Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?

Every semester brings with it a new series of articles, blog posts and stories about gender and racial biases in teaching evaluations. A large and constantly growing body of academic literature demonstrates how bias shapes these tools.

For example, experiments with students in online courses show that identical courses are rated lower if the instructor is randomly assigned a woman’s name. Students may also use evaluations to comment on faculty appearance, tone of voice or even their sexual orientation.

And in a political environment where much of the population denies basic empirical facts about racial and gender inequality, teaching about such controversial subjects can open one up to claims of political bias. Social sciences don’t have laws, but if we were attempting to devise one, “Women and minorities get lower teaching evaluations” would be pretty close to axiomatic.

From a methodological standpoint, teaching evaluations are a mess. These evaluations lack external validity and don’t correlate with student learning outcomes. Typically, when social scientists recognize a research instrument is providing an incorrect measure, or that a measure is systematically biased, the measure is abandoned and (hopefully) replaced with a better one. Everyone knows — or should know — that teaching evaluations are better measures of student stereotypes than teaching effectiveness. Yet colleges and universities persist in laundering systematic bias through tenure and promotion processes, the legitimacy of which depend upon their supposed neutrality.

Although the methodological problems with these tests matter, it is also important to not get lost in the abstract; we must remember that biased evaluations can actually destroy people’s dreams. Promotions, raises and tenure are partially based on biased evaluations. Students who are unhappy with a grade, who dislike the opinions of a disciplinary expert or who are simply sexist can play an outsize role in their instructor’s future job negotiations.

Using biased evaluations allows colleges and universities to punish those whose identities deviate from white male normativity. Take a hypothetical gender discrimination case for denial of tenure because of poor teaching. Substantiating the harm requires evidence that discrimination was based on membership in a protected category. The institution will be able to point to poor teaching evaluations — despite their known biases — to argue that denial of tenure was based on less meritorious teaching.

The irony here is clear; the discriminatory bias built into measures of teaching effectiveness can be retroactively used to justify unequal outcomes based on those measures. Biased evaluation criteria explain biased outcomes, which the college or university then considers legitimated. The case of Ellen Pao followed just this logic after she filed a discrimination suit against a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. A jury saw her performance evaluations as legitimate, despite the fact that they were systematically lower once she complained of gender discrimination — a pattern she attributed to retaliation.

Feminist sociologists have long argued that one of the features of contemporary organizations is their gendered nature. Claiming that organizations are gendered means that supposedly gender-neutral jobs are actually considered men’s prerogative and that women in “men’s jobs” — like, say, professors — are thought of as interlopers, out of place or what consistently shows up on evaluations: less competent. The key here is that, of course, these ratings aren’t based on objective measures of competence; rather, they are sifted through widely held stereotypes about women. But they are given the patina of legitimacy once the institution accepts them as credible when it comes to retention, promotion and tenure. That also has the benefit of protecting the university from potential lawsuits down the road.

Biased teaching evaluations, like race- and class-biased test scores, support the status quo and don’t create the same type of public outcry as, for instance, certain affirmative action policies that may slightly disadvantage white men. They are the perfect vehicle for a type of gender-blind discrimination because they allow one to claim detachment and objectivity. They pretend the “best qualified” is measured and confirmed through a neutral process that just so happens to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. Recent research by Katherine Weisshaar shows that, even accounting for productivity, gendered differences in the way tenure committees evaluate women contributes to fewer women moving up.

Given the evidence, I’ve almost reached the conclusion that gender- and race-biased evaluations are not used in spite of their bias, but because they are biased. Of course, my assumption about bias being a desirable feature of student evaluations is speculative. Hard evidence would be difficult to establish, because part of the point of these evaluations is that the bias is plausibly deniable. Administrators are unlikely to admit that they knowingly employ a biased instrument in employment proceedings. But I think the evidence for concluding that bias is a feature of teaching evaluations is in my favor. If colleges and universities know that evaluations are biased, and those biases are more likely to harm women and minorities (and the intersection of these categories), at what point can we start to assume that such evaluations are an intended feature of the process?

I don’t believe colleges and universities are going to drop these types of evaluations anytime soon, as the pressure to quantify every area of academic life is increasing. But making department heads, deans and tenure committees aware of both the biased nature of these evaluations and how they can influence tenure decisions will help to reduce the harm that reliance on such biased measure inflicts.

Bio

Victor Ray is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His research examines race and gender discrimination in organizations. His commentary has appeared in Newsweek, Boston Review and Gawker. He is the new editor of “Conditionally Accepted,” an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized academics. You can follow him on Twitter at @victorerikray.

Classrooms Must Be A Frontline In The Fight Against White Supremacy

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Nicole Truesdell is the senior director of the office of academic diversity and inclusiveness, and affiliated faculty in critical identity studies at Beloit College. Her general interests are in radical pedagogy, academic hustling and social justice. Her research focuses on the intersections of race, racism, gender, class, citizenship and the modern nation-state, higher ed, and radical black thought in the US and the UK. Her latest co-authored article, “The Role of Combahee in Anti-Diversity Work,” is forthcoming in Souls.

Recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and Shelbyville, Tenn., show us the modern face of American white supremacy. Rather than marching under sheets or lurking in the backwoods, today’s white supremacists stand proud in their tan khakis and white polos with tiki torches in hand. No longer are sheets needed to masks their faces as white men and women boldly shouted racist chants like “blood and soil.”

Instead, we see a disturbing trend emerging in larger society to label this speech and action as opinion-based ideology with no social, political or economic ramifications. While some people will look to the current U.S. president as the source of this normalization, his administration is not the only location to push “both sides” rhetoric. Instead, we can also look to colleges and universities as sites that help both disseminate and normalize racist hate speech.

Alt-right/white supremacist speakers and organizations are choosing to use and abuse colleges and universities as locations at which to speak and recruit. Speakers like Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter spew their hate-filled opinions from college lecture halls, relying on academic free speech as their alibi of legitimacy in these locations.

Colleges and universities that allow these speakers on their campuses say they are committed to upholding “free speech” rhetoric, no matter its consequences to the students, faculty and staff members who live and work in these places. “We welcome a diversity of opinions” tends to be a favorite tagline of places that invite these controversial speakers to come and set up shop, signaling a welcome to (and normalizing of) hate speech. Yet when those who are committed to antiracism, antioppression theory and practice — such as Lisa Durden, Johnny Eric Williams or Tommy Curry — use these same locations to push back against this toxic rhetoric, they are met with death threats, job loss and/or lack of support from those same institutions.

Why are colleges and universities prime and targeted sites for white supremacist speakers and their allies? Because it is in these locations where administrators saw diversity as a problem and not, as Christina Berchini says, “the symptom” of the ways white supremacy is embedded in the structure of higher education. Students across the country organized and began to protest and create sets of demands on the various ways they saw this inequity within their colleges and universities. In response, college administrators and boards of trustees have created “diversity and inclusion” strategic plans and initiatives to placate student demands. Many of those plans have not focused on structural changes but instead have relied on Band-Aid approaches that give just enough to student demands while never addressing the racist structural barriers that created the issues to begin with. In the process, many colleges and universities are now invoking “academic freedom” and “dialogue” as a way to “speak and hear” across difference in order to stop “divisive” rhetoric from taking hold.

Yet the implementation of such initiatives seems one-sided, and, instead of making space for students, faculty and staff members at the margins, they have ended up further marginalizing the demographic groups that demanded change in the first place. Instead of moving institutions forward, both diversity/inclusion initiatives alongside pleas to have more neutral stances inside and outside the classroom focus more on making majority students (namely, white students) comfortable at the expense of those who took the risk to protest injustice in the first place (usually black, brown, queer and trans students who sit at multiple intersections) because they sit in institutions that were not made for them. In this process, structures of oppression are never interrogated and instead everything is rendered “opinions” that can be “debated.” This process of deflection has helped normalize (and even welcome) hate speech on campuses, making them prime locations for white supremacists to target.

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.

It is on college and university campuses, and within our classrooms and through our programming, where resistance to this encroaching normalized white supremacist ideology must be challenged. Now is not the time to side with neutrality. In my office, we have taken up this challenge head-on through our programming and work with students. This academic year our #GetWoke series is focused on Organizing and Activism During 45. We created an open-source syllabus to accompany the panels we host around this theme, using both music and accessible reading pieces to guide and contextualize each of our panels.

Our goal is to have the campus and community understand what organizing and activism are, why individuals and groups participate in these practices, and what possibilities there are or can be when we engage in other ways of knowing and being. In doing so, we hope conversations and actions move away from partisanship and into understandings of what we want humanity to be. What humanity should be.

Teaching About Trauma & Sexual Violence As Contingent Faculty

Photo by Erik Mayes

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. You can follow Dr. Jorgensen on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Teaching Trauma While Contingent

I have been on a trauma-research kick for a couple of years now, and the topic has found its way into my teaching. But as an adjunct professor — thereby lacking job security — I must be mindful of the potential professional costs of teaching about trauma.

I am especially concerned about teaching triggering material because I am an adjunct. I worry about complaints from students, parents and perhaps colleagues — not for mishandling contentious material (which would concern me, too), but for bringing it into the classroom in the first place.

Adjuncts often teach on semester- or yearlong contracts, lacking the job security of a guaranteed renewal and the protection of tenure. In an earlier blog post, “Adjuncting and Academic Freedom,” I reflected on how that affects my ability to teach contentious subjects: “At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor.” When we choose or feel compelled to teach about controversial issues, we become vulnerable to negative responses that could hasten the end of our time at a given institution.

Sexual violence and trauma are still, in my experience, considered edgy or controversial topics to include in one’s curriculum. While it is certainly possible to misstep by handling those issues poorly or insensitively, merely including them should not be a risk. I say this based both on their deplorable prevalence historically as well as on my work today in the sex education world, which has taught me that trauma-informed education is essential.

Based on lessons that I have learned while teaching as an adjunct about trauma (mostly related to sexual violence), I offer the following advice to other contingent faculty members.

Start creating a civil classroom environment immediately. I do not usually lead with trauma topics on the first day or even in the first week of the semester. Instead, I begin to craft a civil classroom from day one, trusting that it will support discussion of tough topics later.

I share my guidelines for discussion in lecture, and the students and I talk about whether we should add anything to this shared agreement about how to comport ourselves in class. It contains basics of adult communication: things like using “I” statements when discussing your response to topics, respecting people’s boundaries and so on.

Instructing students on how to interact with difficult topics and each other is not a panacea. But it does give me something to fall back on if I need to intervene in a discussion in which someone begins to say something that sounds like victim blaming.

That relates back to the precarity of teaching trauma as a contingent faculty member because, if nothing else, we can point at our scaffolding and preparation as evidence that we did our best to create a safe classroom environment. Our best may not be good enough when facing a hostile administration, but it is something.

Learn about and implement trauma-informed approaches. In my time among sex educators and therapists, I have learned that trauma-informed approaches are a must. That means being aware of how trauma impacts the brain and memory, knowing what flashbacks and triggers are, and understanding how to provide social support in appropriate ways. (For example, if you are an educator, then your tool set is different than a clinician’s.)

I have blogged about crafting trauma-aware interactions. Whatever the situation, it boils down to giving the people with whom you are interacting agency in terms of what and how they disclose, and not judging or diagnosing them.

I guarantee that, in most classrooms, you will have someone who has a trauma history, whether it is neglect or sexual violence. It is so statistically likely, especially compounded by intersectional factors (e.g., with college students more likely to have experienced sexual assault), that we need to adjust our teaching to account for this.

Unfortunately, most adjuncts do not have the time or resources to pursue training in trauma awareness. I have attended workshops on my own dime to acquire that knowledge. That is a disservice to students, but I do not see college administrations changing their orientation toward trauma awareness any time soon. And even if that were to change, I cynically believe that full-time faculty and staff members would see the first wave of trauma training before adjuncts and part-time faculty would.

If you only read one book on trauma, I highly recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It is my guide to teaching about trauma.

Destigmatize the experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about what counts as normal and how normativizing discourse is deployed. I appreciate Dr. Debby Herbenick’s Tumblr project, Make Sex Normal, which aims to normalize the daily discussion of sexuality topics. I also think my colleagues who take issue with the word “normal” have a point in stating that it can have negative connotations, implying that normal is something for which people should strive.

For those reasons, I prefer to think about destigmatizing the study of sexualities and its various practices/experiences. I have received some pushback here, but luckily it has not come with consequences (yet?). It has mostly come in the form of students relaying parental complaints at my assigned reading for being “trash” when it focuses on alternative sexualities.

In a gender, women and sexuality studies course I taught on sexuality in fairy tales, we did a unit on abuse and incest in fairy tales, drawing on both texts from the Grimms’ collection and recent rewritten tales. Students spoke up about their own abuse in class and how it was helpful to see trauma and abuse reflected in literary and cultural sources.

When teaching about sexual assault and trauma, I try to destigmatize the very widespread experience of surviving abuse by including statistics about its prevalence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That helps students to realize how common it is, which can lead to a conversation about how we handle the topic. Hopefully, this also makes students who have experienced it — whether they disclose — feel seen and included rather than marginalized.

I have started to incorporate trauma every semester I teach, because it relates to most aspects of human experience. While I am still learning the ropes, I believe that following the aforementioned methods has been helpful, both for my own experience and for my students’.

Recently, I did an hour-long lecture about trauma and folklore in The Forms of Folklore, my large lecture class at the University of California, Berkeley. I was only a visiting lecturer without the possibility of renewal, but I believed that my students deserved to have access to information about how trauma works and how it might impact their fieldwork experiences while collecting folklore. It was nerve-racking for me to prepare this lecture, but it went extremely well. Lots of people thanked me afterward, including a few who identified as survivors.

It can be disheartening to study and teach sexual violence and trauma, especially when faced with the apparent contradiction of administrations who are either apathetic about what we as adjuncts do in the classroom or unduly vigilant about controversial topics that might damage the brand. But students need access to this information as humans traveling a world that is rife with abuse. Knowing that this helps students makes it worthwhile for me to teach trauma, no matter how precarious my situation might be, and I am curious to hear if it is the same for others.

Teaching About Sexual Violence: Think Intersectional

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jamie J. Hagen is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Boston researching gender and security. Her most recent article is “Queering Women, Peace and Security.” She is also an independent journalist and writes about queer politics and reproductive justice.

Intersectionality And Sexual Violence

In a year in which sexual harassment and rape have made national headlines, classroom discussions about the topic of sexual violence are more important than ever. The classroom can provide a place to consider the larger power structures in place for both victims and survivors of sexual violence as well as the perpetrators of it.

I research and write about people who are often left out of conversations about sexual violence, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer survivors. Academics who research and/or teach on sexual violence often overlook LGBTQ people in their work because this population does not fit the perfect-victim narrative. The work that I do as a feminist security scholar offers a distinctive look at how assumptions about sexual violence play out in the classroom and our research.

Those pushed to the margins of society because of their sexual orientation and gender identity experience unique vulnerabilities to violence that are missed when we overlook those identities. By including conversations about homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence in discussions with students about sexual violence, instructors can broaden the framework in crucial, intersectional ways. To better understand sexual violence, instructors should work to bridge attention to anti-LGBTQ violence with attention to patriarchal social norms that drive acts of sexual violence. Making such connections can better inform students about how sexual violence and gender-based violence impact men, women, queers and gender-nonconforming individuals.

Problematic Assumptions About Gender

In my research, I focus on the context-specific analysis of sexual violence in conflict-related environments. Since the 2000 passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, such violence has drawn much more attention, even leading to the establishment of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics. This center came out of the Preventing Sexual Violence initiative championed in 2015 by former U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague and the special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie.

Yet such high-profile attention to wartime sexual violence presents challenges as well. For example, some feminist international relations scholars find the new “rape as a weapon of war” narrative that has gained much media attention incomplete or even unhelpful. Part of the resistance is to the framing of women as primarily victims of violence rather than change agents in global politics. A “Monkey Cage” blog post by Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green and Sarah E. Parkinson about the language of sexual violence as a “weapon of war” explains, “Narratives that focus on a narrow subset of sexual violence — strategic rapes, with rhetorically convenient perpetrators and victims — are powerful but dangerous.” When those assumptions minimize or erase the agency of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, it can hinder any efforts to move toward community-based solutions. Another troubling aspect of this frame is how it can neglect to consider the prevalence of sexual violence before and after times of conflict.

One common assumption about sexual and gender-based violence is that it is about sex — that is, sexual desire or attraction. It is actually about power. This is critical to understand when it comes to finding ways to respond and prevent this violence. Another assumption is that men are only perpetrators of sexual violence, while a growing body of literature highlights boys’ and men’s experiences as victims of such violence. Rosemary Grey and Laura J. Shepherd write about the danger of “absent presences in our analysis” when it comes to men and sexual and gender-based violence.

A full picture of those who face insecurity because of their gender requires a context-specific analysis of which individuals may be most vulnerable to rape and other forms of gender-based violence. An intersectional feminist analysis of this violence must account for racial, ethnic, religious, social and political drivers of violence. It is essential to recognize the intersecting systems of oppression when it comes to understanding and responding to sexual and gender-based violence.

Queering The Conversation

Stories about LGBTQ people are often absent from discussions about sexual violence in the classroom and in research. That is true despite findings that LGBTQ students are more likely to experience sexual harassment on college campuses. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides an overview of violence over the past two decades pertaining to sexual violence and individuals who identity as LGBTQ. Sexual harassment between same-gender peers is also a concern. All of the studies point to the need for more research on this topic, and some note the difficulty of studying LGBTQ individuals as a monolithic group when the assessment of the needs and experiences of each group individually is necessary.

Antiviolence organizations that respond to violence targeting LGBTQ individuals offer some insight into how the sexual violence conversation is already shifting. In the forward to the anthology Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices From Within the Anti-Violence Movement, Reina Gossett writes about how work to address sexual violence has evolved over the last decade along with cultural shifts regarding what is considered sexual violence. Gossett explains, “More and more people are naming interpersonal and institutional sexual violence as inextricably linked to other forms of oppression. More and more people are working to reframe who exactly they mean when they say survivors of sexual violence, and more focus is going towards centering strategies that work through prevention, intervention, reparations, accountability and ultimately collective liberation.”

The collection Gossett introduces links to disability justice, sex worker rights, gender self-determination, queer and trans liberation, and prison-industrial complex abolition. Considering how race, ethnicity, social class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and disability impact a person provides necessary contexts to framing acts of perpetuating sexual violence, as well as navigating society as a survivor. As a blog post for Ms. notes, “Educating students, for example, about preferred gender pronouns, the connections between sexual assault and hate crimes, racialized gender stereotypes, and how people with different physical and mental abilities express consent, should be part of a comprehensive antiviolence strategy.”

Classroom discussions about sexual violence can be improved in important ways by queering assumptions about both perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence and gender-based violence. Those leading these conversations should consider the following five questions:

  • How do you define sexual violence? How do you define gender-based violence?
  • How can we move the conversation in the classroom and in research about sexual violence beyond common assumptions about who is a survivor and who is a perpetrator?
  • Which voices are we including in discussions to understand and respond to sexual violence? Including perpetrators as well as survivors is important.
  • Is the conversation about sexual violence intersectional? For example, an intersectional conversation will avoid white savior tropes and heteronormative assumptions.
  • Do you discuss the role of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence? How do hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity relate to this conversation? Consider providing context about how cis privilege, monosexism and heteronormativity influence assumptions about who is a survivor of sexual and gender-based violence and how this limits our frame of understanding.

Moving Toward A Pedagogy Of Sadness, Anger, And Love

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jenny Heineman holds a Ph.D. in sociology and currently teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Heineman’s work centers on issues related to the body and intellectualism, particularly the intersection of sex work, feminist theory and critical pedagogy.

Where Universes Expand

Recently, a team of Finnish scientists asked people to map out where they felt different emotions on their bodies. The mapping patterns were similar, even across cultures. For example, participants mapped sadness onto the heart, and happiness tended to include the arms, legs and belly. Interestingly, people mapped pride and shame onto the head and described the rest of the body as “deactivated” in prideful or shameful situations.

These findings are significant for marginalized academics, because they demonstrate the embodied experience of emotion. Feeling is of the body. That means that we are marginalized at an intersection of identity, body and emotion. Those recent findings also tell us something significant about the relationship between bodies, emotions and perceptions of intellectual rigor. Emotions of the head are valued more in academe than are emotions of the heart. Pride is associated with intellectualism, while sadness, anger and love are ostensibly anti-intellectual.

I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger last semester, and not just because of the emboldened vitriol of racists and misogynists following the 2016 presidential election. After nearly 20 years of chronic pain, I was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis. The disease, given free rein for two decades, flourished inside several organs outside my uterus. I underwent an emergency hysterectomy, which in turn sent me into menopause at the age of 32.

I didn’t feel sadness and anger, however, because of what these changes meant for me in terms of gender. As a queer parent, I did not feel the pangs of “losing [my] womanhood,” as the aftercare pamphlet (and infinite online blogs) suggested I might. I’ve never been keen on status-quo notions of womanhood.

Instead, I felt the loss of an entire universe, an absence deep inside my body where I once nurtured and grew a glorious child. I felt the imbalance of my body, struggling to survive its new environment, the dearth of estrogen and the surge of testosterone engendering a particular emotionality. If I were to map my pain onto my body, my head would be entirely deactivated.

Given my experience, I was not surprised to read course evaluations from that semester wherein students described my teaching style as “too emotional.” While I am unabashedly open in the classroom, menopause added another layer of emotionality. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to hide a hot flash. Moreover, while mourning the loss of my singularity, my universe, I also grappled with bouts of sobbing and the cruelty of apathy. “I don’t want to talk about your vagina,” a close family member said after my surgery, as if apathy were the only appropriate boundary between good, healthy heady bodies and bad, mourning hyperaware bodies.

Likewise, my emotionality in the classroom obligated students to acknowledge the parts of me below my head. Acknowledging my sadness and my body forced students out of their apathetic bubbles. On the heels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s transphobic comments that “trans women are trans women,” for example, I asked my Intro to Sociology class if I am a “real” woman even though I no longer had a uterus. The topic of the week was gender and the question was understandably uncomfortable. My students squirmed in their seats, unwilling to make eye contact with me or their classmates. I then asked the class to interrogate their sheepishness. “We talk about other people’s bodies in class all the time,” I said.

After a long pause, one student proclaimed, “Because it’s just … embarrassing!” The proclamation sent warm quivers over my flesh as I delighted in her brilliant and unguarded observation. And she was right! Acknowledging the complexity and vulnerability of our own bodies is embarrassing. It is emotional. It requires us to be open to the bodily sensations we actively ignore in intellectual spaces. It requires us to take up residency in our own skin.

But here’s the thing: marginalized academics lack the privilege of invisibility in academe. We don’t have the choice to ignore all those pins and needles below our heads because it is precisely those sensations — and the knowledges they engender — that are constantly up for scrutiny in academe. It is not incidental, for example, that fat bodies, ill bodies, brown bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, sex-working bodies, neurodivergent bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, et cetera, are positioned as biased, subjective, irrational, emotional and divisive in academe. Even cold, hard data show that student course evaluations are biased against folks with marginalized bodies and identities and the emotions they presumably create. Students are skeptical of professors who are more than walking heads. That skepticism translates to criticism on course evaluations, which in turn sours one’s promotional opportunities or perception of intellectual rigor more generally.

For a queer former sex worker like me, sitting at the intersection of queerness, femininity, stigmatized labor, chronic illness and now menopause means that my body and my self are hypervisible. In course evaluations, my hypervisible body translates to a biased emotionality, because my knowledge does not come from just the head. Instead, it comes from a whole lot of anger, a ton of sadness and a great deal of love. Bringing in knowledge that comes from the entire body, not just the head, means stripping down to one’s most elemental human parts. It means standing stark naked in the midst of embarrassment and vulnerability. It means remaining naked even when your exposure threatens your entire livelihood. And most of the time, it means doing all of this without your enthusiastic consent.

Afro-pessimists like Jared Sexton argue for an epistemology that comes from marginalized bodies, emotions and experiences. Sexton argues that marginalized bodies — namely, black bodies — are pushed to the margins of society where they face social and literal death. A truly revolutionary epistemology, then, should not fear or propagate death, but rather begin with it.

I would add that a bodycentric critical pedagogy must also begin with the margins. A bodycentric critical pedagogy informed by Afro-pessimism and queerness must bring the body into the classroom by acknowledging sadness, anger and love as equally valid ways of knowing the world. Rather than demanding regurgitation in the classroom — what Paulo Freire called the “banking” concept of education — we have to center the experiences and emotions that come from the margins. For example, rather than asking our students, “How was your weekend?” instead ask, “Did any of you experience police brutality this weekend?” This is a simple way to center bodies at the heart of necropolitics and the anger, mourning and sadness brimming in those bodies. It is also a love song to those bodies and experiences.

But it’s not just about students’ bodies and emotions. It is about ours, as educators, too. If your body aches with chronic illness, if it carries the everlasting scars of state-sanctioned injustice, if your heart bleeds with the pain of living under a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy, bring that bodily emotionality into the classroom. Let yourself cry when you show the famed Stanley Milgram experiments because you know what unfettered authority feels like. Let yourself delight in talking about Miss Major because you know exactly where resistance and love live in your own body. Let yourself rejoice when students write, “She’s too emotional” on course evaluations rather than settling into that familiar, heady space of shame.

Most important, let us all commit to memory (and heart) the profound and sacred knowledge of the margins. It is only at the margins, after all, where universes expand.

#TransingHigherEdSyllabus: Building Community Through A Syllabus

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Z Nicolazzo is an assistant professor in the adult and higher education program and faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. You can follow Z on Twitter at @trans_killjoy as well as on hir website (www.znicolazzo.weebly.com).

Building Community Through A Syllabus

I am currently one of the few openly trans* tenure-track professors in my field of higher education and student affairs, and I recently published a book, Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. My visibility and expertise on trans* issues in higher education has brought about frequent questions from other people that often feel like a never-ending loop:

“How can I show love to the trans* community?”

“What should I read to learn about trans* people?”

“Can you give me resources about trans* people so I can learn more?”

At best, these questions are extremely naïve. Clearly, trans* people have been present throughout postsecondary education for decades. For example, trans* archivist and activist Reina Gossett found photos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson — two trans* women of color — involved in a 1970 protest on behalf of gay students’ rights at New York University. And if trans* people have been in and around postsecondary education, one can bet we have been telling our stories for just as long, too.

At worst, however, the above questions serve as manifestations of the ongoing trans* oppression present throughout American society. What I mean is that the continued ignorance of trans* people, communities and knowledges underscores the ways in which cisgender (i.e., nontrans*) people do not (have to) think about gender due to their gender-based privilege.

Exposing Epistemological Trans* Oppression in Higher Education

Several educational scholars have discussed how epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is itself steeped in systemic racism. Specifically, work by Lori D. Patton and James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young points out how this occurs, referring to the phenomenon as “epistemological racism.”

Building on their work, I have termed the continuing erasure of trans* knowledges in higher education epistemological trans* oppression. The very asking of what one should read to learn about trans* people underscores the ongoing presence of a world in which the questioner does not feel the need to previously have known about trans* people. Such awareness is a nice add-on, but otherwise not considered central or primary in academe.

In addition, when cisgender people ask these questions, it puts trans* people in a difficult position. We must be willing to have our labor and time continually exploited by (presumably well-meaning) cisgender people or risk being positioned as the “angry trans* person” when we say we will not do work that cisgender people should rightly do.

For many of us, this choice is far from an easy one, as we are in precarious positions of education and/or employment. Indeed, the pull to be seen as “nice” and “helpful,” particularly through the rhetoric of being “collegial” or “professional,” is felt by many of us, including: trans* students who need recommendations for jobs and/or advanced studies, early-career trans* academics seeking tenure-stream positions, and trans* staff who have to worry about performance evaluations as a part of the increasing audit culture in higher education.

It is against this backdrop that I recently decided to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus. I felt inspired by the recent practice of marginalized people creating publicly accessible social justice-oriented syllabi, such as the #CharlestonSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus and #PulseOrlandoSyllabus, among others. So I decided to construct a similar syllabus geared toward promoting the continuing work that is being done regarding trans* populations in higher education.

One goal of the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was to show how trans* people have always been a part of higher education and how, as a result, we have always been pushing for more gender-expansive environments and futures. Another goal was to provide an educational tool for cisgender people about trans* people. Thus, the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus acts as a public response to the questions that I mentioned at the outset of this essay. In so doing, I was hoping my/our collective labor — detailed through the syllabus — would save me/us from having to confront these questions time and again. The syllabus continues to grow (email me at znicolazzo@niu.edu to add new materials), and is an important resource for faculty members, students and staff members to use in their work.

However, to say the syllabus was purely a response to the oppressive illogics that frame the daily world in which trans* and gender-nonconforming people like myself exist is to miss the fuller picture. Yes, I made the decision to invest time, energy and labor into a project that would require continual upkeep as a way to spare my trans* kin and myself significant time and labor in the future. However, I also made the decision to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus as a way to be with and among my trans* kin and our accomplices. (You can follow the Twitter thread here.) For me, it was a return to my roots as a trans* person — and a way that I have continually reminded myself of the sheer brilliance that has provided me the space, time and thinking to be who I am today as a trans* femme in the academy.

Finding Community Through Trans* Scholars(hip)

As I have written about in both a book chapter about my doctoral studies and my book, Trans* in College, I first came to enter my trans* community through reading trans* scholars(hip). I was living in Arizona at a time when being a member of any marginalized community felt increasingly dangerous, and I was working in a job — advising fraternity and sorority students — in which I felt trapped. Each day that I got dressed for work, I felt extreme dysphoria and would count down the hours and minutes until I could get back to my studio apartment and explore my gender further. Much of this exploration occurred through devouring trans* literature, especially Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, various essays by Dean Spade, Dylan Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.

Drafting the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was, for me, a return to my own beginnings of entering a trans* community. The more time I spent piecing together the recent explosion of trans* scholarship in higher education and student affairs, the more I felt alive and whole. The more I stitched together a set of readings, artists, activists, organizations, films and video clips that are largely — though not exclusively — created by queer and trans* people, the more I was reminded of the absolutely stunning community to which I have the privilege to belong. My mind traveled back to my small patio outside of my studio apartment in Tucson, where I would spend my evenings smoking, reading and coming into my own trans* awakening as the desert sun set behind the mountains.

I have been completely astounded at how far the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has already traveled. I am indebted to the trans* women of color who fought — and continue to fight — for my existence as a trans* femme to be possible. I am also deeply grateful for a small group of queer, trans* and accomplice kin who conspired with me in the making of the syllabus, notably Jana Clark, T. J. Jourian, D-L Stewart and Katherine Wheatle.

And really, more than counteracting ongoing daily trans* oppression, my curating the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has — and will continue to be — about inviting trans,* queer and accomplice scholars into a vibrant, vital and deeply moving community, one that, many years ago, helped me get on the path to finding myself. Perhaps the syllabus can even do the same for other people, be they in or beyond the academy.

Bringing The Political Self Into The Classroom In The Era Of Trump

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts in March and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed today. Dr. Katie L. Acosta (@KatieLAcosta) is an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and family. She maintains her own blog at katielacosta.com.

Bringing In The Political Self

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I attended a meeting at my institution designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members. A second goal was to collectively brainstorm best practices for creating a civil classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. The session covered a lot of ground, but the general gist of it was that we should try to appear as neutral as possible when discussing political candidates and issues.

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration. I am supposed to teach my students about their social world, about racism, gender, sexuality and the family — all while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply offensive statements that our president made during his campaign and since he was elected. But herein lies the problem: my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens, and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably, this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in the aforementioned meeting, hearing the suggestions being made, brought me back to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. I was an assistant professor at Tulane University at the time, and that morning I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured social media, learning the details of this awful tragedy: the murder of an innocent teenager. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach.

I made the tough decision to avoid the murder entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain. Inevitably, however, 10 minutes into the lecture, a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this innocent boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of Skittles. But my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society — of this country’s fear of black men and boys, and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during such encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible and consequential.

How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life do not intersect.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self. I am an Afro-Latina queer cisgender woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I do not? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if they make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of last semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being “too” political. But I do not believe it has done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it has flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, this semester, I take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Now my students are unpacking the executive orders, cabinet picks and proposed legislation that the Trump administration has planned or implemented since the inauguration. For instance, I do not mince words in exposing the religious and racial intolerance of Trump’s travel ban. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it can we have fertile ground for lawyers, judges and politicians to defend a ban that bars entry to the United States for citizens from targeted Muslim-majority countries.

This past spring, I had my students read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in opposition to Jeff Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship. It was important to me that my students read it, particularly after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, was prevented from doing so on the Senate floor. I wanted them to understand Sessions’s role in disenfranchising black voters and, subsequently, Senate Republicans’ willingness to overlook those actions and confirm Sessions’s appointment as U.S. attorney general anyway. Such political happenings speak volumes about the crisis of race relations we are currently experiencing in the United States — where whites give themselves and others permission to overlook the racial disparities that they are complicit in creating in the interest of preserving their power.

Only in a democracy that is largely run by rich heterosexual white cisgender men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamophobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and classist actions and policies of Trump’s administration. I do not have control over that. But I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation does not so thoroughly miss the boat in understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country. I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and with one another on the many issues we currently face — not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect and integrity and in the spirit of understanding. For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.