Blogging For (A) Change

Should academics blogSome academics are hesitant to do so, but a generation of young scholars — who have been raised with technology — have pointed out many benefits of doing so (and using Twitter).  For one, it presents something other than the traditional format and flow of academic writing.  The freedom (and fun) of writing for a blog can actually help our traditional academic writing.  Also, it presents a medium to transcend the traditional barriers to making academic work accessible.  Earlier this year, I wrote an essay, “Blogging For (A) Change,” about using blogging for intellectual activism (see below).

If you are interested in starting your own blog, there are several bits of advice on the web about getting started And, I am always looking for guest bloggers for ConditionallyAccepted.com!

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I recently wrote on essay on blogging for Remarks, the newsletter for the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association.  In it, I reflect on the reasons why I blog, namely to make academic knowledge more accessible, and my participation in the recent blog discussion on “post-racism.”  Institutional support does not exist to encourage academics to blog or use other forms of social media for their scholarship (yet), so I elaborate on some of the potential professional and personal benefits of blogging.

Download a pdf of the Remarks newsletter here, or you can jump right to the original, extended version of the essay below.  This post was featured as a guest blog post at RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, and captured the interest of Dr. Fabio Rojas who responded with “why activism and academia don’t mix.

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Blogging For (A) Change

To blog or not to blog?  Within the context of the debate over public sociology, which seems as old as the discipline itself, the question does not seem that novel. But, with technology advancing even as I write this, the question does warrant attention.

Still today, much academic knowledge, be it publications or lecture material, is locked within the academy. Individuals who can afford it are welcomed into institutions of higher education to learn basic aspects of any discipline of their choosing. Their student status allows them to peruse whatever academic journals to which their university has purchased access. But, beyond the university, the public has limited access to academic knowledge. And, even those who can access it, like our students, there is little hope (and utility) of gleaning much from the latest issue of American Sociological Review.  Even Contexts articles are behind pay-walls!

On Activism and the Academy

I have wrestled with the ivory tower’s barriers to academic knowledge since the start of my graduate training in 2007. Like most of my colleagues of marginalized backgrounds, particularly scholars of color, I came to graduate school as an activist, prepared to devote my life to making a difference. Still today, I am often frustrated by my naiveté that the academy, by design, is apolitical and “objective.”  The first time it was made painfully aware to me, a professor joked, “oh, we still haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”  No, they still have not.

Unsurprisingly, the value-systems of many academic institutions (particularly research-intensive universities) reflect and reinforce this apolitical and supposedly objective culture. One’s job prospects, tenure-ability, and chances of promotion depend, first, upon one’s research in peer-reviewed journals; then, some attention is paid to the quality of one’s teaching. Finally, one’s service to the department, university, and discipline are given a quick skim. Of course, service never means serving communities in need. (That is what you do in your “free” time.)

Unfortunately, these institutional priorities mirror those of white, middle-class scholars. I suspected this from the start of my academic career. But, I had my “proof” when I saw the ASA presentation, “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions” (see the Powerpoint here).  In a 2009 sample of 1,473 doctoral students, African American and Latina/o doctoral students ranked as their number 1 and number 3 reason to attend graduate school, respectively, to “contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US”; “contribute to my community” was number 2 for Latina/os. The top three reasons for white doctoral students were to “grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “make a contribution to the field.”  All these years of feeling my work was urgently needed to make a difference, while my white colleagues were merely curious about the social world, now had confirmation.

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Intellectual Activism

Recently, I have grown more comfortable in accepting that I pursue change-making through my research, teaching, and academic and community service, and that I do so in an environment that tries to “beat the activist” out of me.  I have been particularly inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s latest book, Intellectual Activism, which makes such work seem like a given for scholars of color.

Collins makes a distinction between speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. Indeed, by pursuing traditional academic work, namely publishing research, we aim to accomplish the former. That is, we try to advance research, and even challenge others’ research, to better understand social problems, make visible the lives of historically marginalized communities, and so on. But, such efforts alone could mean that your work never leaves the pay-walls of academic journals. Instead, to do so, we must speak to (and with) those outside of the ivory tower (e.g., public speeches, working with community groups).  (See her Contexts article on these ideas, as well).

The importance of both of these intellectual activist efforts became very clear to me with the publication of my first solo-authored article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Understandably, I was excited upon news of its acceptance. But, from acceptance to OnlineFirst to print and beyond, I kept feeling that something was missing. In fact, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I was underwhelmed. Here, I had achieved the great feat of publishing in one of the discipline’s top journals, and ended up feeling more irrelevant thereafter. Getting somewhat choked up in revealing this to a few friends, I realized I was aching for some sense that my publication would actually matter to the people it was about – marginalized individuals who face discrimination and bear the health consequences of these experiences.

I suspect I will eventually be cited, as many scholars are doing important, novel work on discrimination and health. But, beyond those JHSB articles featured as policy briefs, few outside of the academy will ever see my article. Whereas capturing the media’s attention for one’s research seemed to be the common route to accessibility, I pursued a press release through Indiana University and one through ASA. I am grateful for these opportunities, but, again, disappointed by the outcome. A few sites that indiscriminately repost every academic article picked up the press releases. And, my study was featured in a few Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles.  No small feat!  But, it was not the New York Times attention of which I dreamed.

I considered sending printed copies of my article to non-profit organizations like NAACP, NOW, and HRC. But, I worried that their overworked staff had little time to figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, I decided to devote a guest blog post at Sociological Images to a summary of my article, which I also posted on my own personal blog.

Blogging as Intellectual Activism

Blogging – a form of writing on the internet (short for web-logging) – can serve many academic functions. In fact, at least in the way I approach blogging, it offers a unique space to simultaneously achieve efforts related to research, teaching, and service.  Again, using the example of my JHSB article, I was able to make my findings accessible beyond the JHSB readership (i.e. academics). In addition, it offered an unlimited space to elaborate or clarify. In particular, I was able to strip away much of the sociological jargon that likely hinders readability. In addition, I was able to offer simple bar graphs instead of multivariate models. While expounding upon my research, I also spent some energy to teaching an unfamiliar audience about some of the concepts within my article, namely the intersectionality theoretical framework.

In addition to extending traditional academic work, blogging also presents a space for more “real time” scholarship. One of the constraints of academic work is the lag in doing research to publication to uptake beyond the academy. Years may go by before one sees one’s first citation, and even more before one’s study has some impact, albeit indirect, beyond the ivory tower. As such, sociologists rarely attend to current events in their research.  Though one might find it challenging to pursue, for example, an ethnographic study of the Trayvon Martin murder case, one certainly could devote a five-paragraph blog assessment of the racial dynamics inherent within it. With so much political commentary offered for everyday current events, we certainly could use more sociologically-informed, critical perspectives to make sense of things.

Personal Benefits of Blogging

You may not be convinced by these aforementioned reasons to blog – that it offers a space to make your research and academic knowledge in general accessible to the public. Indeed, there is still little institutional value and support for such work. However, there are other benefits, both personal and professional, that may make blogging more enticing.

Professionally, blogging can serve as an opportunity to connect with other scholars. Though I am physically (and socially) isolated these days as I frantically finish my dissertation, I have been a part of an on-going blog discussion with Fabio Rojas (orgtheory.net), Tressie Cottom McMillan (tressiemc.com), and Jason Orne (queermetropolis.wordpress.com) about the persistence of racism in America, or the possibility that we are in living in a “post-racist” era. In addition, blogging can function as a space to mentor other scholars, or simply offer professional advice. Tanya Golash-Boza (SREM Section Chair) has a great blog (getalifephd.blogspot.com) that is filled with tips for writing and creating balancing in one’s schedule (and life in general). Karen Kelsky’s theprofessorisin.com was tremendously helpful for preparing for the job market.

Following the aforementioned blog debate on “post-racism,” I have also been reminded that blogging has a bit of a liberating effect. Of course, any additional writing tasks are good practice. But, blogging offers a space to write without censor, standard, and fear of “what will the reviewers think!”  Early on, I learned that my academic writing must be undeniably supported by prior research or my own findings. One cannot discuss what they are not measuring directly; “don’t talk about racism – you’re measuring race attitudes,” I was told. In my personal blogging, I can talk about racism – and I often do. As a result, the words flow more easily. I do not stop after each sentence to agonize over what reviewer number 2 will say. And, this newfound ease in my writing extends into my academic writing, as well (even on “perceived” race discrimination in my work on racist discrimination).

Obviously, every sociologists cannot blog, for it may not be a desirable task to add to those overwhelming To-Do lists that actually lead to jobs, tenure, and promotion.  But, I would at least like to encourage those who have been curious or tempted to consider it, even if infrequently or offering a guest blog post to existing blog sites.  There are numerous free blogging sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogspot).  Whether you blog for change, or just for a change of pace, the benefits of doing so may be worth giving up a few minutes to an hour.

References

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2012. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Segura, Denise A. 2012. “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 17, Denver, CO.

Toward A Self-Defined Activist-Academic Career In Sociology

Earlier this year, in the midst of working on my dissertation, I found blogging to be a healthy refuge through the loooooong days.  It provided me a space to write without the persistent editing (and censoring) I must do in traditional academic writing.  So, like Jeff Kosbie, I wrote a blog post on defining my career as a sociologist for myself — specifically a career that will be informed by my passion to make the world a better and just place (see below).  Also, check out Michelle Kweder’s piece, “Why I’m not waiting for tenure to change the world…” 

I hope you’ll be inspired!

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DangerBeing forced to watch the  world whirl by me as I worked on my dissertation was tortuous: two cases on same-gender marriage heard by the US Supreme Court; horrendous media coverage of an already horrendous rape case in Steubenville, Ohio; a racist attempt at anti-racism in music.  And, just as I came up for air, the good news of finishing was overshadowed by the tragic bombings in Boston.  I tried by best to keep up, but, obviously, I have been way too busy to chime in.

But, one good thing has come out of the selfish time of dissertating — well, besides an awesome dissertation.  My mind has been boiling over with questions about research and academia in general.  In attending college, I learned; but, now (almost) with a PhD in hand, I see how I have learned how to learn.  And, increasingly, that critical eye has turned back on itself, raising questions about knowledge and science.

What is “knowledge”?  What is “science”?  Who defines it?  Who has access to it (and who doesn’t)?  Are the multiple types of knowledge and science — and, if so, are they equally valued in academia and society in general?

On Activism And Academia

As I near the completion of my graduation training, I feel both more qualified as a scholar, but also more empowered in defining my scholarship for myself.  And, I will tell you, the latter sentiment is largely a product of self-teaching, not so much my graduate program.  I alluded to this in my essay on blogging as a form of intellectual activism.

I have received mixed reactions to my essay, “Blogging For (A) Change.”  Initially, many were excited, supportive, and noted that they share my sentiments.  I was not surprised, since these warm responses were coming from my primary, intended audience — fellow sociologists of color and anti-racist sociologists.  (It was an essay for the ASA‘s Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities.)  But, given its potential relevance to all scholars, I also provided the essay as a blog post.

Thereafter, I began to receive more cautioned responses.  In addition to private exchanges, I was honored to be the subject of another blog post by Dr. Fabio Rojas: “why activism and academia don’t mix.”  Fabio explains:

Why do we “beat [activism] out’ of graduate students?  The answer, in my view, is that academia and activism are simply different things. Every activity has a bottom line. In politics, it’s votes. In business, it’s money. In religion, it’s souls. Activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation.

Beyond the differences in the goals of academia and activism, Fabio notes that the latter is neither rewarded nor institutionally sanctioned within the former.  And, he clarifies that, ultimately, academics do have a role in social change — the production of knowledge.  A few other sociologists chimed in with comments to emphasize that the commitment of a scholar of color to the advancement of one’s community or people of color in general does not necessarily imply that one is an activist.

Fearing that I may have been mistaken in speaking for other scholars of marginalized backgrounds, I posed the question on Facebook: “Was I wrong in assuming many academics are also activists, even at heart?”  For the most part, my scholarly friends suggested no, with many suggesting that they, too, are activists.  But, there seems to be good reason for the skepticism that some have expressed.

Activism And Academia Can Mix, But…

Let me start by removing the question —  “can one be an academic and an activist?” — from the table.  Yes, it is possible.  There are a handful of people who have suggested that this is the case for them; I strongly suspect that there is at least a sizable minority of scholars for whom this is true.

DuBoisAnd, history suggests that it has been done.  In the last subject of my leisure reading, Stalking the Sociological Imagination, I was reminded that some of the founders of sociology were activists, including W. E. B. DuBois and C. Wright Mills.  (Some who are discussed — for example, Talcott Parsons — were simply the unfortunate subject of McCarthyism despite maintaining a generally non-activist career in sociology.)  Before that, I was reading Dr. Patricia Hill Collins‘s On Intellectual Activism.

But, as Fabio pointed out, activism — here, meaning any efforts toward social justice or social change outside of research, teaching, and (academic) service — is not rewarded in academe.  For most academic jobs, one is hired because of their qualifications in this academic “Holy Trinity” – research, teaching, and service (usually in that order, especially at research intensive schools).  The same goes for tenure, promotion, and most of the other academic opportunities that scholars pursue (e.g., grants, awards).

But, let’s be clear that the sentiment that one shouldn’t be an activist is a separate matter from whether one can be an activist.  In addition, lack of professional reward implies what is valued, not necessarily what is devalued.  You can be a drag queen, baseball player, stamp collector, or whatever other activities you like outside of work even though the academy will not pay you for it.

Activism And Science Can Mix, But…

A second issue is whether activism and science, in particular, mix.  As one of my friends pointed out, the primary concern is that the biases of someone with activist leanings pose a threat to the objectivity required in science.  For example, if a researcher wishes to advocate for the legalization of same-gender marriage, what would she do if her research suggested that children of LGBT parents really do fare worse than those of heterosexual, cisgender parents?  But, a few things need to be unpacked from the science vs. activism dilemma:

First, sorry folks — “objective science” is an oxymoron.  Humans, who are biased in all sorts of ways (e.g., passions, interests, experiences), do science.  Scientists typically study the things they find interesting or about which they are passionate.  Sometimes we get sleepy and make mistakes.

This is where the peer review process comes in.  While it is not perfect. we gain more confidence when new studies have been vetted by other scholars in that subfield.  When done right, a researcher should be well aware of prior research to aid in research design, analyses, and interpretation.  The roles of anonymous reviewers and the journal’s editor(s) are to verify all aspects of the study.  So, if a researcher submitted a study heavily laden with political motivations, with little sound science or major ethical concerns, the reviewers and editor should catch it before it gets published.

A third issue is the failure to acknowledge other problematic biases in research that do little for society as a whole.  In particular, I am referring to the “publish or perish” dictum that places great emphasis on where one’s articles are published, and how many publications one can obtain in a certain period of time.  Not only do I worry that this pressure poses a threat to scholars’ health and well-being, I sometimes fear that scholars’ motivations for prestige and quantity lead them to overlook bigger contributions to theory and to society in general.

Another unspoken consequence of this pressure is the number of studies that have been tweaked or totally abandoned because researchers yield “null findings” — for, it is the significant findings that get you published!  My point here is that science is not perfect, whether activists are doing research or not.

Activism, Academia, And Research Can Mix, And…

phcI argue that it is important to weigh the benefits of the mixing of activism and academia, too, before we jump to a decision on this mixture.  If activism reflects one’s passion for a particular social or political cause, then the work of activist-oriented scholars may benefit academia on the whole because of their unique motivation about the subject and the extra care they take in their work.  In addition, this activist flare may bring a creative lens to one’s scholarship.  Just think of where the social sciences be if Patricia Hill Collins never pursued an academic career, deciding instead to continue working toward educational reform.  Would some other sociologist have applied and extended Kimberlé Crenshaw‘s legal scholarship on intersectionality?

Indeed, for some scholars (myself included), one’s research, teaching, and service are interdependent.  There is a sort of synergy among these three components of our scholarship that is greater than the sum of research + teaching + service.  For example, I experienced a great sense of mutual influence among my research (discrimination and health, LGBT health), teaching, and my work as a co-facilitator for “Boyfriend Lessons” — a series of workshops for bisexual, trans, and gay young men on health and well-being (particularly sexual health).  I brought to the latter insights from others’ and my own research to articulate how the health of queer men is shaped and constrained within a bi-, trans-, and homophobic context.  These insights have also been articulated in my blogging for Kinsey Confidential.  When I taught Sexual Diversity in 2009-2010, I often shared my Kinsey Confidential blog posts, as well as news of current events, to spark discussion and “warm up” the class for the day’s lecture.  My teaching, my service to the community, as well as my personal experiences and interpersonal connections, in turn, have influenced my research.

But, this comes with full knowledge that service that is not serving the academy does not “count” professionally.  And, again, I stress the importance of the peer review process for publishing research.  How I get to the research process in the first place, and what I do with research once it’s published are undeniably influenced by my commitment to social justice.  While it also influences how I do research, I based my decisions and interpretations on existing theory and research, and have my work vetted by other scholars, just like my non-activist colleagues.

Now, About The Elephant In The Room…

I keep harping on the matter of science, despite its imperfections, because there are some ways in which academia and activism do not mix.  Well, there is one big way, and that is when scholars shirk standards of ethical, empirically- and theoretically-based science all together.

The scandal surrounding a 2012 study by University of Texas Austin sociologist, Mark Regnerus, has been at the background throughout my public dialogue on activism and academia.  Since this story first emerged as I entered the job market, I decided to stay silent on the scandal.  And, even once I secured a job, things had grown to a level that I felt it was best to let those protected by tenure to chime in.  But, this case is likely the example of the concern that skeptics have raised.

Besides my fear of professional consequences, a further complication is the concern that calls for academic freedom must acknowledge that the political pendulum swings both ways.  If I wish to have more space for scholars to blog, speak to the media, and use their research for public “good,” I must recognize that some will be doing so for causes that are not my own, or are even counter to mine.  Sure, Regnerus should be free to blog (as he does), no matter his conservative views.

But, this case stands out because there is evidence that he did not draw upon existing theory and research throughout his research design (namely, how he defined “families with lesbian parents“).  Further, to some extent, the peer review process was usurped.  Even if this paper was not used in political efforts to oppose same-gender marriage, this is simply bad science.

The harmful mix of this bad science and his conservative activism is further apparent in the use of this study (which should have been retracted all together) to encourage the US Supreme Court to deny legal recognition of same-gender couples.  Even when the American Sociological Association spoke for the discipline to say there is no empirical evidence to cause concern for the well-being of children of LGBT parents, he co-signed on an amicus brief that said otherwise, largely based on his and another flawed study.  Unfortunately, his singular voice and study were reframed in the actual SCOTUS case as evidence that sociologists have yet to reach a consensus on LGBT families.

Bad science + activism = public harm.  The peer review process should have prevented the study from ever being published.  And, in being responsible scholars, greater effort should have been made to balance supposed mixed findings: 50 studies say X, but, there is one that says not X; here’s why we the latter study is important (or not).  (The ASA brief did this, and further stressed why Regnerus’s study is flawed and irrelevant to LGBT families.  Regnerus et al. did not do this in their brief to the Supreme Court.)

I believe that scholars can be activist-academics or activist-leaning academics or academics from 9-5 and activists on the weekends.  But, this is with the caveat that scholars should be responsible and ethical in how they do research and what they do with it, and how they teach and on what topics, how they serve academic and non-academic communities.

Academia Needs Activism

A final point on the activism-academia mixture is that they need each other.  Activists need the work of researchers to make a case for social change, particularly to change laws and policies.  Researchers, in turn, benefit from their work being carried beyond the pay-walls of academic journals.

But, beyond the notion of active activists and passive academics who simply do science and produce knowledge, academia benefits from activist efforts to bust down barriers to the ivory tower.  Despite his undeniable contributions to sociology, W. E. B. DuBois was not welcomed into the discipline because he was Black.  Eventually fed up with the racism of sociology and the academy in general, he turned more exclusively to activism, co-founding the NAACP.

Recently, I have learned of other marginalized scholars who were either kept out or whose contributions were ignored. Today, I began reading Imagine a World: Pioneering Black Women Sociologists.  I am embarrassed to admit that I have never heard of the five Black women sociologists featured in the book: Jacquelyne Johnson Jackson, LaFrancis Rodgers-Rose, Joyce A. Ladner, Doris Wilkinson, and Delores P. Aldridge.  But, considering that the discipline has not been (and still is not) immune to the prejudices and discriminatory practices of the outside world, why would I?

THOMASThe most mind-blowing revelation I have had on this matter is the obvious erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  She co-authored a book with W. I. Thomas, from which “his” famous quote comes: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928: 572).  Yet, Dorothy is rarely given credit for the “W. I. Thomas quote.”  Sadly, what was originally outright sexism that drove the discipline to erase her contribution, my generation of scholars is never taught about her just because our teachers do not know otherwise.

These revelations have fueled my aforementioned interests in the sociology of knowledge and sociology of science.  It is a scary thought that what is taken as Truth is based on science done overwhelmingly by privileged scholars (i.e., middle-class white men) sometimes based on samples that do not reflect members of marginalized groups.  Marginalized scholars are excluded or their work is undermined (sometimes as a result of the exclusion).  For example, there is a slow growth of studies on sexuality published in the top journals in sociology, yet such scholarship published in sexuality journals is regarded as unimportant to mainstream sociology or it is dismissed as “mesearch” if conducted by an LGBT scholar.  (Because the work white middle-class men do, even on themselves, is Objective Science and Truth.)

It is unsurprisingly to me, then, that some minority scholars who were initially interested studying their communities (for their advancement or liberation) end up doing work on the sociology of knowledge (e.g., Patricia Hill Collins) or critiquing research methods (e.g., Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva).

Moving Forward

In sum, I reiterate that it is possible to be an activist and an academic.  If responsible, one’s work in one domain can benefit the other.  And, for some, the synergy among all aspects of your activist and academic selves cannot be compartmentalized into research, teaching, (academic) service, and community service or activism.  The question is not whether you can be.  And, frankly, I think it is time to move beyond asking whether you should be an activist.  Some people just are.

I conclude, then, by suggesting that it is time to recognize the reality of activism in academia, and better appreciate the good it does for it.  Arguably, science would remain limited and exclusive without activist efforts to end discriminatory practices in education.

Moving forward, the question should be how to support students and scholars who are activists at heart (because you never know what impact they can have in society!).  I call for ending the practice of “beating the activist” out of graduate students.  It is no secret that many students come into graduate programs, especially in the social sciences, with the hopes of making a difference.  It is time to support them as they are.

My Kind Of Sociology

And, I am working toward my own self-defined sociology, even after six years of “beatings” in graduate school.  You may have noticed that I renamed my blog, My Sociology.  This was the name of my very first blog.  By the title, I do not imply that I own sociology (though we could debate whether it can be or is owned, and by whom).  Rather, I take the position that there is no one, singular way to do sociology nor to be a sociologist.

Seeing the doubt that students from marginalized backgrounds experience, particularly in graduate school, makes it particularly important to support activist-leaning academics.  A narrow image of successful scholars is purported, and the disconnect between one’s social justice desires and what they learn in graduate school persists.  So, too many — just too many — scholars of color, women scholars, first-generation and working-class scholars doubt themselves, questioning whether an academic career is right for them, and, frankly, whether they are right (read: good enough) for academia.

There are a number of examples of sociologists, whether or not they identify as activists, who serve as inspiring role models, folks who pursue their own kind of sociology:

  • DJ Elaine Harvey and Sociologist Mignon Moore UCLA sociologist Mignon Moore and her partner Elaine Harvey have presented their relationship and love to the world to inspire other LGBT folks (especially those of color) and change minds on same-gender marriage.  Her work on Black lesbian families (including an article in American Sociological Review!) has advanced the intersectionality theoretical framework to (re)visit the intersections among race, gender, and sexuality.  Also, she uses an innovative method (interactions at social events and private parties) for her research.

Harvey and Moore – TIME

Reflections On Pedagogy And Self-Censorship As The Semester Ends

classroom

Some pedagogy-related mementos from this semester:

  • A student tells me that ze1 never had to write out short answers or responses to essay questions on exams before my class (which ze took hir senior year).
  • Multiple graduate students I’ve met have never heard of Apartheid in South Africa. Graduate students.
  • When a student came to my office hours and I described a recent sexuality studies conference I had attended, ze said, “Oh, is sexuality something you study outside of teaching?” Apparently, I was not revealing this to my students.
  • I received a fortifying email from a student who said how ze appreciated how I continually stress “the balance between connecting with people on a community/interpersonal level while simultaneously assessing the problems on a larger, structural scale.” This email has revived me, in a rough semester.

So, what is this all making me think? Well, I’m worried. (Of course, I’m worried. I’m a tenure-track faculty member. I worry about myself, and I worry about what my students are not learning or hearing. Let me see if I can lay it out.

Memento One

First, I was agog at the revelation that a student major in my discipline, at a large research university, would not have encountered an open-ended means of assessment until hir senior year. Granted, that may not be true of all students, but at least one student was graduating having only had one opportunity to complete an exam where there was not just one specified right answer. I assume the rest were multiple choice, matching, and true/false questions. Those means of assessment give no space for alternative means of thinking or responding to our questions.

mcqchicken

Of course, in our increasingly adjunctified, increasingly corporate educational culture, class sizes are getting bigger and bigger, and we are not hiring additional faculty to teach multiple course sections. So when faced with a class of 150+ students, it makes sense to use multiple choice exams for the sake of our sanity. But the lack of adequate faculty that allows for interactive and open-ended student assessment is a systemic problem that is trickling down to our students.

Memento Two

Second, I can’t even with the Apartheid thing. I CAN’T EVEN. Forget agog; I am aghast. Who allowed these students to get as far as graduate school with so little knowledge of global context and history and racism? Oh. I guess we as faculty did. I mean, of course, not Conditionally Accepted readers. Those other faculty. I CAN’T EVEN.  (I started this post before the passing of Nelson Mandela; which renders this ignorance even more traumatic.)

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

Third, it is truly revealing that a student who has taken multiple courses with me doesn’t know the focus of my research (sexuality, public health, and body size, from a critical and feminist perspective). That means that I am not necessarily drawing on my own expertise in discussing course topics. Of course, teaching about fat acceptance and Health at Every Size and sex-positivity in an undergraduate community health classroom is fraught, because of racism, sexism, sizeism, and an overwhelming focus on “individual responsibility” in terms of how many people think about the construction of “health.” But if I’m not using my own research, my own voice and perspective as a means of conveying course content, then that’s not good. It’s not good for shoring up my own place in the world as a scholar, but it’s also not good for challenging how my students think.

In my personal/social life, I am pretty vocal about being anti-oppression, discussing attempts at being the best ally I can, etc. But this clearly has not translated into my pedagogy explicitly (despite being the owner of the bell hooks pedagogy trilogy!).  I can put some of the responsibility onto the academic culture I entered.  A few years before I arrived here, there was a major dust-up between a long-tenured professor who taught human sexuality, and a state legislator. The professor was accused of showing “obscene” material in his class because it was sexually explicit, and the legislator threatened to withdraw funding from the university. This was the environment I entered when I was hired as someone who specialized in sexual health. But they hired me as someone who specialized in sexual health. I even asked on my interview, “So, is there any concern about the nature of the topics I study?” and the answer was a resounding “No.” So I am definitely self-censoring.

Self-Censorship-Useful-or-Not

The other day in a talk I gave on body shame and public health, my authority and right to critique body-related shaming tactics was questioned by someone who had seen a story on the local news about a “really fat, I mean morbidly OBESE” child. I didn’t even recognize this as a micro (macro?) aggression until after the talk, when another person came up and ranted about the other attendee, “Yeah, it’s not like you have TWO ADVANCED DEGREES in this topic, and she saw a NEWS SEGMENT.” Part of what I have enjoyed most so far about being part of Conditionally Accepted is how the posts and links bring out into stark relief and better explain some of the unsettling experiences I’ve been having. The fact that I didn’t appeal to my obvious authority on the topic to the newswatching attendee reminds me that I have not only structural work to do in the environment around me, but I have to continue to work on myself and my approach to pedagogy and research. I think I need to go re-read some of Eric’s posts on authenticity. Who’s with me?

Memento Three

Which leads me to the last bullet – this shiny little student email that I’m hoarding close like a magpie.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

Of course, I feel immensely personally gratified that this student is making connections between individual actions and the social structures that facilitate and constrain “choices.” That feels awesome. But it also makes me a little sad, and of course, pensive (again, academic; it’s our lot). I am troubled that this may not be a de rigeur way of thinking about the world promoted in other classes. I primarily teach classes for majors, and students join my courses after completing General Education requirements. Now, I imagine many Conditionally Accepted readers are the instructors of General Education courses (or their equivalents), and I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences. Those of you who teach “Gen Ed” courses, are you able/empowered to frame your courses as social justice-oriented? Are you not given that leeway, because you’re supposed to be covering “fundamentals” (because we all know fundamentals are value-neutral, right)?

So what do you have to say, readers/contributors? I would love to hear your recent experiences with pedagogy. As we come to the end of yet another semester, what are your favorite/least favorite teaching moments?

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1 I am using gender-neutral pronouns throughout, in this case to mask the identities of my students, a somewhat de-politicized use of these terms. For example, forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education often include narratives with gender-neutral pronouns, in order to protect the privacy of those writing/being discussed. However, the more political use of gender-neutral pronouns (there are a variety of ones that one can use) are used in order to honor the gender identity of an individual when their identification is unknown to you, or if they identify as a gender beyond the gender binary. Here’s a blog discussing the need, as well as the existing options: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/.

On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

Brief Advice For Current Graduate Students On The Margins

Me - FordShortly after I graduated from Indiana University, earning my PhD in sociology, I felt compelled to scream to every graduate student, “we can do it!”  Or, more specifically for marginalized students, “we can do it without losing our souls!”  But, the structure and culture of academic institutions leaves many scholars on the margins questioning their competence and contribution and/or attempting to reconcile the mainstream values of their discipline with their politics and authenticity.  It is certainly no small task, and likely will be one that last throughout one’s career — but, it can be done.  So, in the spirit of pursuing a PhD, but not at the expense of my well-being, identity, and values, I gave the following advice to current graduate students.

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My advice to those still working through graduate school:

Don’t let these “experts” from privileged backgrounds who define “expertise” and “knowledge” narrowly — in their terms, their view of the world — tell you, or even lead you to believe, that you are not smart enough, not critical enough, not good enough.  They have carved out a small piece of the world and declared that only those who can break into it or “get it” are true intellectuals.  Some of them actively guard those borders to keep the rest of us out. Some of them intentionally use esoteric language and methods to force the rest of us to feel incompetent.  Be mindful of what they’re up to, but trust your own perspective, passion, and voice. Don’t be fooled into thinking there are no alternatives to what is considered “mainstream” or “traditional.” Don’t let them tell you that only quantifiable knowledge can be trusted.  Don’t let them deceive you into thinking objectivity exists, that researchers must be apolitical and disconnected from their work. Don’t hesitate to question why all of the “classics” reflect the scholarship of old/dead white heterosexual middle-class men.  Don’t let them tell you that studying a specific (marginalized) group isn’t important unless it tells us something about the entire (dominant) world.

Trust you. Do you. Be you. Speak for you. Think for you.

“No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment” – By Dr. Manya Whitaker

Last week, I offered a brief summary of a recent report that highlights racial and ethnic disparities in college enrollment that ultimately perpetuates racial and ethnic inequalities in society broadly.  But what produces these disparities?

Racial and ethnic differences preparedness for college was tossed out as a factor.  But, the more prestigious colleges themselves may not be making enough effort to reach out to potential students of color and working-class students.  There is an assumption that their prestige should be enough of an incentive, so just wait for the students to come to them.  Another culprit that has been named is “white flight” — or growing racial and ethnic segregation in neighborhoods.  Inequalities that precede college, especially in K-12, are simply further exacerbated by these dynamics in college.

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education scholar, has offered a more nuanced look at race, ethnicity, and higher education on her blog, the other classShe has kindly allowed me to share her post below.  Be sure to check out her guest blog post on advice for junior faculty if you have not seen it yet!

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No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment

AfroI am all a dither because today, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released their report entitled “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege”.

As an educational scholar I get excited when I see these reports for multiple reasons: a) it’s a text I can use in many of my courses; b) national scale data is hard to come by; c) the quality of the research done is fairly solid given the origin of the work; d) this contributes to, and may advance, discourse on equity in education.

The executive summary is clearly written and organized. It begins with a very clear thesis: “In theory, the education system is colorblind; but, in fact, it is racially polarized and exacerbates the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.” I can dig it. They follow this assertion with clear data points, some of which I share here:

  • Between 1995 and 2009, postsecondary enrollment rose 107% for Hispanics, 73% for African Americans and 15% for Whites
    • However, 82% of new white freshman in that time frame enrolled at one of the top 468 most selective four-year colleges, compared to 13% of Hispanics and 9% of African Americans.
      • 72% of Hispanics and 68% of African Americans enrolled in open-access two and four year colleges

Let me stop you here: These enrollment trends are not a function of college readiness. In fact, the report states that even though high scoring Hispanic and African American students attend college at the same rates as whites, 30% of African American students attend community college compared to 22% of academically comparable whites.

Aaaaand once these students get to college, whites are more likely to complete college. After controlling for prior achievement, 51% of Hispanics and 49% of African Americans drop out of college compared to 30% of whites.

Why?

Here is where I diverge from the report whose primary purpose is to relay long-term life outcomes associated with disparate college enrollment patterns. That story is not new. What I want to discuss is why all students (but especially Hispanic and African American students) who attend the top 468 selective institutions are nearly twice as likely to graduate and have a greater likelihood of attending graduate school as those who attend open-access institutions.

I argue that our conversation should be about college completion, not enrollment. And in that conversation we must acknowledge the critical role cultural capital plays in degree attainment.

Let’s review some more data:

  • Among high scoring Hispanics and African Americans at the top 468 institutions, 73% of them complete a degree compared to 40% of Hispanic and African Americans at open-access schools.
    • Of the 73% of Hispanic and African Americans who complete a degree, 33% of them attend graduate school, compared to 23% who attended an open-access institution.

There are obvious explanations for the different success rates between selective and open-access colleges. The report points to greater financial resources as measured by per pupil spending. The 82 most selective colleges spend almost 5 times as much on instruction as open-access schools. In dollars this is $27,900 compared to $6000 per pupil per year. The top 468 schools fall between spending an average of $13,400 per pupil.

I do not disagree. Yes, financial capital is essential when we talk about quality of education. Money buys students more qualified professors (who demand higher pay), extensive technological support, smaller classes, more opportunities for enhanced learning (study abroad, community-based learning, participation in research) and higher quality food (linked to cognitive functioning), among other assets.

But focusing solely on economic differences masks what I believe to be the true driver of stratification in higher education: access to cultural capital.

Our postsecondary institutions have been and continue to be structured around the white male norm. White men still dominate academia, occupying higher positions and receiving higher pay than equally qualified women. This discrimination is furthered when one happens to be a woman and of color. Women of color occupy the lowest position in the Academy, marginally outranked by men of color. The curriculum—especially at elite schools—is driven by what the power culture deems important. We glorify pre-med, pre-law, and business under traditional academic models, and encourage exploration of many fields under the liberal arts model. Both of these are direct representations of white middle and upper class expectations. To be successful at the collegiate level on a pre-professional track, one must first have taken the requisite courses in high school and possess the self-regulatory learning skills and content knowledge to be competitive in such courses. For many white middle and upper class students, this is a given. Of course you’ve taken pre-calculus in high school. Of course you know how to write. Of course you have a context in which to place and a schema through which to make sense of course content. I don’t need to give you any of that.

Similar scenarios play out at elite liberal arts colleges. There is little guidance about what courses to take beyond making sure students satisfy distributive requirements. There are no vocational tracks because the idea is that you are qualified and informed enough to construct that path yourself. You have a long term vision of who you want to become and you have all the supports and information you need to get there. So four years from now you will walk across that stage empowered and prepared to pursue your chosen career. Congratulations!

What I know to be true from my own experiences as a student at elite institutions (one liberal arts and one more traditional), as a faculty member at a selective liberal arts institution, and as a scholar whose work centers on the function of social factors in educational attainment, is that students from low income and racial minority groups begin their college career without the cultural capital needed for success in such an environment.

How do I know? It’s obvious. These are students who have never written a paper in any other format than a five paragraph essay. Who have never taken an AP or IB course because their district didn’t offer them. Who have been given step-by-step instructions on every assignment because their teachers did not trust their decision-making. Who have never left their state (or in some cases their city) so are unaware of how different people in different settings live. Who have never had choice in their education because choice implies a school with academic options. Who don’t understand the necessary courses to take if you want to become a veterinarian because you do not know any veterinarians—or anyone who went to graduate school for that matter. Who don’t know that summers should be spent networking at internships instead of working for the necessary pay to continue to your education. Who don’t have a safety net of a job, space at home, and financial support from parents and family members in case you make a mistake and all of this was for naught.

Given all of these barriers, one would think that students of color at the top 468 selective institutions would graduate at lower rates than their counterparts at open-access schools. This is what they want us to believe. This is what they sell us. They paint a picture of an environment where our students can’t succeed. They tell us our babies will feel ‘out of place’ and ‘lost’ and would be more ‘comfortable’ at a less rigorous school. Or they dissuade us with hefty price tags, never mentioning that elite schools carry higher endowments which enable them to provide more need-based aid than do open-access schools. And this aid is often in the form of scholarship, not loans. They do not tell us that our children, who are qualified to attend an Ivy League school, could afford to do so even if their family income is less than $75,000 per year because now, at many of the Ivies, these students can go tuition-free. They hesitate to mention that President Obama has vastly increased access to Pell Grant funds for families whose income is less than $30,000 per year. No. They don’t want us to know any of that. Because if we knew, if we enrolled in the top 468 schools, we would graduate at much higher rates and consequently occupy a higher social position in society. What a threat that would be to their happy existence of privilege and power.

Students of color who enroll in selective schools do succeed. And they do so despite a lack of explicit instructional and social supports. They succeed at higher rates than their peers in open-access schools because they have access to cultural capital their peers do not. No matter how you spin it, the elite schools are elite because they function in an insular bubble where cultural capital begets more capital begetting power. Students of color enrolled at such schools are privy to a whole new world, a new way of being. They are given access to information that has been kept close to white chests throughout time. Slowly, they can become a fringe member of the most esteemed society in our country: white society.

Don’t get me wrong: you are indeed a fringe member as your skin will never give you full entry. But we don’t need full entry. We don’t need to be white or wealthy to succeed in life. We just need to be informed. We need to know the game and the players. We need to recognize and accept the fact that cultural capital is our ticket in.

And once we are in…think of what we can do.

Protecting Science From Harm, And Against Harmful Science

sosThe activists are coming!  And, so they should.  A supposedly “debunkedstudy by Mark Regnerus that does not employ valid measures of lesbian couples worked its way right into a US Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

We, as sociologists, did all that we could: 1) petitioned the journal in which it was published, Social Science Research, 2) published critiques of his and Loren Marks‘s studies in the journal, 3) wrote to the media to point out the study’s flaws, 4) offered extensive methodological critiques (e.g., blogs), 5),  petitioned the leadership of the American Sociological Association (ASA) to make a public statement against the Regnerus study, 6) conducted an internal audit of the peer review process, and 7) submitted a brief to the Supreme Court as a discipline to make clear no evidence exists to worry about LGBT families.  And, there may have been other efforts of which I am unaware.

But it wasn’t enough.  Regnerus and other conservative scholars submitted their own amicus brief to the Court.  And, somehow, this one study counters all of the other studies enough that Supreme Court Justice Scalia noted:

If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s – there’s considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.

Aftershocks

The American Sociological Association released another statement thereafter to clarify that Regnerus’s study was flawed.  While imperfect, every other study suggests no evidence that children of same-gender families are worse off in terms of health, adjustment, academic performance, etc.  And, the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin held a mini-conference on LGBT families last week, featuring Gary Gates and other big names in LGBT research.  I assume this was part of the department’s effort (which started as soon as Regnerus’s study was published) to show that others in the department are doing great, pro-LGBT work.

But, it is too late.  We do not yet know the outcome of the Supreme Court cases.  And, it is unclear whether Regernus’s “debunked” study will be cited by other researchers, politicians, or in other court cases.  These are, indeed, real possibilities because his study has been “debunked,” but not retracted.  That means it still stands as a peer-reviewed, published academic article — albeit critiqued and discounted.

The lengths that these activists are going makes sense.  Though we got to the point where we felt comfortable with the “debunked” status of Regnerus’s paper, it still caused damage — on our watchDespite our intentions and efforts as a discipline, we did not do enough to prevent this study from having an impact in the fate of LGBT rights (in this case, marriage equality).  Whether it comes from religion, science, politics, education, or some other institution, threats to your rights are just that, so who wouldn’t shift into self-defense mode?

Protecting Against Harmful Science

My primary concern, which I have voiced in the discussions among sociologists, is what are we doing to prevent further harm to the community that has been affected by this study?  On our watch, a study that should never have reached publication ended up reaching the Supreme Court.  We alerted others, “watch out!”; we critiqued Regnerus’s actions, “he’s not even measuring it right!; and even issued a formal statement saying, “we’re not with this guy, he’s crazy.”  But, all while we watched Regnerus set up a very calculated assault on LGBT Americans.  Since fellow sociologists have so vehemently opposed releasing the names of the peer reviewers of the study, and do not feel compelled to push for retraction, I continue to ask, so now what?

I cannot believe I have to raise this question.  But, it seems some are more concerned about protecting science than protecting people from science.  There are general principles regarding ethical scientific practice (including discipline specific guidelines), and the universality of Institutional Review Boards to ensure researchers at universities are not causing harm to their participants.  Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed as a response to very unethical and harmful research in the past:

  • During the Holocaust, the Nazis conducted many experiments on Jews (including children)
  • The “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” (1932-1972), in which poor African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge nor with treatment: “The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards; primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying.”
  • Similar experiments were conducted in Guatemala from 1946-1948.  Over 80 people died as a result.
  • The use of Henrietta Lacks‘s cells without her or her family’s permission or knowledge in 1951.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1961 psychological experiments on obedience, in which he deceived subjects into thinking they were delivering shocks (sometimes deadly) as punishment to a person completing a faux task.  Ethical concerns have been raised about the Stanford prison experiment, as well.
  • Tearoom Trade (1970) — Laud Humphreys’s study of same-sex sexual encounters in public spaces without their knowledge or consent; after observing the men, he used their license plate numbers on their cars to track down their home addresses to interview them (sometimes in front of their families).

For all of the positive things that have come from science (even from some of the awful exploitative, dangerous experiments above), science is sometimes used for evil.  Too often, marginalized communities are the targets of harmful science.  Of course, in this case, Regnerus and his colleagues did not have any direct contact with their participants; and, there is little reason to suspect that Knowledge Networks (which carried out the survey) caused any harm.

However, I argue that we have an obligation to ensure that harm is not caused in the activities that come after research is conducted: how the research is used and for what purposes.  Some argue that, even when studies are carried out for good, we owe it to our participants to give something in return — immediate and tangible, not just “thanks for advancing science!” — for opening up about their experiences, backgrounds, thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

So, now what are we doing to protect this marginalized community that has been further harmed by science?  What can we do?  Below are some things that have been suggested, and my thoughts on them.

Speaking Out, In General

It is important that we speak out about this scandal, in general.  Unfortunately, it feels as though some sociologists feel they have done all that they could and just want this to go away already.

But, who speaks for us?  I may be wrong, but many of those — “some sociologists” — do not appear to either be LGBT themselves nor do they study LGBT communities (I’m including here bloggers and those who have left comments).  So, maybe it is simple to walk away from this when you can return home to your legally-recognized spouse after a day’s work.  Unfortunately, it appears that the sociology bloggers at orgtheory and scatterplot are serving as The Voice for the entire discipline, and the LGBT activists are in direct dialogue with them.  I wonder what LGBT sociologists and sociologist of sexualities have to say about this scandal, and whether they feel that we have done enough.

I worry, as I have before: who gets to speak?  The subfield of sexualities in sociology is relatively new and disproportionately young.  We must tread lightly.  And, it is likely that many have remained silent on this issue because they are soon to be or are currently on the job market; or, they are on the tenure-track; or, even with tenure, they are at the margins of their department and the discipline as a whole.  Or, just like other fields, maybe some sexualities scholars see their work as irrelevant to activism.  And, even for those of us who do pursue activism, we risk professional consequences.  But, even those who are not explicitly involved in activism may be the target of political witch hunts or other external threats, or lack of support from the academy to do our research.

silenced

Retract It Already

The retraction of published studies is more common than I realized.  But, it looks like there is no movement to retract the Regnerus study.  There is a lot of shadiness, omission of important details, and conflict of interest sprinkled throughout this entire scandal.  But, within conservative standards of “when to retract,” Regnerus’s study is safe.  It was the peer review process that is problematic.  Specifically:

[T]he paper was submitted for publication 20 days before the end of the data collection, and 23 days before the data were delivered to the University of Texas! That’s fast.

There must be some post-hoc excuse Regnerus or the journal could give to clear this up.

That is in addition to the serious methodological problems that the reviewers should have caught.  That is more than enough for some to call for the study’s retraction.  Okay, so, since this is not Regnerus’s fault, per se (short of questionable political motivations and funding sources), retract the study and then invite him to go through the peer review process again — this time with different reviewers who are not his colleagues.

“Out The Reviewers!”

LGBT activist John M. Becker has moved forward in demanding records from Social Science Research, namely to out the reviewers of the Regnerus study.  Some of my fellow sociologists have been talking about this — I’m sure informally, but in this case publicly on blogs.  Some have taken issue with Becker’s efforts, suggesting that it subverts the sanctity of the peer review system for academic publishing; to reveal the identities of anonymous reviewers is a threat to the entire scientific enterprise.   Oh, and does it get ugly when sociologists and activists go head to head.  But, understandably, when outside forces threaten science (e.g., forced oversight, taking away funding), we necessarily lash out in self-defense.

But, I wonder what would happen if we did reveal the names of those scholars who reviewed Regnerus’s study.  Recently, while reading one article about the source of whites’ attitudes toward race-based attitudes, I noticed that the reviewers were explicitly named, right on the first page:

Editor’s note: The reviewers were Lawrence Bobo, Warren E. Miller, David O. Sears, and Susan Welch (p.723).

I decided to search Google for “editor’s note: the reviewers” to see if this was a fluke.  I came across two other journals that have, or at least used to, explicitly name the reviewers of a published article, Teaching Sociology and Sociological Inquiry.  In the case of the former, I thought maybe as it has become more popular, and moved toward publishing more empirically-based articles, the editorial board might have dropped this practice along the way.  But, even a recent article, by sociologist Janice McCabe, dawns the editor’s note, naming each reviewer.  It looks as though Sociological Inquiry published the names of authors just for a few years in the early 1990s.  These are not the top journals of the discipline, but this discovery leaves me wondering what the harm would be to reveal the names of the publishers in this instance — in this case in which the peer review system was abused, misused, or underused (depending on your perspective).

This is not a question of whether sociology or any other academic discipline should maintain anonymous peer review for publishing.  While imperfect, it strengthens science and minimizes (some) concerns about bias.  If anything, I see room to strengthen the peer-review system further.  And, let’s set aside the potential harms of the overwhelming pressure to publish for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. as well.  The question here is what harm would be caused to the peer review system, or even the entire scientific enterprise, if the reviewers of this one “debunked” study were revealed?

That some journals have revealed the names of reviewers — including articles that are ethically and politically sound — leads me to suggest that the sky will not fall if Becker is successful in his demand for the SSR records.  Science will still exist the following day.  But, I do agree that this may not actually get us any further in squashing Regnerus’s study or the harm caused by it.

Fight Fire With Fire: More Research!

As Fabio Rojas suggested in response to my plea to do something to take this study down, another possibility is to simply beat Regnerus at his own game.  Do more, better research.  Indeed, sociologists Andrew Perrin, Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren have done just that in a forthcoming article in Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health — even using the New Family Structures Study data. (Of course, they find that Regnerus’s conclusions were bogus and methodologically flawed.)  I do hope, however, that awareness of their new study spreads, as JGLMH is a psychiatry journal and has a so-so impact factor.   But, Perrin makes clear that this journal was chosen because of the speedy turn around, and it actually sent out a call for papers to address the Regnerus scandal.

As Michael Bader notes, this scandal has sparked even better work, and maybe science will be even stronger in the first place.  But, shouldn’t we be getting it right the first time?  Isn’t that what peer review is for?  Sure, with time, maybe we will set the record straight.  But, for now, the damage has been done for LGBT people.  With so much that we have yet to study about LGBT families, it also warrants asking whether we should be worried about having to spend time, energy, and resource on redoing research.

Other Suggestions

Fabio also suggested:

  • [Realize] that that history is on our side. Increasingly, public opinion polls show greater and greater majorities favor LBGT equality. So if we are winning already, I wouldn’t go and ruin one of academia’s most valuable assets – blind review.
  • [R]elentlessly critique garbage and draw attention to the body of research.
  • I would engage the other side with sincerity and fervor. I would show people how to maintain the high ground.

In other words, don’t worry, keep blogging, and be the bigger person.  As gay people, my partner and I still cannot get married, not in the state in which we currently live nor the one we are moving to this summer.  I am pretty worried about the outcome of the Supreme Court case.  And, I am worried how easily this one study breezed through the peer review process, to publication, to press, to the courts.  Shouldn’t more sociologists be worried about this, too?  And, I am not sure what to say about maintaining “the high ground”.  It seems, for the oppressed, playing nice and playing by the rules does little to protect your rights being debated and denied on a daily basis — and my colleagues seem less concerned with my well-being as a human than with the well-being of science.

A Final Plea

“You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!”  Exactly.  I am just days away from receiving my PhD, and have little experience publishing and providing reviews for journals compared to the sociologists at the fore of these debates.  What do I know?

That is a problem, in my opinion.  A systemic problem.  With a few research scandals going on these days, I am surprised that my colleagues and I are not in dialogue about science and research ethics.  In fact, all that I recall is one week in my research methods course devoted to ethics.  We read ASA’s code of ethics, Van Maanen’s (1983) “The Moral Fix: On the Ethics of Fieldwork,” Allen’s (1997) “Spies Like Us: When Sociologists Deceive their Subjects,” and Simonds’s (2001) “Talking with Strangers: A Researcher’s Tale.”  

I read Tearoom Trade for another course, though we did not discuss Humprhey’s unethical methods.  My knowledge of the Milgram experiment comes from a brief coverage of ethics in my undergraduate psychology and sociology methods courses.  And, much of my knowledge about eugenics, the Tuskegee experiments, and other exploitative practices on communities of color comes from my knowledge of Black history rather than science.

In speaking with other LGBT sociologists, I know that I am not alone in my anger, disappointment, and frustration — and, my ignorance about what I can do.  This is partly due to our relative lack of power, as a subfield in general (soc of sexualities) and as individuals (pre-tenure).  But, it is also due to our lack of access to memories of prior scandals of this sort.  For example, while I did read Richard Udry’s “Biological Limits of Gender Construction” (ASR 2000), and even Barbara Risman’s and otherscritical responses in a class, we never talked about the broader context.  What happened after the article and the responses were published?

seminar

Why don’t we talk about these types of events in our graduate courses?  Why does our training on research ethics only cover the stages leading to submitting an article for publication, ignoring ethical and professional practices that follow publication?  In general, I think we could benefit from a bit more reflection on science as an institution.  It would be nice (I would even say crucial) to discuss the contexts behind published articles and books.  A sociology of sociology, if you will.  Why are the authors in certain journals overwhelmingly women, while the top sociology journals are about two-thirds men authors, and the most male-dominated journals are on methods and mathematics?  Why are broken barriers in publishing somehow undermined as “affirmative action in publishing” or “trendy, but not really important” (yes, I have heard scholars say this).

If anything, I ask that we stop trying to make this scandal go away in hopes that history will stop repeating itself.  Just 12 years after the scandal surrounding Udry’s study, we are faced with a similar problem.  And, my generation of sociologists barely knows about it.  How can we learn from the mistakes of our discipline if we are not teaching new members about them — what happened and how we resolved it?  C’mon colleagues — we have got to do better, for the future of our discipline, but also for society as a whole.

UPDATE (05/02/13):  And, now we have an example of the potential impact Regnerus’s study can have outside of the courtroom: the everyday harassment of LGBT people.