“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.

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.

“I Am A Skeptic” by Dr. J. Sumerau

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

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I Am A Skeptic

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

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

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

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

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

Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics