide-ranging conversation, part of the SSRC’s Rites and Responsibilities dialogue forum.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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DKK: Joan, because people know you as many things—as a theorist of gender, as a cultural historian, as an inveterate advocate for academic freedom and defender of the rights of the professoriate—I’m curious how you would describe yourself to someone who had never met Joan Scott.

JWS: That’s really hard . . . I don’t know. I would say I was a historian . . .  Somebody who—despite the fact that I’m at the Institute for Advanced Study—likes to teach, and has tried to keep teaching graduate students, even in this position where I’m not required to do so. I guess I think of myself as somebody who’s critically engaged with the work that I do, and whose work—even before I read Foucault and learned about the history of the present—always had a political dimension to it. There was always a reason, beyond just curiosity, that drove the work that I did.

DKK: Well, let’s pursue the question of what the work is. How would you describe the work that you do? Not just the topics, but the approaches you take, the methods you have adopted.

JWS: I would call it critical. I think we now have a term—more and more people are using it—which is “critical history.”

DKK: Yes.

JWS: And that suggests that the point of doing the history is to critically engage some conceptual or theoretical or taken-for-granted notion about why things are the way they are, and how they got to be the way they are. “Critical historian” is, in fact, what I call myself in a piece I did a couple of years ago in a volume edited by John Gillis and Jim Banner, which is called Becoming Historians. The University of Chicago Press published it. They asked twelve people to account for their lives! I called my chapter “Finding Critical History.” In it, I try to account for the way in which I came to do the sort of history that I think I do.

DKK: So that’s a really interesting question, about finding critical history. One of the curiosities I have about you concerns your influences. Who and what were critical formations for you? Not just ideas and texts, but the people who were formative for you: family, colleagues, students, and so on.

JWS: Right. Well, I talk about it a lot in that essay. First, I grew up in a political household. My father was a high school teacher in New York City, the president of the New York City Teachers’ Union in the late ’40s and early ’50s. He was called before various congressional committees, and he was among the first group of New York City schoolteachers to be fired in 1953, when I was twelve. So, you know, my life was defined by growing up as somebody in a kind of embattled family in the 1950s—”embattled” just vis-à-vis the political culture, not within the family itself. My mother was also a teacher, but she wasn’t ever fired. They were both history teachers—he, economics and history, and she, history.

DKK: So, from a young age you had an acute sense of what politically fraught conditions were like, but also of the significance of history.

JWS: Yes. Their bible was Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization. That was the way they taught their history. That was the history that we learned. And, you know, dinner table conversation was about politics and history and teaching, because both of them were dedicated teachers. But I think the reasons I became a historian have less to do with following in their footsteps than with the subsequent influence on me of teachers when I was in high school and college.

DKK: Wow.

JWS: But there was no question that I was going to teach, because teaching was the family profession.

DKK: Can you speak a bit more about that? How did they speak to you as a child?

JWS: About teaching?

DKK: Yes.

JWS: Well, my mother clearly loved to teach. She’d come home . . . it was the way she told stories about the kids she was teaching—about this one who was so smart but never did any work, and that one who asked these amazing questions. And my father was didactic!

(both laugh)

JWS: I mean, my father was a teacher. You know, you didn’t want to have to always be taught everything, and that was his mode, to always be teaching. So there was more of a kind of resistance to him and a kind of admiration for her. Teaching was not only about communicating things, not only “raising the young to become better than they otherwise might have been.” It was also—because it was history—about social change: there was some way or another in which communicating exciting ideas to young people was an investment in the future.

DKK: But in that context there was, first of all, the volatility of the situation around Left politics, and then, at the same time, there was the influence of, say, Dewey, on democracy and education. In other words, there was a concerted effort to say, “Education is in the service of democracy,” while, at the same time, there were events like your father’s firing.

JWS: Right, right.

DKK: Did you talk about that as a child?

JWS: No, we didn’t talk about it. But what went without saying . . . well, I actually have another article! It’s in that Louis Menand book on academic freedom, in which I say that from a very young age I heard the words “academic freedom” without fully knowing what they meant, because what my father always said when he was fired was that his academic freedom had been violated, that it had been lost. It was less the loss of his job than the loss of his academic freedom that was at the heart of his refusal to accept the punishment he got for refusing to cooperate with these investigating committees.

DKK: Did he ever get his job back? Or did he find that he could redeem himself as an educator?

JWS: Well, in different formats. For a while he worked for an educational filmstrip company, and so he got to teach in another way. And then, the last job he had was in some ways the most interesting: he was the administrator of a unit for the diagnosis and treatment of what are now called developmentally disabled kids. Then, it was “mentally retarded” kids. And he was doing that at the moment of de-institutionalization following the scandals around Willowbrook, when Geraldo Riviera was an investigative journalist, rather than a sensationalist journalist!

(both laugh)

JWS: And he was very active in those movements. I always thought that his political skills came to the fore around those kinds of things. He was somebody who worked very hard for the setting-up of group homes and all of that kind of stuff. There it was both the politics and his sense of commitment to kids—even though these were not kids whom he was teaching in quite the same way. Nonetheless, that was really exemplary and quite impressive.

DKK: You’ve maintained that co-incidence yourself between being a teacher and a scholar and an activist.

JWS: Yes, and that, I think, was the model. It was a model that somehow always made sense, and something that I always tried to do, or something that, without thinking about it consciously, I just did, as the fulfillment of the legacy of these parents who were doing both of those things at once too.

DKK: So, what are the forms, what are the expressions of that co-incidence for you, in terms of your teaching and your activism?

JWS: Well, for a long time, they were at odds. When I was an undergraduate in college—I went to Brandeis—I did my scholarly work and I did my politics, and I always felt divided. Schizophrenic is the wrong word, because I could do both, but I always felt that they were two separate things. Then I started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in 1962. William Appleman Williams was there; Studies on the Left was there. I found a world in which doing scholarship was of a piece with doing politics. I mean, we did anti-Vietnam War protests and Civil Rights activism. There was all of this political activity, but there were also people who were thinking about history in those terms as well. That was, I think, a hugely important influence for me—to be able to see that you could do the two together, and that history was relevant, not in the immediate sense of proving a political point, but in that there was the possibility of an engagement with history that could feed into politics or activism of one kind or another.

To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).—ed.