On The Exclusion Of Trans And Intersex People From “Nationally Representative” Surveys

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this post, Dr. Sumerau raises the provocative question: why do we call surveys that exclude certain populations — in this case, trans and intersex people — “nationally representative”?

What Does “Nationally” – As In, Nationally Representative – Actually Mean?

A few months ago, a student asked me an interesting question for which I had no answer at the time. As I do each fall, I was teaching a course on the sociology of sexualities, and as I also do every fall, I was showing students some statistical profiles of sexual and gender minority communities, issues, and concerns so that we could discuss these patterns and they could learn how sociologists utilize statistics in the study of sexualities. After class, one of my transgender students came up to the front of the room and asked, “Why do sociologists call their surveys nationally representative? Are these surveys from nations that do not have trans people?”

Despite my own personal and professional background related to transgender politics, scholarship, and experience, I must admit that I was stumped. My first inclination was to offer the standard “graduate course in statistics” answer concerning statistical weighting, government demographic tables and sources, and measurement strategies. But, I realized right away that none of these answers would suggest that our surveys actually represent any nation of which I’ve ever heard in the concrete world (i.e., a nation where only males and females exist). As a result, I decided to forgo my first inclination, and answer honestly. I told the student (as I had been told years before) that scientists (physical and social) have historically ignored and/or demonized the existence of intersex and transgender people. Not surprisingly, the student understood this, but said, “so, they’re not actually nationally representative, right?” After I agreed, the student asked, “then why do we call them that?” I have yet to find an adequate answer other than transphobia and/or cisgender privilege.

By transphobia and/or cisgender privilege, however, I do not necessarily mean research has consciously or intentionally erased transgender and intersex populations, though this may also be the case. Rather, I am observing that we live in a society historically constructed via the elaboration of sex and gender binaries by legal, social, political, religious, and scientific power structures and elites. As a result, much of our “knowledge” and “belief” is constrained by these artificial binaries and the entirety of social relations often implicitly or explicitly serve to reinforce these notions of “what counts” and “what should be.” The ability to call a data set representative of a nation when it does not contain transgender or intersex people thus (best I can tell) emerges as a result of internalizing the promotion of these binary “knowledges” and “beliefs” throughout our social world.

Let me be clear, I have attempted to find another answer to my student’s question throughout the past few months in many different ways. First, I spent considerable time reading everything that I could find on statistical theory, survey design, and methodological practice, but in none of these sources could I find a reason that we would call something that did not represent any nation “nationally representative.” The best answers that I could find suggested that since our government erased transgender and intersex people in its data collection, we scientists just did the same in our surveys (or vice versa). Next, I began just casually asking colleagues the same questions that my student asked, and their responses fell into three categories. Some people (like me) responded by experiencing “oh shit” moments and then saying that they guessed it reflected transphobia or cisgender privilege built into science. Other people either (a) said “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” or (b) got frustrated and didn’t want to talk about it. Finally, I began casually asking this question at conferences (three of them so far), but once again I got the same two answers (probably transphobia or religious impressions of “always been this way”) coupled with more angry and frustrated reactions wherein people didn’t want to talk about it or simply dodged the question.

I must admit I am especially fascinated by the angry, frustrated, and/or unwilling to talk about it reactions I have received because these responses are identical to the responses of preachers and other devout believers whom I encountered when I asked questions in church as a child. Although I cannot be certain, I think these reactions likely stem from (a) people’s faith in “representative statistics” or “statistical generalizability,” which leads them (like people with faith in other secular or religious forms of knowledge and prophesy) to lash out at anything that challenges their beliefs and assumptions about “what is real” and “what is right,” and/or (b) people’s realization that, by calling these surveys “representative,” we are participating in the erasure and marginalization of transgender and intersex people, which leads them (like people who benefit from other dominant social norms) to face difficult questions about their role – intentionally or otherwise – in the pain and suffering of others. In either case, I am rather amazed by just how “faithful” or “dogmatic” many people are when someone questions normative assumptions about statistics and/or surveys.

As I continue to seek answers, however, I have run into a couple of exceptional responses. In such cases, people avoided the question at first by pointing out that nationally representative surveys always leave out some groups (i.e., the homeless or smaller populations like those found in new religious movements), so it did not necessarily say anything about transgender or intersex people. Of course, I then asked them why we called something “nationally representative” if segments of the nation (i.e., whichever ones they had just noted) were left out of the sample. Why did we not simply call these “selected” or “chosen” or (as we do with some other surveys) “convenience” samples? At this point, I once again was unable to get an answer to the question (i.e., they generally became angry, frustrated and/or didn’t want to talk about it anymore), but I was able to point out that their first response demonstrated the point of the question. Whether or not the absence of trans or intersex people says anything about transphobia or cisgender privilege, there is still no empirical reason that I can find to call something that does not represent any actual nation “nationally representative.”

In fact, this practice is incredibly problematic if we seek to study the “actual” rather than some “imagined” social world. If we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, for example, we are symbolically saying these people either (a) do not belong in our nation, (b) do not matter in our nation, and/or (c) are not worth our attention, concern, or respect as researchers. Within sociology, we have a term for such processes when done by other (i.e., not our own surveys) means: symbolic annihilation (i.e., the symbolic erasure of inconvenient or marginalized truths and communities for the sake of power and privilege). Likewise, if we call something nationally representative that leaves out portions of said nation, we are not studying the empirical world, but rather engaging in creative writing about a possible world we have created to fit our own needs. When others (i.e., not physical or social scientists) do this, we typically call it religion or spirituality instead of science. While these suggestions may be especially frustrating or anger-inducing for many of us (especially given the prominence and prestige of “nationally representative” terminology in our existing academic structures), they are likely considerations that all scientists should consider and debate if we hope to avoid becoming just another religious tradition.

Closing Thoughts

The combination of these experiences has led me to stop using the phrase “nationally representative” whenever possible until I see surveys that actually reflect empirical populations within our world. Instead, I have begun referring to these surveys (i.e., the General Social Survey, Add Health, and others) as either “Cisgender Representative Surveys” or “Biblically Representative Surveys” since they only contain cisgender populations (i.e., so the weighting might make them representative of these populations), and they do actually reflect what the Bible says our world looks like (i.e., males and females only). At other times, I simply point out that every sample that does not contain a representation of all social groups is simply a “convenience” or “self selected” sample. Not surprisingly, some people have responded with cheer at my new terms while others have become very uncomfortable or angry. In both cases, however, I am attempting to create space where we may begin to wrestle with the question my student asked me last fall.

As a result, I close this post by asking all of you the same question: why do we call these surveys “nationally representative,” and what does that say about the place of transgender and intersex people (as well as other groups that are marginalized, small, or for some other reason not part of the “nation” represented despite their existence within empirical nations we attempt to “represent”) both within society and within science? Further, I call upon readers to think about resources that could be developed to help scholars who seek more “representative” survey instruments. How could we go about constructing surveys in ways that encourage transgender, intersex, and other underrepresented populations to participate? Obviously, one way would be to stop calling surveys that leave out populations “representative.” But, beyond this linguistic shift, what concrete ways could we go about actively seeking to include all possible elements of populations (national or otherwise) in our survey designs?

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.


Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.

I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.

I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.

Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.

I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.

As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.

In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.

Academic Bisexuality

When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.

This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.

Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.

This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.

Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.

I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.

In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality.  And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.

“I Am A Skeptic” by Dr. J. Sumerau

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this guest post, Dr. Sumerau reflects on zir academic and social experience as a skeptic, or one who sees all “truth claims” (even those ze makes) as arguments to be critiqued, discussed, and debated rather than “accepted” or “trusted” in relation to binary notions of “right” or “wrong” and “true” or “false.”  Instead of suggesting other people’s “beliefs” or “truth claims” are right or wrong, the following post thus seeks to share the experience of a skeptic experiencing academic and social life within our contemporary (and often faith based) world.


I Am A Skeptic

While I was raised in a religious home, religious belief never suited me even though I tried to believe for a few years. I was unable to “have faith” or “believe” in any thing I could not directly experience with my own senses. Since I have never felt the presence of a supernatural force, I do not believe there is one even though I remain open to the possibility that I may be proven wrong at some point. I also have trouble imagining a supernatural being or force that would create a world filled with so much pain, suffering, discrimination, and violence without thinking said being or force should be fired for negligence at the very least. I just always thought that if I (a simple human being as far as I can tell) was capable of caring for others when I wasn’t forced to and able to make every effort to avoid hurting others, then certainly a supernatural being or force could at least do as well.

Since religious belief never suited me, I spent time with freethought and atheist groups as a teenager, and have both studied and interacted with both since. In so doing, however, I ran into similar problems with these groups – the ones I met “believed” (and expected me to believe) in things that could not be proven. Most of the nonreligious people I met, for example, believe deeply in science (e.g., they define it as a form of truth rather than a method limited by human assumptions, biases, and interpretative abilities) and often sound much like their religious counterparts in the process. Some others in these groups explained to me that while it was silly for religious people to “believe” in an unproven supernatural, they were “certain” there was no supernatural even though that can’t be proved either. Since I am unable to “believe” that there isn’t or is a supernatural for sure (after all, neither assertion can be proven) and since I have read widely enough to realize that “scientific” findings are produced by humans with biases, assumptions, and prejudices, I could not adopt the nonreligious “faith traditions” I found either.

The nonreligious “faith traditions” I found did, however, give me an idea – maybe I would find a haven for skeptics in scientific communities. Alas, I was once again mistaken.  (As readers have learned from this very blog, academia tends to enforce its own set of beliefs and values about what constitutes “normal” or “acceptable,” but even this blog has sometimes included religious and spiritual references without critique.)  Instead of skepticism, my seven years (10 counting undergrad) of scientific practice have shown me that most of the scientists I meet also carry around a lot of “beliefs” and have a lot of “faith.”

Despite the preponderance of statistical analyses in our journals, for example, most scientists I’ve met take these findings for granted even though replications are rarely done to verify claims. Similarly, I have noticed (and been explicitly told) that theoretical (i.e., possible explanations) and psychic (i.e., predicted probabilities that show what “might” happen in a given circumstance) contributions are granted much more value than concrete statistical or qualitative observations of the world we actually live in everyday. Further, I have been amazed to learn that most scientists I meet refer to findings as “facts” or “truth” despite the fact that (1) all such findings come from human “interpretation” of data (especially in the physical sciences where our data cannot generally talk back to tell us if our interpretations are incorrect or incomplete), and (2) scientific history is littered with examples of things the humans doing science have gotten wrong. Especially as a bisexual raised in the lower-working class who was transsexual as a teen before transitioning into a genderqueer identity rather than another sex (i.e., a member of three groups historically denied access to the academy and voices in science), I have thus realized that I also lack the “faith” necessary for properly fitting into “scientific faith traditions.”

I have thus come to realize that at present “skeptic” is likely the best way I can identify myself, but this leads me to wonder if there is space in the academy (and beyond it) for skeptics. While I have been lucky enough to find other skeptical folk (some that have “faith” in some of the above and some who, like me, are skeptical of all truth claims they have thus far come across even any we make at specific times), I wonder about other skeptics surrounded by those who develop “faith” in the truth claims of other human beings. I thus thought it might be useful to announce my presence in this space in hopes of both letting other skeptics know they’re not alone, and asking is there a place for skeptics among the religiously, nonreligiously, and scientifically “faithful.”

25 Lessons From Grad School That Weren’t (Totally) True

Source: PhD Comics

Halfway through my second-year on the tenure-track, I see that I am faced with another important moment in shaping my career.  Though I effectively proved that I am an independent scholar through the grueling process of completing a dissertation, I still face the challenge of defining my career for myself.  The training wheels are off.  It seems, however, that the task of professional self-definition is a more salient and intense process for me because I intend to carve out my own path — one that prioritizes difference-making, health, happiness, and authenticity.

Just after one year in my job, I have stumbled across lessons I learned in graduate school that were exaggerated, completely false, or overly-simplistic.  It appears one necessary step of my journey toward a self-defined career as a teacher-scholar-advocate is to unlearn, or at least contexualize, such lessons.  Here are 25 lessons that I have identified as problematic or untrue.

  1. The only fulfilling career path in academia is a tenure-track (and eventually tenured) faculty position at a research I university.
  2. One goes where the job isPeriod.
  3. All new (qualified) PhDs get (and want) tenure-track jobs.
  4. People who do not complete graduate school are weak, stupid, or uncommitted.
  5. You must attend the big, national, and/or mainstream conference in your discipline in order to succeed.
  6. Academia and activism do not mix.
  7. Service should be avoided, and never includes community service.
  8. One only becomes relevant through publishing a lot in the top journal of one’s field.
  9. Teaching is not as important as research.  Really, we do it just to get paid.
  10. Academia is an equal opportunity institution.
  11. Higher education is filled with liberal-minded, social justice-oriented people.
  12. Objectivity exists and is the ideal approach for research and teaching.
  13. The rankings of universities are an ideal indicator for quality of training.
  14. Quantitative methods are better than qualitative methods.  Can the latter even be trusted?
  15. One should wait until they are an “expert” to blog or advance other forms of public scholarship.
  16. Homophobia no longer exists in academia.
  17. Black people are more likely than white people to get tenure-track jobs — because they’re Black.
  18. Graduate programs are concerned with the health and well-being of their students.
  19. If you do not love graduate school, you will hate being a professor.
  20. Race, gender, and sexuality are narrow areas of research.
  21. Peer-review is 100% anonymous.
  22. No one will get mad at you for blogging.
  23. Breaks during the academic year are just opportunities to get ahead on research.
  24. Grad students’ opinions matter in the major functions of the department.
  25. Sexual harassment does not occur in academia.

Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

Me - Presentation 1

Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology.  In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia.  In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49).  Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.

In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:

  • Academia and activism do not mix.  And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
  • Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations.  Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population.  Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
  • Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
  • Good research is objective.  One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!

I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.”  I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position.  And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia.  You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t.  It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun.  Collins argues:

Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).

I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general.  Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research.  However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life.  Can this tension ever be reconciled?  Collins suggests:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).

Wow, damned if you do…  This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology.  She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized.  In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53).  Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.

I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article.  Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective.  But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession.  Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).

Professors Feel Pain, Too

Source: Jet Magazine

Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class.  This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place.  Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects.  A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.

The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain.  This is not really a complaint.  Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning.  So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom.  As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom.  Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.

Let me give two examples of what I mean:

  • About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children.  I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them.  But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination.  I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on.  It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
  • On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment.  I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door.  Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture.  I went to class that day feeling violated.  A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs.  This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class.  But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying.  I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.

My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant.  I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences.  I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking.  Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses.  So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.

I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor.  I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session.  I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?”  My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course.  But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.

Professor’s Feel Pain, Too

But, what about my experiences and pain?  I certainly do not make the class about me.  (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!)   Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish).  At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?”  Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses.  After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.

I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts.  That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far.  But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it.  I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers.  But, I do not simply have a painful past.  As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.

Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom.  Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion.  When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me.  This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share.  But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.

“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain

The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor.  Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger.  It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.

So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it.  Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion.  So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home.  Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.

But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class.  This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow.  And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.

Please Blog Responsibly

In an earlier post, I made my position clear — there are many reasons to blog as an academic.  Let’s be honest, it takes a long time to get one’s research published in as an article or book.  And, despite the amount of preparation (and grading…) that goes into teaching, we really only covering a slice of an entire field or subfield.  And, our scholarship and teaching tends to stick behind paywalls; only those with access to academic journals and only those enrolled in college have the luxury of accessing them.  And, don’t even bother thinking service is can to anything other than your department, university, or discipline.

So, blogging can serve as means to make scholarship, teaching, and advocacy more accessible.  You can complement peer-reviewed journals articles behind paywalls with a short blog post summary of your research.  This is true, too, for teaching (i.e., short post to introduce concepts or review prior scholarship) and service (i.e., blogging as intellectual activism).  Or, blogging can feature aspects of your scholarship or advocacy that are outside of your typical work.

Blog Responsibly!

But, as with any sort of unregulated, non-reviewed, and public writing, academics who blog should seriously consider a few points of caution.  Some of these I have worried over for some time, others are lessons learned from recent events.

It Doesn’t Count.  Unfortunately, there is little chance that your blogging will “count” in evaluation for jobs, tenure, promotion, or other academic milestones.  It does not constitute peer-reviewed scholarship.  It does not constitute teaching.  And, I would guess that few departments would even count it as service.  If it serves as an important part of your scholarship — for me, I stand by it as a form of intellectual activism — it is at least worth finding out whether your department or university would recognize it as something more than a personal hobby.  I am happy that mine see it as a form of service, so I continue to list this blog (as well as my time with KinseyConfidential.org) as service on my CV.

But, It Does Count.  Although blogging may not officially count in your favor, it could unofficially count against you (how about that…).  One’s colleagues and/or advisers may see regular blogging as a cute little hobby, but I fear their opinion about what you write could trickle into formal, “objective” evaluations.  The new reality for the job market is one’s submitted application and anything accessible on the internet is fair game in search committee’s decision-making.  (And, sometimes steps are taken to dig into not-so-public information on the web, i.e., via Facebook networks.) Besides the content, frequent blogging may also send the message that you are “wasting” precious time that could go toward your research.  And, let’s not forget that our students are savvy enough to enter your name into Google and hit “Search.”  I learned early on that I had students who were regular readers of my blogging for Kinsey Confidential; fortunately, they enjoyed my blog posts, and it seemed to add to my credibility in my course on sexualities.

You May Make Enemies.  I have been pleasantly surprised to receive many compliments, praise, and even fan-mail for the (successful, I’d say) creation of Conditionally Accepted.  And, my network of friends and colleagues has expanded through (and because of) my blogging and other social media use.  But, others may begin to take you seriously enough to disagree with you.  This may mean sometimes tense online conversations with other scholars.  Or, you may become the subject of publicly expressed hostility.  Even scarier for me was being called out by white supremacists; that made my heart race a little for fear of any physical harm.

You Might Get Sued.  I knew you could piss people off as a blogger.  But, no one told me you could be sued!  I was not-so-pleasantly surprised several weeks ago to find an email threatening legal action unless I removed text from an old blog post.  No, not copyright infringement style — slander!  (Fortunately, that crisis was avoided.)  I certainly wear descriptions like “provocative” with a badge of honor, but I would never aim to tarnish someone’s name, image, or reputation.

So, I am speaking from experience.  It is possible, so be careful in how you speak about other people, even if you are simply quoting publicly accessible information.  I also recommend obtaining umbrella insurance (that covers civil legal action like slander and libel) if you can afford it.

Stay In Your Lane!  My biggest gripe, the one that has driven almost every blogging battle I have had with other scholars, is writing outside of your own expertise.  With the respect and privilege afforded to PhDs (and, to a substantially lesser extent, future PhDs), I fear it is likely that any scholar’s written words can be taken unquestionably as expert opinion, even Truth.  A few bad apples aside, the peer-review system bolsters confidence in researchers’ expertise.  But, there is no peer-review for blogging.  Besides the pressure not to blog at all, the failure of academic institutions to value it places no other constraints on what scholars blog about.  So, aside from harm to your professional reputation, biologists may write film critiques and English professors could develop new theory on evolution.

I assume those examples are a bit extreme.  But, I have seen colleagues veer slightly out of their own subfield.  Staying safely within their discipline, they begin (maybe unintentionally) speaking as an expert on areas outside of their own training, research, and teaching. what really irritates me is their angered response when they are called on it.  A polite request to “stay in one’s lane,” to allow people with more expertise to weigh in, are met with an effort to teach you a thing or two.  I am not asking to add to the many ways in which “academic freedom” is already constrained.  But, I call for a bit of reflection and responsibility here.  Your public writing carries a certain level of weight and authority as an intellectual.  It may be best to at least preface a post with “I am not an expert on this…” or conclude with links to others’ work or simply let the real experts do the writing.  Frankly, I feel one of the greatest abilities of an intellectual is to know the limits of one’s expertise.

Start Blogging Already!

The aforementioned points of caution aside, I strongly encourage scholars to blog, however (in)frequently.  I know of many pseudonymous bloggers, which allows some level of protection (but, it is not full-proof) for those worried about professional harm.  If you simply want to write a blog post just one — without maintaining your own blog, there are sites (like this one!) that would gladly feature a guest blog post.  And, while blogging is not formally valued in academia, it can increase your visibility as a scholar, maybe even further demonstrate your expertise, and lead to invitations to either cite blog posts or publish them.  So, give it a try — what are you waiting for?!

Other Blogging Resources

A few resources for academic blogging:

  • “Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers” from Just Publics @ 365 (compiled by Dr. Jessie Daniels, who blogs at Racism Review).