Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

J. Sumerau On Productive Research Collaborations

SumerauNote: This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. J. Sumerau (@jsumerau) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research, fictional writing and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Creating Strong Scholarly Relationships

A lot of my scholarly work has been published with other authors. In fact, I have published more than 50 academic works, and many of them have emerged out of productive collaborations. Colleagues — from early to later career stages — often approach me for advice about collaboration, given my reputation in the field. After the most recent round of these conversations earlier this year, I thought that it might be helpful to others to describe the way I go about collaboration.

I should start by noting that this article simply outlines the processes that I use in my own career. I am in no way suggesting that others could or should follow my approach. Rather, as I tell people when I have been asked about this, I share my experience simply as a complement to other discussions on the topic, as an effort to highlight the benefits and potential issues that arise from collaboration, and as an example of one way that has worked well to date.

I have learned from others that my approach can be incredibly useful for some, wholly useless for others or anywhere in between for everyone else. So I invite readers to consider this essay in relation to both: (1) other discussions of the topic and (2) their own scholarly endeavors, goals and preferences. Because regardless of whether or not you find anything useful in my approach, thinking about what, if any, process might work best for you can benefit any academic who is considering or already engaged in collaborative scholarship.

As the title of this essay suggests, I approach collaborations the same way that I approach other relationships. Rather than focusing on a specific project, outing or shared interest, I concentrate on the person and seek to ascertain whether I may benefit from interactions (temporary or continuing) with them. From everything I have experienced, the people with whom we interact will shape us, whether we notice it or not. As a result, I seek out people who I think may accomplish such influence in ways that are useful for the entirety of my life rather than in relation to any given project.

I tend toward people who: (1) complement some aspect of my existing interests, whether by affirming or challenging it in their own life, (2) have something — a perspective, an experience, a background, a skill set, etc. — that I do not have and can thus learn about and from, and (3) can at least tolerate the fact that my own approaches to writing and other efforts are often a bit different than the mainstream ones we more commonly see within and beyond academe.

Strategies for Collaboration

Drawn from this overall approach, I engage in a handful of strategies that have worked well for me in establishing, evaluating and maintaining working relationships with others. These strategies help me monitor whether collaborative relationships are working well over time, avoid some of the potential problems people run into with collaborations and maintain my own endeavors — no matter the result of a given collaboration.

Diversify research. First, I maintain multiple lines of scholarship. Some lines have collaborators, but others are just my own work. In some cases, I work with the same group of collaborators, and in others, I work alone. In that way, I never put all my work in the hands of any one person, and I maintain my own line of work that is not dependent on others. As such, if line No. 1 with collaborators A and B fails or gets delayed, or the project is a bust, I still have line No. 2 that is just my own work, line No. 3 with collaborator C and/or line No. 4 with collaborators D and E in progress. As a result, no single collaboration determines my professional fate, my productivity for a given evaluation or my overall research agenda. Rather, each is a piece of a larger pie, which makes the stakes of any collaboration much lower.

Prioritize research agendas. Second, I decide who, if anyone, will be on a given project, based upon the priority of the project to my overall research agenda. If the project in question is significantly important, I will either do it alone or only collaborate with people who have demonstrated their reliability to me over time. This is not a knock on newer collaborations but rather recognition that the things I most want to accomplish are not the spaces where I put the outcome at greater risk.

As other academics have noted, collaboration can be risky as one depends upon another for a final product, and recognizing that risk is important because we all work under constraints and on varied deadlines. As a result, the top priorities in my research agenda are not the places where I take on the risk of new or more recent collaborators. Rather, they are where I work alone or only collaborate with people who have repeatedly demonstrated that I will be unlikely to face any risks from their participation.

Test the waters. Third, I approach collaborations slowly, cautiously and in pieces. The first time I collaborate with someone, we will work on a project that is not as high on my own priorities list or that I am already getting something else out of — so that our work is extra rather than required for my own research agenda or potential evaluation cycle. I also engage with collaborators who help out in very particular ways by doing specific portions of the work. In this way, I have, as much as possible, low-risk opportunities to try out collaborating with new people, and from those experiences, I am able to decide about future and more involved collaborations.

Get to know collaborators. Finally, I spend a lot of time getting to know the people with whom I collaborate while also being very open with them about my own perspectives, processes and endeavors. Whether that involves arguing with them about ideas, theories or other things about which we disagree; debating the usefulness of a particular perspective or method; or simply sharing aspects of my life while asking questions about theirs, I seek to allow collaborators to get to know me and to get to know them. In so doing, and especially in case we end up working well together, I seek to integrate them into my life and see if they fit well. At the same time, I attempt to determine how I might integrate into their life in a useful manner. That strategy allows me to continuously monitor whether collaborative relationships are useful for my life as whole, and adjust accordingly.

In closing, while I know from experience that my approach may not be useful to everyone, I have also learned that developing a system that does work for you can be incredibly useful for many scholars. It is with this in mind that I close this post by encouraging readers to ask yourselves what you want from collaborations, what you need to establish collaborations (or not) in ways that feed your overall life and what your own system of collaboration might look like if put into practice.

Creating Trans-Inclusive Curricula

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a tattooed, sex-positive, queer intersectional feminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans person. She holds a B.A. in Chinese language and literature with a focus in folklore. She is a writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She currently resides in Ohio with her partner and two cats. She maintains a personal website.


In an earlier post, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques in their classes, offering specific practices that professors might use to create a trans-inclusive environment in their classroom. In this essay, I offer additional advice for professors to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals. I draw from personal experiences as a nonbinary trans person, as well others’ writing about curriculum development.

My Experiences

My college course experience consisted mainly of white, cishet (i.e., cisgender, heterosexual) men instructors who assigned readings by white, cishet men authors. Even in classes taught by women instructors who attempted to make their curricula representational — including some transgender authors — the work was often narrow in focus. Most of these essays were coming-out stories, and anecdotal experiences and views were seen to represent the authors’ entire community.

The learning objectives of those readings were not made clear from the start of the course. Discussions of the readings typically devolved into inappropriate probes into the personal lives of trans and GNC authors, usually regarding their personal anatomy and sexual experience. The readings were also usually relegated to their own section in the syllabus, so that two sessions out of the entire semester might touch reflect on trans and GNC voices.

The few times that I did encounter a multiplicity of voices were in classes dedicated entirely to them, such as Gay Fiction of East Asia or Gender in Chinese History. While it may not be immediately obvious as to why these types of courses are problematic, they illuminate the ways in which curricula communicate and reinforce hierarchies of power. Intentionally or not, these curriculum choices exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and GNC folk in various ways.


Chandra Talpade Mohanty has written about three models of courses when it comes to feminism — an analysis that is applicable to, and helps me to identify the problems inherent in, the aforementioned approaches to supposedly gender-inclusive curricula.

A course in which trans or GNC voices are presented in single, exclusive unit of the syllabus is what Mohanty calls the tourist model. This approach uses the voices of the Other to try to diversify the otherwise homogenous curricula. It perpetuates normative assumptions about power hierarchies; it assumes that the students reading are cishet. The cishet students are separate from the trans and GNC voices they read. Cishet students simply “visit” the experiences of trans and GNC folks without having to engage with them on their own terms.

When trans and GNC students are present in these classes, it can be marginalizing for them. I had this experience in one of my college courses. As the only out trans student, I was asked to confirm or deny the experiences of someone else, as if I was the single representative for the entire trans community. As a white trans person living in the northern part of the United States, I shared none of the experiences of the Black transfemale author living in the Deep South. Tourist classes maintain the dominant cishet power structure and reiterate normative assumptions about folks on the margins of society. Because students are separated from the material, they are not forced to engage the reality of the social complexities these texts are meant to highlight.

A course in which the voices of the Other are the sole ones highlighted is what Mohanty calls explorer model classes. These are often recognizable by their titles, like the ones I mentioned above. Explorer model classes posit the experiences of Other in contrast with normative ones. Students perceive what they do and the information that they learn in “regular” classes as normal, and the trans and gender-nonconforming folk in these classes as exotic, strange or deviant. Intentionally or not, these classes perpetuate and reinforce “us/them” dichotomies. By being offered separately, the voices presented in these courses are not seen as relevant to mainstream education.


So how can professors avoid these curriculum pitfalls? I recommend that instructors provide varied, sometimes conflicting trans and GNC voices so that students can engage and connect with the content more deeply. Cishet student may not normally connect with the story of a trans or GNC person if their experiences or views are too different from their own. Similarly, cishet students may take the narrow views and experiences offered as representative of the whole community, reaffirming their previously held beliefs. By providing a wide variety of trans and GNC voices, cishet students should be better able to find an experience or view with which they connect; they can engage with the complexities of the trans and GNC community by seeing that we are as varied as mainstream society.

In this light, instructors should avoid focusing solely on anecdotal accounts like coming-out stories or representations of trans and GNC people that are exclusively positive or negative. Coming-out stories make the experience of the author personal, which has its place in connecting the cishet world with our experiences. However, focusing solely on this aspect of a person’s life ignores the broader systems of power and oppression — namely cissexism and transphobia. Students can’t properly understand coming out without the social context that is cisnormative (wherein each individual’s gender is assumed to correspond to their sex assigned at birth, either male or female) and cissexist (wherein trans and GNC people face systematic violence, discrimination and exclusion).

For example, my own coming-out story is mostly positive. My family and friends were quick to accept and support me. From this angle, all looks well, but it excludes the unemployment and inaccessibility to proper health care that came with coming out as trans. The complexities of our lived experiences as trans or GNC people are not highlighted, and opportunities for conversations on equity and justice are missed.

Mohanty calls a more nuanced and exhaustive approach to inclusion the solidarity model. A course that uses this approach focuses on the links and intersections between different groups, topics and histories. This approach helps students see the connections between the classroom and the real world by emphasizing what she calls “relations of mutuality, co-responsibility and common interests, anchoring the idea of feminist solidarity.” By focusing on intersections among class, nation and race, (cishet) students are better able to grasp the interconnectedness of marginalized folks’ existence. They walk away with a deeper, more realistic understanding of the diverse experiences within trans and GNC communities.

In sum, curriculum design can unintentionally reinforce gender hierarchies and exclusion. Instructors who wish to resist the status quo in their curricula must take care to provide a variety of trans and gender-nonconforming voices in ways that do not exoticize or tokenize their experiences. By following the tips above and establishing a clear connection between trans and GNC perspectives and the broader learning goals and objectives of a course, students will be able to engage with the material and begin to move beyond the gender binary.

A Call For Flexible Name-Change Policies For Trans Students

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Katriel Paige is a nonbinary professional in the field of web usability, having gone through a M.A. in intercultural communication in international business at the University of Surrey in Great Britain and a B.A. at the University of Delaware. They like Japanese animation and are interested in media studies and folklore.


Thanks to mainstream media, it seems that the sole concern for transgender individuals these days is navigating public restrooms and other public spaces. But far more issues impede upon trans people’s well-being and livelihood.

A major concern for trans people today is the process of legally changing one’s name, as well as one’s gender marker, on official records. People change their names for a multitude of reasons, no matter their gender identity. For transgender and genderqueer people, like anyone else, changing one’s name is an important part of their own recognition of their identity. But because names are often associated with being male- or female-sounding, changing a name to suit one’s gender identification is an important part of the person telling others how they wish to be treated and identified. A transgender woman may be named Lawrence at birth but go by Elle, Elly or Lisa — keeping the initial sound intact, but signaling to others that she is a woman and should be recognized as such.

Changing one’s name in the United States, however, requires money and time. If the change does not coincide with a new legal family status (such as a birth, marriage or divorce), then that means going through the courts for a name change order. That process can take months and cost $500 or even more between court fees, publication fees and associated costs. There are legal aid clinics expressly for LGBTQ people that help in the matter of filing a name change court order in several metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Baltimore. But those clinics often have waiting lists, and it can take a long time to get assistance even if a person qualifies for aid.

I’d like to address two issues in the essay regarding name changes for transgender and genderqueer students. Both come down to legal requirements and the availability of money.

First and most important, trans and genderqueer students may not have the financial means to afford the court order process to change their names legally. Students from poor or working-class families and students of color are probably disproportionately affected by this barrier to transitioning.

Also, depending on the court and locality, the student may have to appear in court in person. That requires taking time to make the court date and appointment, and it also poses the real threat of harassment. Even though the court system is supposed to be impartial, in some instances, clerks and judges have assumed that the person changing their name is doing so to defraud others. In the case of transgender and genderqueer students, that assumption can be unjustly magnified.

At many colleges and universities, students are supposed to be able to use a nickname, but that is not always the case for trans or genderqueer students. Again the assumption is that the student is attempting to trick others — the very motivation cited as the core of “trans panic” murder defenses. The skepticism trans and genderqueer students face is inherently dangerous. Cisgender students are often able to record a nickname at least during lectures, but different higher education institutions have different nickname/alternate name policies. Legal names are also often tied in with official student records, and that can create issues when it comes to recording grades as well as issuing graduation clearances and names on degrees.

The fact that different institutions have different policies regarding names and records is compounded if a student, for example, transfers between a community college and a university. They might be able to go by their nickname and change their records to their preferred name without having to go through a legal name change at the community college, but they may be forced to “deadname” themselves — going by their name assigned at birth — at the university, potentially outing themselves as a different gender than what they identify as.

Colleges and universities should recognize that trans and genderqueer students may not be able to legally change their names; they should respect the name a student goes by while in school, even if not recognized by law. Many universities do have name change procedures for chosen names in place, such as the City University of New York system, the University of Colorado Boulder and others, as seen via the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.

My second concern is that many students are assumed to have some amount of family contribution toward their university education. This is evidenced by the FAFSA process, in which undergraduates are assumed to have family support when calculating student aid eligibility, while postgraduates are assumed to be financially independent. Yet because of family rejection or family strain due to relatives’ transphobic bias, many undergraduate trans and genderqueer students may lack such family support. Some students perceive, or have explicitly been warned, that they will lose their family’s support if they come out as trans or begin transitioning.

Further, there may not even be a home to return to during school breaks or after graduation. This means that even if they do manage to go through the legal process of changing their name, the student may run into difficulties with continuing to pay for their education. Scholarships and financial aid might also be awarded to the name at birth and not the name the student goes by, causing financial difficulty and issues with records if nicknames and legal names are not recorded, or if a legal name change is still in process — and therefore in limbo.

Universities should recognize that while some trans and genderqueer students are financially able to attend college, it may be at great personal cost. They should not further punish trans students, especially those who are unable to afford a legal name change, by exclusively recognizing their legal name and gender. A trans student’s chosen name should be honored just as a cisgender student’s nickname is (Liz instead of Elizabeth). They should ensure that students are respected in academe and not force students to decide between wider recognition of their identity or their ability to receive an education in the first place.

Opposition To “Trigger Warnings” Reinforces The Status Quo


Source: Everyday Feminism

Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title.  I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain.  You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them.  I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass.  (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)

Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???

I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today.  Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense.  Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy.  But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:

Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.

For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)

I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure.  Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students?  From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering?  Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?

One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety.  And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure.  It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.

Faculty Are Clueless

I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this.  The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students.  Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.

On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them.  “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?”  “Can we avoid talking about suicide today?  Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.”  Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped.  Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate.  What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.

In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action.  Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues.  To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible.  Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material.  These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma.  That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort.  (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)

Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo

But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education.  I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education.  And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger.  They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.”  In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way.  They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way.  I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence.  Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?

I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts.  The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses.  We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego.  The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:


The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:


Wow.  The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle.  Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.

Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation.  These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair.  Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns!  Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself.  I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity.  But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out.  The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too.  Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations.  Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.

Closing Thoughts

Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates?  Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.

At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice.  We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion.  Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints.  Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.

Further Reading


Advice For Publishing Research On Marginalized Communities

SumerauNote: this essay was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. J. Sumerau (@JSumerau) is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. J. is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted. Zir teaching, research and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion and health in the experiences of sexual, religious and gender minorities.

Research on the Margins

Lately, I have had some conversations with other scholars who study marginalized communities about a topic that I have yet to see receive much attention in the academy. That is, what happens when, as part of studying marginalized communities, you find yourself: (1) studying a population that is almost completely absent from existing literature, and (2) needing to situate your study within a literature that does not include the population in question? How do you resolve this dilemma?

Not surprisingly, the problem arises from the processes of scientific study, publishing and debate as they play out over time. Scientific work, like any other humanly created endeavor, is both shaped and limited by the perspectives, standpoints and biases of the people who do it at different times, in different contexts and in different ways. As a result, it is easy to look back in time and notice that some subjects that seem obvious today are missing from earlier theories, fact statements, truth claims and entire disciplines.

It is equally unsurprising that looking back tends to reveal that those previously missing subjects often initially found their way into disciplines when, for example, members of such groups achieved access in scientific careers and opportunities, members of such groups became more visible or recognized in the mainstream, and/or members of such groups found themselves under attack as a result of emerging legal and political campaigns. Although such previously missing subjects existed beforehand in the natural world we all share, it typically took some type of external catalyst or impetus from people who experienced them for science to notice and slowly incorporate the subject into existing theories, fact statements, truth claims and disciplines.

While I could choose from any number of examples over time, an area I have worked in for years now provides a typical case. As revealed in narratives, archival documents and other materials, sexual minorities have been active within mainstream religious traditions and in the creation of their own religious traditions for at least a century. Yet scientific studies of religion, sexual minorities and sexualities in general did not really take any notice of them until the 1970s (with a couple of examples) and the 1990s (with a couple more examples). Further, the handful of studies in those decades did not really lead to an actual field of scholarship until the 2000s and the present decade. Before massive religious and sexual rights movements and events, and without the presence of many scientists who were open about being members of sexual minorities, this aspect of our world simply did not find voice in the scientific construction of it.

Some people will look at such patterns and argue that science is self-correcting, so no problem exists. Others will look at the same patterns and argue that science itself is problematic in a similar way to other mainstream institutions because it often serves as a self-sustaining vehicle of those in power. But I do not intend to get into those debates here. In fact, I can argue either side quite well, and I know others who can do the same. Rather, I return to the question at the beginning of this piece: What do scholars do when they find themselves in between existing scientific norms and attempts to study things that contradict or otherwise do not fit such norms?

I won’t pretend to have any absolute answer to this question, and I am not even sure whether one could fit all cases. At the same time, I have run into this dilemma at times studying transgender experience (in literatures built primarily upon cisgender assumptions and focus to date), bisexual experience (in literatures built primarily upon monosexual assumptions and focus to date) and nonreligious experience (in literatures built primarily upon religious assumptions and focus to date).

Here, I offer three ways in which I have managed this dilemma in those research areas, and I invite others to offer any additional strategies.

Use the absence of marginalized populations in science to demonstrate the importance of the study. In an article focused on transgender experience with religion, for example, I outlined the ways that religious, gendered and gendered-religious scholarship rest upon cisgender samples, assumptions, populations and findings. To accomplish that, my collaborators and I analyzed existing literatures in these areas for the ways they created a science of cisgender religion instead of a science of religion.

The bright side of this approach is that the existing literature bias provides the justification for studying an unconventional topic. The downside of it, however, is your chances of being published depend heavily upon journal reviewers’ and editors’ willingness to handle the bias you have just pointed out in a productive way or to consider pointing out such bias as a contribution to scholarship in your field. In fact, I have already experienced reviewers and editors who do accomplish these two things, and others who instead reacted in a much more negative way.

Bypass academic journals in favor of other publication options. Academic journals rely upon gaining acceptance from others who may have vested interests in the status quo, so it may be useful to seek other outlets. That is why it is common for members of marginalized groups and scholars studying marginalized communities to much more heavily cite and quote academic books from various presses, academic book chapters from various edited volumes and even academic and activist blogs and other informal writings. Since such spaces are not entirely dependent upon the perceptions of people already enmeshed within existing academic norms and assumptions, they often provide more room for new, challenging and critical ideas, data and arguments. In such cases, scholars may first publish, or find a citation in, scholarship outside the journal process and then use that publication or citation in later endeavors within it.

Focus the work on conceptual development rather than the population in question. Studies of members of dominant groups are often accepted on their own terms, but focusing on marginalized populations often draws negative reactions, accusations of “me-search” and questions about resonance or importance to the broader (read: dominant) world. As such, one way that studies of marginalized populations find publication involves framing them as conceptual.

For example, it is not a study of bisexual Black cisgender women, but rather a study of the ways some people manage emotions in relation to disparate racial, sexual and gender norms. When the population is not deemed mainstream enough to warrant observation or not often part of existing survey data or analyses, a conceptual angle (i.e., a way this “unusual” population relates to the mainstream) may be useful for demonstrating to outsiders the value of the case. Further, once a few of those pieces are published, researchers may draw upon a combination of them to argue for a (insert name of discipline here) field of study on this population — as has been done many times in the past with other marginalized populations.

While the aforementioned approaches are by no means exhaustive, and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks, they may serve as initial solutions for researchers who find themselves studying groups or phenomena currently missing — mostly or entirely — from the scientific literature or the specific assumptions and facts of their discipline. Based on existing scientific records, this dilemma is not new and not likely to go away. As such, it may be useful for scholars studying marginalized topics and communities to continue discussing, sharing and working on strategies for expanding the topics and populations recognized within and between varied scientific disciplines.

Jackson Wright Shultz On Truth and Subjectivity

This blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.

JacksonI write my truth.

In fact, my entire goal as a writer and author is to open a bit of my world to others. Many written works about my communities have been distorted or fictionalized, even by sources claiming to provide honest exposés. So when I write about trans communities, I write exclusively nonfiction.

As a nonfiction writer, I attempt to balance the risk of being overly tedious in my writing with the rewards of painting accurate depictions of my communities. True, the rewards are subtle and often come in the form of quiet head nods from the communities that I try to represent. But in a world of sensationalized stories rooted in misconceptions of what it means to be transgender, even the slightest appreciation from other trans and nonbinary individuals is the highest praise.

I write the truths apparent to my communities.

And so do many other minoritized activists and scholars. Yet even when we write about our own lived experiences with discrimination, we are frequently told (even in academic spaces that imagine themselves as accepting) that we are wrong, mistaken, lying, attention seeking or otherwise overly subjective. Want proof? Read the comments section of just about any blog written by minoritized scholars or the types of email sent to women scholars who write about issues like gender and race. I guarantee you will find comments that attempt to correct our supposed misunderstandings of our own experiences, at best, and strip us of our very humanity, at worst.

This notion of subjectivity is the crux of the matter. By virtue of being LGBTQI activists, scholars of color, scholars with disabilities and so on, minority researchers embody a group that is viewed as inherently subjective. In theory, I have no problem with that: subjectivity is incredibly valuable. Acknowledging subjectivity allows researchers to recognize that no one is above bias, and rather than running from our prejudices and partialities, we can confront them head-on. Valuing subjectivity allows us to use methodologies like autoethnography that let us situate our experiences in a broader cultural context. Our subjectivity permits us to delve into a level of research within our communities and cultures that outsiders to our communities would find difficult or impossible to access.

But unfortunately, as a minoritized scholar, my presumed subjectivity has real-world consequences. It affects the types of research I am allowed to conduct. It affects whether my research will be considered empirical, useful and valid. It affects how hard I will have to fight to get approval to carry out my research by the Institutional Review Board. It means that to engage in qualitative methodologies, I have to risk the double jeopardy of conducting subjective research as a supposedly subjective scholar and dealing with the fallout should I attempt to publish research considered by many to be — as an adviser in my doctoral program put it –“wishy-washy.” It means that the work we do in our own communities may be appropriated by other scholars seen as more objective than ourselves.

Such issues are much more than minor inconveniences. Failing to value and respect the types of data that minoritized scholars are collecting — and the ways we are collecting them — is a form of silencing us. When we pioneer methodologies or bring to light cultural knowledge previously or currently rejected as subjective in academic spaces, we are adding our voices to the conversation in the most authentic ways we can. So when our courses are decried as racist toward white students, or when peer-review publications, IRBs and advisers scorn our efforts, or when we are told our writing style does not follow standard (read: white cis masculinist) convention, we are being silenced on a systemic level. Simultaneously, we are being stripped of our authenticity.

I write truths that outsiders to my communities do not see.

I do this in an effort to educate outsiders, yet my labors are often futile. Because outsiders have never witnessed our real-life experiences, they frequently believe that these realities simply cannot be factual. This is a trend I find frightening, as it is rooted in the devaluation of the other. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe survivors of rape and incest are telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe people of color when they say they experience violence at the hands of the police. It is rooted in a culture that does not believe trans people are who we say we are.

I write uncomfortable truths.

As academics, we encourage our students to think critically but have difficulty turning that lens upon ourselves. We do not want to consider that our systemic devaluation of subjective research may be rooted in something more than general preference. We don’t want to admit that we are comfortable judging the merit of p values but live in fear of what we cannot easily quantify. We have difficulty accepting that, however inadvertently, we have created an institutional culture that devalues the work of minoritized scholars when we dream ourselves and our colleges to be committed to diversity and pluralism.

If I am going to survive as a scholar activist, I have to believe that this culture is malleable. It’s a culture that we can change from both inside and outside academe. Within the academy, we have a responsibility to take a long and hard look at which bodies we value and which ones we don’t, and ask ourselves why that is. We have to ask ourselves what types of work are worthy of pay, of promotion and of tenure. We have to question what wonderful knowledge we are refusing to publish because it didn’t involve multiple linear regression. We have to ask if we are refusing to further knowledge simply because we don’t agree with how it was collected — even when that collection was ethical. If and when our responses do not align with the current structural realities of our institutions, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to change these patterns.

I take risks to write these truths.

I know that writing in such public forums could adversely impact my career. I have learned that I have many privileges that afford me the option of being out as a trans academic. I have accepted that, simply by virtue of who I am, writing about my own communities will always be considered subjective. I recognize that until we have massively reformed our valuation of methodological practices, my status as a researcher and the research that I conduct will be considered suspect and subject to additional scrutiny. I know that, on such a systemic level, rethinking which types of research matter and are worthy of publication will be a long, slow process.

But still, I write my truth.


Bio: Jackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an activist, educator, and the author of Trans/Portraits: Voices From Transgender Communities. As the education director for the Trans Education, Activism, Community & Health (TEACH) Alliance, he has spoken throughout the country on contemporary issues in transgender communities. When not working with the TEACH Alliance, Shultz teaches composition and creative writing courses at New England College. He is an alumnus of Washington State University and Dartmouth College, and a current doctoral student at New England College. He is a regular contribute to Conditionally Accepted.