“Objectivity” And Oppression In Academia

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

@grollman: Objectivity is a myth afforded to the privileged. (Source: Twitter)

Objectivity — a scholar’s supposed ability to remain impartial about the subjects she studies — is a myth. Like the myths of meritocracy and color-blindness, objectivity sounds good in theory, but it is impossible to use it in practice. Simply put, researchers are not immune to bias. While in many instances such bias can be dangerous, bias is not bad, per se.

Objectivity Precludes Certain Areas Of Inquiry

I am a sociologist in training, perspective, and practice. (Un)fortunately, in the process of recovering from the trauma of my graduate training, my consciousness about my discipline has grown, as well. It recently hit me that it would be more accurate to say that my degree is in “white sociology” or “Eurocentric sociology,” not sociology. The training I received pushed objective research as the only true form of research. But, being detached was not enough; it was not enough to naively attempt to leave my anti-racist politics and Black racial identity at home when I left for school.

Rather, objectivity also implied that research on race — more specifically, research that made central the lives of Black people — was inferior to more mainstream areas. I was told that a true sociologist takes on a subfield — typically a social institution like education or medicine — and, in the process, she might just happen to focus on a particular (marginalized) population. But, no one should be a sociologist of race, and certainly not an anti-racist sociologist. Sadly, for me, “just happens to study [X population]” did not extend to LGBTQ people. In my case, to be objective meant to move away from studying the very community I went to grad school to study. It has taken a couple of years post-grad school to finally return to topics I wanted to pursue back in 2007.

As a powerful and seductive ideology, objectivity serves as a tool for (privileged) gatekeepers of the discipline to devalue research on oppression and oppressed communities. To be objective, one cannot be too eager to study trans people, or Latino fathers, or women with disabilities. To study these populations whom the academy finds suspect or, at worse, unimportant, is to compromise one’s credibility as a true researcher.

Objectivity Is A Privilege

Early in grad school, a fellow student criticized my interest in the intersections among racism, heterosexism, sexism, and classism as “narrow.” In the years since, others have implied or explicitly said that my research constitutes “me-search.” That is, my scholarship is suspect because I am a fat Black queer non-binary sociologist who does research on multiply disadvantaged individuals (e.g., queer people of color), trans people, queer people, people of color, and fat people. In my case, this suspicion is heightened because my anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-cissexist, and anti-heterosexist activism is visible and publicly accessible. Mind you, my research is quantitative, rarely includes “I” or other first person references, speaks to mainstream sociology audiences, is published in mainstream sociology journals, and probably appeases the demand of objective research. My sins, however, are being fat Black queer and non-binary, and caring about the communities that I study.

My white cisgender heterosexual “normal weight” men colleagues are not suspected of bias. They are seen as the gold standard of objectivity. Their interest in topics that seem most interesting to other white dudes is somehow devoid of the influence of their social location. Their uncritical or, on rare occasion, critical perspective on a topic is seen as expertise, not bias. Even when these privileged scholars study marginal topics and/or marginalized communities, their work is taken seriously and remains unquestioned. I have yet to see a privileged scholar accused of having “narrow” interests or doing “me-search.” That is because objectivity serves as a device to police, devalue, and exclude the research of marginalized scholars.

I believe that the privilege of objectivity also includes the freedom from any sense of obligation to do work that matters, to do work that will liberate one’s people. “One could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved,” DuBois remarked in his 1940 autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. Like DuBois, I wrestle so frequently with feeling that my publications that lie behind paywalls, only to be read by a handful of people in my subfield, are a complete waste of time while Black trans and cis people are being murdered by the dozens. Our privileged colleagues are not faced with the urgency of death, oppression, violence, invisibility, illness, and poverty of their people, so I can only imagine how much easier it is for them to (pretend to?) be objective, detached, and removed – experts on problems of the world, not of or in them.

Objectivity Perpetuates The Erasure Of Marginalized Scholars

Though my grad school coursework included 3 semesters of professional seminars, I have subsequently found it is neither enough professional development nor relevant to the primary concerns of many marginalized scholars. Instead of talking about how to select a qualifying exam area, I would have benefited from a reflexive discussion about the myth of objectivity in our discipline. Perhaps a less critical, and thus more palpable, topic would be “debates in the profession.” Indeed, whether objectivity exists and — to the extent that it exists — whether it is a good thing has been debated from the very start of the discipline of sociology. So, too, is whether sociologists should concern themselves exclusively with empiricism or also with making a difference in the world, or at least one’s communities.

To further raise my consciousness about my profession, I have started reading pieces by respected sociologists that have long been raising the concerns I have been struggling with privately. For example, Dr. Joe Feagin devoted his American Sociological Association presidential address (2001) to “Social Justice and Sociology.” Feagin raised a point that floored me. The rise of objective research by white men sociologists coincided with the erasure of the work and contributions of sociologists like Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, Jane Addams — women and people of color in the discipline. Due to racist and sexist discrimination, these scholars’ work was already devalued; but, the shift toward “value-free” sociology further undermined their contributions in the discipline. Recovering their work, which in objective terms is simply a matter of good science, is an inherently anti-racist and feminist act.

Each instance of embracing objectivity, then, reinforces the erasure of women scholars and scholars of color. Each time I have taught the obligatory theory section in my introductory sociology courses, focusing on “the big three” — Weber, Marx, and Durkheim — I have been complicit in the erasure of W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Martineau, and Patricia Hill Collins, and others who are not dead white men. The professor of my grad school theory course is complicit, too, by excluding any discussion of critical race theory, Black feminist theory, or queer theory; we focused, instead, on “classical” sociological theory. Each time I unquestioningly cited the (W. I.) Thomas theorem — what people perceive to be real is real in its consequences — I was complicit in the erasure of Dorothy Swaine Thomas, who was a co-author on the text from which this theorem comes.

To question whose perspective and scholarship is respected as central to the discipline would be suspected as activism; and, it requires additional work to learn and advance the perspectives and scholarship of marginalized scholars that one was denied in one’s own training. But, to consume and teach classical and mainstream sociological material without question is to reinforce the racist and sexist status quo.

I conclude by asking that scholars be brave enough to reject the myth of objectivity, and be willing to own subjective and scholar-activist work. But, a revolution of sorts in academe is necessary for this to happen. We must stop celebrating and so fiercely defending “objectivity” in graduate training, in publications, in grants, and in tenure and promotion. We do society and ourselves a disservice by standing on the political sidelines, complicit in our own irrelevance.

Jackson Wright Shultz On Truth and Subjectivity

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

JacksonI write my truth.

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

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

I write the truths apparent to my communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write uncomfortable truths.

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

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

I take risks to write these truths.

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

But still, I write my truth.

—–

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

Introducing: Write Where It Hurts

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On June 2nd, three sociologists — Xan Nowakowski, J. Sumerau, and Lain Mathers (see their biographies on their site) — launched a new blog, Write Where It Hurts, that will feature blog posts for and by “scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service.”  In this guest blog post, Xan, J, and Lain describe their findings from an informal study of scholars’ sense of personal connection with (i.e., subjectivity) or detachment from (i.e., “objectivity”) their scholarship.  These findings led them to create Write Where It Hurts (WWIH), which they describe in more detail below.  Readers are encourage to submit their own guest blog posts to WWIH (wewritewhereithurts [at] gmail [dot] com).

Write Where It Hurts

Like every scholar we have ever encountered, the three of us were initially drawn to teaching and research in hopes of understanding experiences within our own lives. While we have met people focused on lab treatments of biological material, evaluations of organizations, social inequalities and patterns, and survey design, in each case we came upon people who sought to make sense of things that were relevant to their personal lives. Through casual conversations with our colleagues, we noticed a discrepancy among their stories. Some of these people admitted this aspect of their life course by telling others and us directly how aspects of their life led to their work. Others, however, often claimed the opposite; for example, some people we met claimed to be “objective” despite making claims about elements – like race, class, gender, or other social issues – that influenced their social lives. As a result, we decided to explore this discrepancy further.

The Sources Of Scholars’ Research And Teaching Interests

To further our casual observations, we began directly asking fellow scholars how their personal experiences influenced their teaching and research at conferences, in departments, and on online forums. After learning in graduate programs that we were expected to attempt to be “objective” and pursue science from a “professional distance,” we sought to find out whether people actually thought such a position was actually realistic. We learned very quickly that the same discrepancy we saw in personal relationships and official training programs existed in the response of academics in various fields. Some of them quickly noted how, for example, a fascination with animals as a kid, a search for truth as a church member during childhood, or an experience of marginalization shaped their interest in academic work. Others, however, found many ways to argue that their own focus on this or that subject had nothing to do with their personal life, and was rather simply a “creditable” and “important” area of work. Not surprisingly, these informal conference talks revealed some interesting patterns in who said what about “objectivity.”

Digging deeper, we found three patterns in our informal study. First, most of the people who claimed “objectivity” or a “lack of emotional investment” occupied privileged social locations (e.g., white, male, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, religious, or normatively-bodied). Yet, most of the people who admitted the “subjective” nature of academic work and disclosed the “personal” experiences that fed into their research and teaching interests occupied at least one marginalized social location. Second, the people who claimed “objectivity” tended to be doing work in mainstream areas of scholarship long defined as politically and academically legitimate, whereas the people who were most often open about the “emotional” aspects of their work typically worked in newly emerging, controversial, and/or emotionally charged areas that conflict with established political and academic traditions. Finally, we noticed that academics in mainstream fields and privileged social locations often made claims about personal aspects of their lives without ever being accused of doing “me-search” (i.e., heterosexuals using lab samples to make claims about sexual norms, or religious people using surveys to talk about religion), while these same people used “me-search” as a type of slur targeted at anyone doing innovative work or occupying marginalized social locations.

Along the way, it became increasingly clear to us that academic programs, departments, and traditions encouraged people to pretend they were “objective” or “rational” despite the “subjective” and “emotional” aspects of all teaching and research. In fact, we listened as countless people in varied academic fields explained the ways that talking about emotions or personal experiences were devalued, marginalized, and attacked within their training programs, tenure-track positions, and academic organizations. Familiar with long traditions of critical pedagogy and scholarship, we began to recognize this culture of silence as a way to maintain academic hierarchies concerning who could speak, what could be said, and what “counted” as legitimate teaching and research. As many activist and academic communities have done throughout ourstory – including Conditionally Accepted in relation to marginalization within the academy – we sought to find a way to pull the emotional and personal elements of teaching and research out of the shadows and into the light of day.

To this end, we began hosting panels at conference meetings wherein people were encouraged to share the personal and emotional side of their research and teaching experiences. In so doing, we realized very quickly that many people longed to have space for sharing these stories, building community around these issues, and gaining resources and support for doing emotional and personally relevant work within and beyond the academy. As a result, we decided to create such a space in hopes of providing an opportunity to discuss the emotional and personal aspects of our work and in so doing, begin dismantling the myth of “objectivity” promoted in our disciplines and used to marginalize many academics and fields of study. Last week, we launched such a space in the form of a blog community entitled Write Where It Hurts, and we invite all interested parties to become involved in this conversation.

WWIH Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Write Where It Hurts Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Creating A Space To Write Where It Hurts

Write Where It Hurts serves as a public forum for discussions about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching and research. Specifically, we offer and collect contributions from scholars in different fields teaching and doing research in areas that are personally relevant to them, emotionally charged in relation to academic and broader social norms, and/or marginalized or defined as “me-search” by people attempting to enforce notions of “objectivity” predicated upon privileged social status and approved areas of study. Further, our site offers resources, tips, and strategies for navigating emotional and personal tensions, traumas, and concerns we face as teachers and scholars facing systemic inequalities within and beyond the academy, and critiques of “objectivity” claims made by members of privileged groups to justify hierarchical notions of what “counts” as legitimate teaching and research. Finally, our site displays both open and anonymous examples of these dynamics and the ways people manage them in hopes of providing a supportive community and public dialogue about these issues, which may be used when scholars attempt to disrupt the culture of emotional and personal silence promoted throughout academic operations.

We chose to call the community Write Where It Hurts for three specific reasons. First, it is noteworthy that people are only accused of doing “me-search” or “subjectivity” when they study things that are controversial or innovative, and thus these people are subjected to painful experiences with other academics simply for daring to be different types of teachers and researchers. While white males (or members of other privileged groups) who use surveys to measure gender or race are also doing personally relevant research based on their own emotional and social experiences, for example, they are freed from such critique due to their privileged social positions in ways that minority scholars are not. Minority scholars and those utilizing non-standard methods must therefore subject themselves to pain (or write where it hurts) to build careers within inequitable academic traditions. We thus focus on Writing Where It Hurts to draw attention to this imbalance, and begin the process of dismantling these inequitable patterns of academic interpretation and practice.

Second, we recognize long standing traditions wherein revealing marginalized narratives, experiences, and ways of knowing disrupt the silence necessary for maintaining inequitable systems.  Following Feminist, Critical Race, Queer, Interactionist, Nonreligious, Indigenous, and other Critical traditions, we thus recognize the power of expression to disrupt existing norms and patterns that serve to marginalize and silence some preferences and peoples for the sake of the elevation of others. In such traditions, there is a long tradition of writing about the pain, sharing the hurt, and expressing the struggle to build community, facilitating recognition of unconventional practices and beliefs, and finding support in the face of dominant ideologies and structures. We thus encourage others – both within and beyond the context of our blog, Conditionally Accepted, and other forums seeking to better our current academic structures – to Write Where It Hurts to both allow others to recognize the existence of such pain, provide support for those who have been convinced they suffer alone, and establish narratives and resources for challenging the inequalities at the heart of such pain.

Finally, our experiences (both informally and formally) offering panels on the emotional aspects of teaching and research have shown us that there are many people wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. In many cases, people are facing and navigating personal trauma, experiences with harassment and discrimination in varied forms, and other difficult life experiences in an attempt to further understanding of understudied aspects of this social experience that effect multitudes of people. In so doing, these people are drawing on their own pain to teach the world about sensitive and controversial realities, but in so doing, they face their own pain and trauma in every aspect of their professional lives. As such, we call our project Write Where It Hurts to celebrate their efforts, and create a community where these efforts are validated, recognized, and given voice in ways that are often to hard to find in existing academic programs, departments, and traditions.

In closing, we invite all readers to check out our blog community, and contribute in any way they see fit. Write Where It Hurts is committed to inclusive and supportive dialogue where all people are recognized and respected regardless of perceived difference in social location, and where the only requirement for membership is supporting the equitable treatment and affirmation of all people seeking a more just and egalitarian world. As fans and supporters of Conditionally Accepted, we are delighted to have the opportunity to share our project on this platform and with its readers and contributors, and we see our own project as an emerging complement to the work done by this site. To this end, we encourage all readers to consider Writing Where It Hurts on this site, our own, and others while doing your part to affirm others who openly engage in emotionally and personally relevant teaching and research geared toward the betterment of our shared social world.

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.

Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth.  So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective.  Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience.  While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).

Researchers Are Human

In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful.  I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s).  In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd.  I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.

Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness.  Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.*  There are few people in the US — the world even — like me.  And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world.  I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness.  I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research.  And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.

In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born.  In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews.  There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination.  But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized.  It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.

In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn.  I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health.  In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination.  I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research.  But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections.  (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)

Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective.  Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it).  In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons.  Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.

Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities.  Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences?  With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.?  Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career?  By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.

Personal Motivations For Research

No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study.  Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research.  Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:

It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.

I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study.  Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism.  The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color.  I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry.  Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work.  Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?

I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study.  For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses.  Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome.  (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.)  But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses.  If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health.  A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.

And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published.  To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia.  There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom.  But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.

There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.”  In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower.  I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

Embrace Your Inner Unicorn

To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must.  But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.

Can we stop pretending objectivity exists?  Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons?  Conformity is overrated.  And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education.  Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place.   Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education.  Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!

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NOTES

* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color.  We’re already below 1% of the population here.  Narrow that to multiracial gay men.  And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs.  Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.

Professors Feel Pain, Too

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.

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.