Melissa Gilbert

Melissa Gilbert


* Feminist professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University
* Favors a teaching approach that reposes political “social action at the center of social action.’
* Enlists students to conduct research substantiating her opposition to welfare reform as part of their coursework.

Melissa Gilbert is an associate professor of geography and urban studies in the department of Ethnic Studies at Temple University. Her academic interests run to such political sub-specialties as “feminist geography” and “feminist and critical race theory.” Also listed among Gilbert’s areas of expertise are political advocacy initiatives disguised as scholarship, such as her zeal for “labor and community organizing” and her affinity for “economic empowerment.”

A faculty webpage reveals that Gilbert’s scholarly research is framed around her enthusiasm for political “social action,” and suggests that Gilbert sees her roles as a political activist and a professional educator as one and the same. It notes, for instance, that “because she is interested in social change, and the role of academics and research in this process, she has utilized social action research as part of a broader feminist methodology.”

Toward this end, Gilbert is an exponent of what she calls “service learning.” In practice, this amounts to a sustained effort to inculcate political activism in university students by providing them with “opportunities to participate in community organizations,” and exposing them to “contexts for supporting community and grassroots efforts at social transformation.” In a 2004 academic paper expounding the putative merits of this approach, Gilbert explained that it “positions social action at the center of academic projects.”

Chief among these projects is Gilbert’s ongoing campaign to oppose welfare reform. In 1998, for example, Gilbert attempted to establish a service learning program in the Department of Geography and Urban studies at Temple “to document human rights violations related to welfare reform.” It is a measure of her success that the research that current Temple students are assigned to conduct is aimed primarily at confirming Gilbert’s assertion that work requirements “reduce the ability of [welfare] recipients to pursue educational goals,” and that seeking employment makes it difficult for “poor women [to] attain economic self-sufficiency.”

Programs that fuse academics and leftwing activism pose some “ethical problems,” Gilbert concedes. Nevertheless, she advocates “moving beyond course-by-course learning approaches” in an effort to “help mitigate the unequal power relations between the university and the community.” She asserts that her preferred approach of politically motivated research should be a “cornerstone of [university students’] educational development.”

Gilbert believes that American society is fundamentally racist and discriminatory, especially toward women. In one academic article, she asserted that “most women are in sex-segregated occupations with the attendant low wages and lack of opportunity for advancement.”

A kindred perspective informs Gilbert’s course “Urban Society: ‘Race,’ Class and Gender in the City.” This class begins with a section called “The Social Construction of ‘Race’: Racism and White Privilege,” which showcases Gilbert’s penchant for fingering whites as the root causes of American social ills. Making a case for the “social construction of gender,” the course alleges that the “internal structure” of American cities is an “institutional racism” which can be expunged only by wholesale societal transformation.

A similarly activist spirit pervades Gilbert’s course “Urban Policy Analysis,” which starts from the premise that unjust urban policies in the United States are culpable for the fact that “resources and power are unequally distributed by ‘race,’ class, gender, and geography.” As a syllabus for the course notes, students are expected to “explore what kinds of policies and/or political action might result in a more equitable distribution of power and wealth.”

Gilbert’s other course on urban policy, “Modern Urban Analysis,” is billed as an instruction in those “dominant accounts of scientific inquiry” which supposedly “explain urban processes.” But as a course syllabus attests, the only modes of scientific inquiry acknowledged by Gilbert are the perennial favorites of radical academics: “positivism, Marxism, feminism, critical race theory, and postmodernism.”

Yet another course taught by Gilbert — “Poverty and Employment in the Changing Urban Economy” — apportions the blame for poverty to globalization and privatization. Comprised entirely of readings that rail against efforts to reduce the size of the welfare state and applaud opponents of welfare reform, the course promises to introduce students to “the ways in which poor people have been organizing against the attacks on their economic and human rights.”

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