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

This Is Not A Pity Party

A week ago, a comment was posted on our Facebook page to express irritation with memes (like the one I posted, but later deleted) on the difficulties of graduate student life.  I replied to ask what should be highlighted instead — what would be a more appealing meme?  Lots of great things were offered, with a subtle nod to the privileged status of graduate students, professors, and adjuncts (who have health insurance and decent pay).

I followed up in a private conversation with the commenter to express my concern about implying academics are too privileged to complain about challenges they faced.  I felt the point was missed, and I did not have the energy to fight about it so I deleted the post and private conversation.  I suppose that is one (passive) way that I agree to disagree.

This Is Not A Pity Party

Let me be clear: Conditionally Accepted, blogs by marginalized scholars, and every other public expression of frustration and pain regarding academic life is no pity party.  The kinds of complaints that are raised — sexual harassment, discrimination, exclusion, social isolation, tokenism, stereotypes, lack of support, lack of guidance, lack of funding and resources, etc. — reflect a desire for something better that does not currently exist.

Most people who seriously pursue a scholarly career (be it in academia or beyond) simply want to do good, meaningful work with the necessary tools, resources, and support that it takes to excel.  I have met many jaded, burnt-out, self-doubting, depressed, anxious, and abused scholars — but,  I have not met a single scholar who throws themselves a pity party for the sake of misery.

To clarify, the commenter raised concern that too much attention is focused on the negatives or the downsides of being an academic.  What about how cushy our jobs are?  What about the great conversations we have with colleagues?  What about the autonomy?  Yes, what about them?!  Speaking for myself, many of the positive, unique features of academic careers are what led me to pursue one.

But, we must highlight the negative features that prevent some from entering academia (either by force or wearing people down to the point of leaving) or that constrain how successful academics can be.  This is how I justify devoting a great deal of time and energy to running a blog site for academics.  I aspire to highlight inequalities that exist within academia, hindering the potential of scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  Indirectly, these barriers rob the rest of society of the full, unconstrained contribution of LGBT, women, racial and ethnic minority, working-class, immigrant, disabled, fat, and religious minority teachers, researchers, and advocates.

This is not a pity party; this is about fighting for having an equal role in shaping and changing knowledge in society.

Breaking The Silence

And, the recent incidents of sexual harassment in the sciences — namely their public disclosure, the responses, and the outcomes of these events — affirm the importance of this work.  If you are unfamiliar with these events that occurred in mid-October, let me give a very brief run-down (full rundown provided elsewhere).

By naming these experiences of sexual harassment, particularly openly (i.e., not anonymous or pseudonymous), and by naming the perpetrators, the silence surrounding these acts is broken.  The myth that these incidents are likely misunderstandings or mere isolated incidents is shattered.  The powerless regain power by refusing to be silent about an oppressive experience faced by countless women in academia and beyond.

If anything, these kinds of conversations are not about pity — they are about power: reclaiming power and empowerment.  Why suffer in silence when the problems I face are systemic, faced by so many other marginalized scholars?

Besides — you can always change the channel if you do not like what I’m saying.

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.

Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

I wrote the following post the day before I defended my dissertation in mid-May.  Though some of the self-doubt has declined since finishing the PhD and starting my new job, I will probably have to continue working at undoing the damage of the “beating” that we call graduate training.

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Reflections On Self-Doubt In Academia

In her latest blog post, “On Racism, Inferiority, and the Self,” sociologist Crystal Fleming reflected on the sense of inferiority that too many members of oppressed groups feel.  She notes:

What I have learned is that racism, homophobia, sexism and all other ‘isms’ only sting when we buy into the fiction that our worth is determined by what other people think of us.  When we feel pain from being stereotyped or negatively viewed, it’s because we needlessly give our power away. And at any moment, we can choose to stop doing that.

Unfortunately, even with a sense of pride in our identity and community, and the related rejection of the prejudices toward our group(s), we still experience the “sting” of such hostility:

But all it takes is exposure to a sexist or racist comment to remind us that some people think very poorly of us. And when that happens, the anger we feel might eclipse a pain we may have never acknowledged–the pain of fearing that the bigot, the chauvinist or the homophobe might be right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I am inferior. And even if we reject the idea that we are less than, we may nonetheless feel wounded by another human being’s searing rejection.

To get past this, she argues for further rejection of the dominant society’s stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and hostility:

The point is to realize that this wounded ego–this lie of inferiority–does not define you. Could never define you. You are the Witness. You are Presence. You are beyond any idea, thought or construct. And the tragicomic, hilarious truth is that you have always been this whole, perfect Being. The beautiful thing is that the truth of who You really are doesn’t depend on your state of mind, your thoughts or your level of awareness.

The Case Of Graduate School

I have made a life-long promise to myself to focus my energy as a scholar on advocating for social justice, liberating oppressed communities, and making academic knowledge and research accessible beyond the ivory tower.  In other words, I do not want to waste my energy on navel-gazing, doing research on academia, engaging in initiatives that promote academia for its own benefit.  Lately, I let myself get caught up in debates with some of my colleagues about research, but primarily from a concern of the impact research has beyond academe.  I will give myself a pass, but I do wish to return to scholarship (including blogging) that serves those outside of the academy.

In another way, I find myself reneging on this promise: reflecting on my time in graduate school.  This chapter of my life is coming to a close, and I will soon embark on the next as a professor at the University of Richmond.  So, in that regard, it makes sense that I would reflect on these past six years.  But, I also find myself reflecting, not just to myself but publicly as well, in a way that feels as though pent up thoughts are now gushing out.  Yep, it is as though I remained silent for six years, and now am releasing my tell-all book, albeit in snippets as blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts.  Again, I do not wish to write a book on graduate school — it’s been done, and can be useful, but I prefer to devote my energy as a scholar on work that serves others more directly.

BA Graduation ('07)

Where does this silence come from?  I recently reread a letter I wrote to myself, “A Letter to an Activist,” in which I reflected on my life and upbringing, my values, and my social justice-informed agenda as a scholar.  In it, I noted that I have been outspoken, challenging stereotypes, exclusion, and silences since the age of 5.  My first attempt at activism was demanding that my kindergarten teacher explain why I could only select one racial identity on a form for school.  That multiracial activism flourished, including challenging fellow students who insisted on using the term “mulatto” (possibly a derivative of mule, implying that interracial marriage is equivalent to cross-species breeding), and participating on forums for multiracial and multiethnic people.  Not even three months after coming out of the closet, I was organizing my high school’s National Day of Silence, which also flourished into bigger activism during my time in college.

With the support and encouragement of my parents to be proud of who I am, and to speak up, particularly to challenge injustice, I rarely knew silence and doubt (aside from the doubt many queer people must reject through coming out and rebuilding one’s sense of self).  I came to graduate school just as outspoken.

MA Graduation, IU ('09)

On one of the first days, a faculty member asked what we would do if the US reinstated the draft for military service.  (Six years later, the question still seems odd, its purpose and his agenda unclear.)  My cohort-mates, one by one, gave uncertain answers.  (Really, as a PhD student who would probably be excused, who has thought about what they would do?)  When my turn came, I offered, “even if they don’t ask, I would tell!”  My cohort-mates released a collective, unexpected laugh — as did I, feeling quite proud of myself for responding to a silly question with a silly answer (while simultaneously pointing out that I could not serve [pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal] as a queer person).  These days, that bravery looks much different, less humorous, and comes after a great deal more introspection and weighing the risks of speaking up.

Yep, just days from having a doctorate in hand, I actually feel less brave, more hesitant to speak up, than when I merely had a Bachelor’s degree.  I already knew that self-doubt set in, that my voice wavers when I speak, even in casual conversations with faculty.  It became painfully obvious when, during a visit to U Richmond, my partner pointed out that I seemed strangely unsure of myself when speaking with my future colleagues.  Almost daily, he is the sole audience member to my fiery rants about various current events and controversies in academia; he sees me singing at the top of my lungs and dancing around our apartment when I’m feeling good or sassy.  So, why the heck was I talking to my future colleagues as though I was a nervous, awkward undergraduate student?  (I wasn’t even like that when I actually was an undergrad!)

PhD Graduation, IU ('13)

Unfortunately, the very training that is designed to empower me intellectually has also disempowered me in other ways.  The academy’s emphasis on status, expertise, and evidence (i.e. data) has humbled me — no, it has made be carry an overwhelming sense of doubt.  Besides these emphasized values, the professional socialization of graduate training has included a repeated wearing of my sense of self as a person of color, as a queer person, as an activist.  My introduction to “the classics” of sociology included token coverage of “people like me” — one week on feminist theory (including black feminist theory and standpoint theory) in my social theory course.  New projects were often criticized for lacking a “big question” because, as I was told, merely studying the lives of queer people, or Black people, or women is not interesting to the mainstream of the discipline; there must be some broader question in order for it to be broadly relevant.  There is a deradicalization that seems inherent to this professional socialization, as well, which, at times, were made explicit — the promise to “beat the activist” out of me.

So, I hear where Crystal is coming from.  I appreciate her insight and advice.  But, I must say, we face a nearly-impossible challenge of remaining whole as scholars from marginalized backgrounds when we are systematically bombarded with messages that say we are not good enough, that we are not smart enough, that are communities are not interesting, and so on.  Arguably, all educational training is like this, though I suspect things were a bit better for me because I consistently attended diverse (particularly in terms of race, ethnicity, and nationality) schools that intentionally celebrated such diversity.  Graduate school has proved to be a different beast for me — at a Historically White College or University (HWCU), in a predominantly-white town, in a conservative state in the Midwest.

This self-doubt, a poison of which I am now painfully aware, is slowly draining out.  At the cusp of “Doctorhood,” I feel myself regaining some of the lost sense of empowerment.  I feel smarter.  I feel a bit braver.  But, it is not merely having the PhD that is returning me to my pre-graduate school sense of self.  Despite the promise to break you down to rebuild you, there is some extra beating-down that seems to occur for scholars from marginalized backgrounds, particularly if they come with activist-leanings.  So, some of this revival has been my own rejection of some of this professional socialization.  For my own survival, I have had to contextualize, distance myself from, or completely reject some of the values of (dominant, i.e., R1) academia.  It seems even Crystal has had to do some similar self-reflection to get to a better, healthier place in her career.

Concluding Thoughts

My take-away point is not to counter Crystal’s message, but rather to give a bit more context.  The dominant socialization processes, which contain values that are not completely relevant to or inclusive of members of marginalized groups, and that even devalue those groups, are enforced and reinforced systematically and through institutions.  We are bombarded with our simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility as caricatures and stereotypes in media, in schools, in politics.  Even in academia — where “average” students of marginalized backgrounds are not being let in — our competence is questioned.  We must do the work to constantly reject these indignities, stereotypes, and hostilities; but, we (all of us) must change institutions that transmit these values and ideas, as well.  It may be time that we stop “beating” students, switching instead to a model of empowerment.  Just a thought.

Gender And Class Shape How Researchers See Your Race

Sociologists Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein have published yet another study that demonstrates how we categorize others in terms of race — not just racial stereotypes, but even racial identity — is dependent upon their other characteristicsIn their most recent, published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society, the researchers found that individuals’ socioeconomic position and gender predicted whether their race would be recorded by interviewers as Black, white, or other:

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Though they found general factors that seemed to determine respondents’ racial classification, some were gender-specific:

The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

Some Additional Thoughts

This study, and their larger research project on racial fluidity, is a major contribution to the sociological understanding of race.  Put bluntly, their work provides further evidence that race is socially constructed.  It is not fixed (i.e., unchanging) nor universal.  Rather, race is contextual, fluid, and, most importantly, an arbitrary way of classifying people.

It is also a commendable extension of intersectionality, wherein the researchers highlight the intersections of gender and social class in racial classifications.  How we view others in terms of race is contingent upon their socioeconomic standing and gender.  To study race separate from other important social characteristics is to paint an incomplete picture.  I particularly appreciate their detailed discussion of doing intersectionality (i.e., applying an intersectional framework) in quantitative research — a practice that remains contentious among (and even antithetical to some) intersectionality scholars.

Lingering Questions

One question that lingers in my mind is the perceivers’ background.  That is, do these dynamics play out the same way for all interviewers?  Are they unique to interviewers of a particular background?  Heck, let me just say what I really mean — is it just white interviewers whose racial classifications appear to be contingent on classed and gendered notions of whiteness and Blackness?  The researchers accounted for various characteristics of the interviewers, including gender, level of education, and age — none of which effected racial categorization.  But, interviewers’ self-identified race did.

In particular, respondents were significantly more likely to be coded as white if the interviewer was white (at least compared to Black interviewers); the reverse was true for coding respondents as Black.  (Maybe these dynamics would reflect other race interviewers’ racial classifications if the survey was more racially inclusive than Black, white, and “other.”)  Since this was merely background noise for the researchers’ primary analyses, they did not dig deeper into this.  Why are white interviewers more likely to see respondents as white, and Black interviewers more likely to see respondents as Black?

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I suppose from my own experience — notably, as someone who is racially ambiguous — there tends to be just as much racial inclusion as there is racial “Othering.”  Some whites and Blacks have seen me as “one of their own,” while others see me as belonging to some other racial group.  So, I am surprised by this bias of categorizing others as one’s own race.  Certainly more research is needed to better understand these dynamics.

A Clarification

A point that seems lost in the academic press releases, commenting on “how others see your race,” is that those “others” are NLYS interviewers.  Certainly, interviewers and researchers are mere humans; thus, it would be inappropriate to expect them to be totally free of society’s influences (including stereotypes and biases).  I could make an issue of the supposed generalizability of the study — that we cannot assume trained interviewers’ racial classifications reflect those of laypeople.  But, their other work makes this concern unnecessary.

One article about the study noted:

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview.

Interviewer error is inevitable.  But, this kind of systematic racial misclassification raises some cause for concern.  These “mistakes,” to some unknown degree, biased research based on the NLYS data.  In particular, it may have produced inaccurate estimates of racial differences on some outcome (e.g., health).

Fortunately, NLYS along with many other widely used surveys (and the US Census) have ceased interviewer-imposed race and ethnicity.  Now, respondents themselves provide their self-identified race and ethnicity.  While this eliminates interviewer bias, this approach is still imperfect for the fluidity and complexity of race.  In another study by Saperstein and Penner, individuals’ racial self-identification depended upon prior incarceration.  While this may appear to be evidence that respondents lie about their race (which is possible), it actually suggests that even how individuals see their own race depends upon their experiences and status.  Arguably, these contingent self-identified racial categorizations may reflect how others see them.

In other ways, researchers and interviewers may continue to impose their perceptions on respondents.  I have witnessed first hand the imputing of respondents’ gender.  The rationale given against explicitly asking respondents their gender was to avoid offending them: “can’t you tell by my voice that I’m a man!”  I am confident that most people were accurately classified by their self-identified gender.  But, I worry about the unknowable number of people who were misclassified.  I wondered why, when asking about personal opinions and intimate details of strangers’ lives, there was fear of offending them by asking about something so readily volunteered, constantly provided on official forms.

Concluding Thoughts

Although our openness as researchers introduces messiness and complexity, I feel we owe it to the people we study to willingly capture the messy, complicated details of their lives and identities.  I fear we too often choose the convenience of easily contained categories and quantifiable experiences over the rich complexity and diversity of our social world.  Though barely mentioned in the press for the article, Penner and Saperstein’s study reminds us just how complicated and messy that world is.

Protecting Science From Harm, And Against Harmful Science

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

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

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

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

Aftershocks

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

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

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

Protecting Against Harmful Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking Out, In General

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

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

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

silenced

Retract It Already

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

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

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

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

“Out The Reviewers!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fight Fire With Fire: More Research!

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

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

Other Suggestions

Fabio also suggested:

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

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

A Final Plea

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

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

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

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

seminar

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

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

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