Bringing in the Political Self: Teaching in the Era of Trump

Katie L. Acosta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University where she teaches courses on race & ethnicity, sexuality, gender and the family. In this post, Dr. Acosta reflects on teaching and academic freedom under the Trump Administration. 

I recently attended a meeting designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members and to brainstorm best practices for creating a non-hostile classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. “Try not to make statements that directly disparage a political candidate,” we were instructed. “Consider focusing on policy issues rather than personal characteristics. Consider avoiding clothing or paraphernalia in the classroom that directly support a particular political candidate. You don’t want to wear anything that might appear antagonistic to students who may not share your point of view…”

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration.  I’m supposed to teach my students about their social world, about Racism, Gender, Sexuality and the Family – while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply-offensive statements that our president has made during his campaign and since he was elected.  But herein lies the problem, my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in this meeting hearing the suggestions being made brought me back a few years to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed. That morning, I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured through social media learning the details of this awful tragedy. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach. I had decided I would avoid the topic entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain.  Inevitably, however, ten minutes into the lecture a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of skittles. But, my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society – of this country’s fear of Black men and boys and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during these encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally-driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms, or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible, and consequential. How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life don’t intersect. I can’t think of a single Sociologist that I respect who maintains these artificially separated worlds.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self.  I am an Afro-Latina queer cis woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I don’t? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if my students do make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of this semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being too political. But I don’t believe it’s done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it’s flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, I’m going to take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it, can we have fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon to flourish. And only in a democracy that is largely run by white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamaphobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic actions and policies of Trump’s cabinet picks.

While this is something that I do not have control over, I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation doesn’t so thoroughly miss the boat when it comes to understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country.  I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and one another on the many issues we currently face not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect, integrity and in the spirit of understanding.  For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

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Teaching Science through the Arts

In this post, J discusses success they have had with the use of arts based research techniques and the teaching of science via artistic representations.  

For as long as I have memory, I’ve always been captivated by music and stories.  While many of my tastes have shifted and changed throughout my life, one constant has been an insatiable desire for collecting and creating music, stories, and musical stories in every way I can and from as wide a variety of sources as I possibly can.  As I’ve written before on the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction music blog, these interests often find voice in my research and teaching.  In my research, for example, I seek to integrate the stories of respondents into scientific and public discourses related to social inequalities, movements, and developments.  Similarly, I often use the stories of others – and my own – as well as countless musical examples to introduce students to the diversity of contemporary experiences, the methods whereby arts capture broader social patterns whether we notice or not at the time, and the ways the arts often provide the only voice for populations marginalized in religious, scientific, and / or political traditions at a given time or place.

While I have long utilized arts – especially stories and music based – to teach and enhance my research, it wasn’t until the last year that I came into contact with a broader pedagogical and methodological tradition and community of scholars engaging in similar works.  Arts based research, as its often called, is a research and teaching tradition that seeks to bring scientific insights to broader audiences and bridge gaps between varied ways of knowing by utilizing artistic mediums to convey scientific findings to audiences of varied sorts.  As Dr. Patricia Leavy notes in Method Meets Art, this type of work seeks to translate data, findings, and complex theoretical debates into more readily and easily accessible conversations for students, colleagues, and broader audiences who would benefit from such knowledge, but may not be as well versed in the technical or official languages of peer reviewed journal articles and texts.  Further, as Dr. Nowakowski and I have noted in previous publications drawing on teaching evaluation studies and experiments by others, the translation of data into stories and other narrative forms often increases student and public engagement with materials and allows potential learners to personalize important findings and theories in ways that make them salient in their lives beyond classrooms.

It was with these approaches in mind that I began utilizing artistic works in my classes as a way for students to apply theories and methods from journal articles to examples they might face in their own lives.  For example, I utilize offerings from the Social Fictions Series to translate social scientific concepts and issues into opportunities for students to engage with and consider the ways such things play out in their own lives.  When discussing class dynamics, for example, I may have students look at American Circumstance and other novels exploring class dynamics in the lives of characters from the same socio-demographic backgrounds as my students.  Similarly, when discussing social justice and things students might do if they are interested in promoting justice in society, I may have them run through one of the plays in ReView or other anthologies of such work to think about planning, strategy, and the reactions of others to such endeavors.  Further, in recent months I’ve begun incorporating poems, songs, and stories colleagues of mine have composed about specific social events and movements as well as publishing my own first research based novel – Cigarettes & Wine – concerning Queer experience in the south.  In all these and more cases, my incorporation of more artistic representations of data, findings, and theories has in each case facilitated even more student engagement, student discussion, and student investment than other methods I’ve attempted over the years, and in many cases, students have returned long after such class meetings to further discuss the works and talk about sharing these works with friends and families who – in many cases – never took much interest in the purely academic materials from the classes.

These experiences have led me to think more and more about the utility of arts based research and the teaching of science through the arts – especially in a social context wherein narratives and stories often carry more weight among many population groups than any raw data seems to be able to.  As such, I wanted to use this space today simply to encourage others to think about the possibilities of arts based research within and beyond classrooms, and the ways such efforts might enhance attempts to engage and motivate students concerning complex and often socially and politically important topics in our world today.

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Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    

 

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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Dreams

 

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the possibility of focusing on and talking about dreams in contexts where we are more often encouraged to focus on what we should do rather than what we wish for.

A couple months ago, I posted a piece here about the emphasis on obligations, or the dreaded should, I have noticed so many fellow academics wrestling with over the years.  In the piece, I noted the possibility of shifting our focus from what we should be doing to what we have actually done that might deserve some credit from us or others.

Based on messages and discussions with people, as well as my own reflections, I could likely add more to the piece I published at this point, but that is not what I want to do today.  Instead, I want to talk a little bit about dreams and the importance of them – the wants instead of the shoulds – for self care and fulfillment.

 

Did you have a dream when you were younger or last night?

 

Does your current life, career, or circumstance match this dream or have you on a path to reaching it?

 

I think these are important questions that I never hear people talk about within or even beyond the academy. Social psychologists have even noted that having dreams is a very important aspect of selfhood, whether or not such dreams ever come true in one’s life. They provide motivation, joy, pain, and other emotional experiences that facilitate growth and development in a wide variety of ways. Of course, this makes me wonder why I don’t often hear people talking about their dreams. More often, I hear people talking about what they are doing, should be doing, have to do, or haven’t gotten done yet. I fully admit, as I noted in the previous piece, that academic culture especially seems to encourage – if not require – these questions much more so than any talk about desire, hopes, or dreams for the world or one’s self. At the same time, I think we – myself included at times – miss something when we forget to also think about whatever we might wish for, deeply desire, and hope for in our best imagined versions of our world and life.

I can’t pretend to evaluate the dreams of another, but I do think dreams are very important whatever shape they take. I’m reminded of friends and colleagues I admire who dreamed of being academics, teachers, scholars, researchers, and university administrators their whole lives. At the same time, I think about the fact that this was not the case for me, and that I kind of stumbled into an academic life as a way to facilitate and fund my actual dreams of being a writer and activist. In both cases, my colleagues and I had dreams that we ultimately got to touch in our own lives for various reasons and thanks to a lot of things beyond our control going well. Thinking about these things leads me to wonder what other people dream about, what do other people want most in the imagined case where it somehow works out, and what discussions about these questions might reveal about ourselves, about others, and about our lives.

I’m also reminded of just as many friends and colleagues I admire who dreamed of things that never came true, or continue to dream of things they are still chasing.  In both of these cases and similar to the above, the dreams themselves speak to the people, what they value, what they desire, and what matters to them most once upon a time, in the present, or in some imagined future.  Thinking about this leads me to wonder what other dreams people have given up, what dreams changed over time as people learned more about themselves and the world, and how past and current dreams or other desires speak to one’s current life or efforts.

As I said, I can’t offer any real answers to these questions, but I thought it might be nice to at least broach the conversation. I thus invite people to think about, write about even on this site if you wish, and consider what your dreams might be, and what such reflection might tell you about yourself and others.  I’ll close this post with a simple question.

What do you get to do that feeds you enough to make the things you have to do worthwhile and what do you have to do to facilitate your ability to do the things you really want to do?

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My Work Starts at Home

Ashley Josleyn French was an educational consultant in New York City for over ten years before moving with her family to Winter Park, FL. In addition to chasing three children under seven, she is a PhD student and a lecturer in Sociology and Women’s Studies. She writes about the madness of it all at www.thestayathomesociologist.com

Toward the end of the school year, my son began talking about a student who visited his class for science twice a week named Freddie. The first time he mentioned Freddie, he said that Freddie had recently joined his science group. He said, “Mom, Freddie writes and talks like my sister. He has a teacher who sits with him all during class. Sometimes he has BIG tantrums!” I could tell by his tone that he felt that Freddie deserved some graciousness and love, but also that he didn’t understand why a kid his age was on a social and academic level of that of his three-year-old sister. I asked him, “Does Freddie like to do science as much as you do?” He said, “Oh, yes! He loves the projects!” I followed up, “Are you enjoying being with him?” “Yes,” he said enthusiastically, “He’s a part of our group!” I finished up with, “That’s great. Freddie learns differently than you, but he loves to learn just as much as you do. It’s important to always include new kids and make sure that they feel welcome. Freddie learns in a different way and might struggle with some of the typical first grade work, so its important to make sure that he is still comfortable and that everyone is kind to him.” “OK,” my biggest little one said.

The family is the first agent of socialization. In sociology, we talk about agents of socialization—social institutions that greatly influence us over the course of our lives, such as family, schooling, work, religious bodies, etc. The earliest and often most influential because of that early influence is the family. Our children learn from parents. They learn rather or not to say please and thank you either because we enforce the practice with punitive measures or because we ourselves say please and thank you in kindness to others. They learn to brush their teeth because we require it of them, or because they see us do it and join us in the practice each morning and evening in the intimate space of our bathrooms of our homes, where one would only do something like brush teeth with someone with whom they are tightly knit. They also learn how to respond to people who are different than us. Are we kind and inclusive with people who look different than us? Do they have a physical difference or disability? Are they too thick or too thin? Are they a different nationality or speak a different language? Are their clothes dirty? Is their car rusted out and old? Are they educated or uneducated? Are they progressive or conservative? The first agent of socialization is the family. Do we want our children to be kind and accepting and loving to other children and people, or cold and insensitive to differences? Will our children be helpful or hurtful? Are we helpful or hurtful?

As I was reading Sojourner Truth’s famous speech recently, I was reminded of this interaction with my oldest child and the crucial role that parents play in changing our society to be an inclusive, just and loving one. Exiting a life of slavery and entering a role as an activist, Sojourner Truth spoke to a group of women’s rights activists in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” resonates today regarding our continuing issues in this country with race, gender and poverty. She suggests that that she is not treated like a real citizen or “woman” by society because of her role as a former slave and because of her race.

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Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth:

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, somebody whispers] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure-full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”

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Her words foreshadow what social theorists in the 1990s began referring to as intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that suggests that social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, nationality should not be examined simply individually, but in the ways they mutually construct one another and how those layers of oppression interact. Patricia Hill Collins argues that very early on within families children are socialized into systems of power and hierarchy, making a transition to a life in a society of hierarchies based on social categories feel natural despite the fact that they are very much socially constructed. As we see these intersections of oppression in the lives and faces of our children’s classmates and friends, neighbors, colleagues, service people, etc., how can we speak to these, give them voice and teach our children to hear their stories, especially if our children function from a space of privilege?

As the most influential person in a child’s life, when parents are dismissive or unkind to people who are different for whatever reason, they are teaching their children, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, to participate in systems of hierarchy and oppression. Even in the seemingly most minor interactions with a salesperson or someone on the street to how I teach my children to interact and socialize with kids on the playground or at school, I find it to be my job to live what I learn and teach through the discipline of sociology. I want, I need to take this work home with me, to implement it. As an academic and a thoughtful parent, if I don’t use these tools at home, my writing and teaching make no sense. It is hard to be thoughtful each moment with children. It would be easier to put them in front of a screen or send them outside so I can finish my work. But this is my work. Molding minds to view life through a fresh lens, and so for me, as for all parents, my work in socialization with my children starts at home.

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Happy Birthday Write Where It Hurts

This week the Write Where It Hurts blog is one year old. With this in mind, we thought it might be useful to look back over the past year, express our appreciation to the many people who have contributed to the growth and development of the blog and its associated social media sites, and glance toward the coming year.

On June 6, 2015, we launched Write Where It Hurts online and on social media sites with the hope of providing resources for and generating conversation about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching, research, service, activism, and other elements of scholarly and creative life and experience. With this goal in mind, we spent the year utilizing our social media presence to disseminate information and resources, and posting 42 blogs covering a wide variety of topics from a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and traditions. Our hope was and remains to, as one regular reader noted at a recent conference, create a space for open dialogue as well as resources for people managing the personal and emotional aspects of academic and activist life.

Whether looking at numbers or conversations, the past year exceeded any expectations we had at the onset of this project. We have received word of cases where posts from the blog have been useful resources for teaching in classrooms, educating potential allies in activist groups, and sharing experiences in interpersonal settings. At the same time, the blog has garnered much more traffic and attention than we expected it to (especially in the first year), and we have had far more people seek us out at conferences and online for further discussion than we thought would happen. At the same, response to our social media sites has been far more active than we initially expected, and has led to interesting and useful collaborations. All of these and other observations throughout the year suggest this type of space is useful for many people, and encourage us to continue developing it for broader use.

We have also benefitted tremendously in the past year from the talent and bravery of our guest authors. We have truly been privileged to work with incredibly talented and insightful guest writers, and in each case, we – as well as the blog – have benefitted immensely from their perspectives, experiences, and analyses. It is with this in mind that we reiterate our ongoing calls for guest contributors, and encourage anyone looking for a space to Write Where It Hurts to reach out to us with your ideas, compositions, and other thoughts as there may well be space for you on the blog and there may well be others who would benefit from your offerings.

As we move forward, we simply wish to thank you all for an incredible first year in the academic blogging world. Thank you to all the readers, sharers, tweeters, guest writers, and others who made this year possible. Thank you as well to all the people in person and / or online who shared with us the ways the blog posts and / or social media sites were useful to you personally and / or professionally. Thank you all for making Write Where It Hurts first birthday feel like a celebration. We will continue to work on the blog and on social media, and we look forward to all the conversations to come.

Xan, J, & Lain

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“Unacceptable progress” towards degree

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he reflects on making unacceptable progress toward his PhD and feelings surrounding such experience.

I do not think I’d be here today if it were not for my sardonic sense of humor – I would have succumbed long ago to the stress and hypocrisy of the daily lunacy we call life. For the longest time, I was able to laugh away these most unfortunate aspects of human existence, at least while I was “on top” that is. However, I am no longer anywhere near “the top” in any socially relative aspect of my life… and ‘tis the season for funding. This essay is composed of my personal experiences concerning the perverted business of academia, how I am the embodiment of “unacceptable progress” towards my PhD in sociology, and why I’m still here. To be blunt- and to get the more complicated “why” question addressed at the very least – I honestly would not be an active student at this moment if it were not for mindfulness practices. For the first time in my life I am (kind of) comfortable with uncertainty and “letting go”.

Each year, my department conducts the uttermost warped evaluation process of graduate students enrolled in both the masters and doctoral program. In an almost cult-like gathering veiled in mystery, a handful of professors determine the most crucial part of a graduate student’s existence – Funding. Adjectives aside, this “annual review” is a rather reasonable procedure and makes perfect sense in the context of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. But here is the sick part of the whole thing – while paperwork for the annual review is due mid-December and funding decisions are essentially made in January (current graduate students are ranked in order in a top secret list), students are not informed of their fate until early March (via physical mail to add insult to injury). During that 3 month period, every other thought a graduate student has revolves around funding concerns for the upcoming year. This creates a demented cycle of mental and emotional harm which intensifies each day as March approaches. Speaking out against this process is not a perceptible option as there have been repercussions in the past.

For the past 4 years, around this time of year, I would eagerly check my mail each day in hopes of receiving a letter of funding. Each day it was absent caused me to worry incessantly, but this year is different. I am not expecting a letter. I am hoping, sure, but I am not counting on it. In previous years I was the golden boy of the department, an overachiever making acceptable progress towards my degree. Yet after a scuffle with a sadistic professor, a failed comprehensive exam, and 3 outstanding independent studies, I received a notice of unacceptable progress towards my degree completion this past month. I had stumbled this past year for sure. I was not mentally well from June to November following a series of deaths and illnesses in my family combined with a period of no insurance coverage (which meant no doctors visits or medication). Yet now that I am on my feet so to speak, the last thing I need is to dwell on my past failures. This seems to be the plight of civilized humans, to obsess over what could have been and what will become of the future.

“Are you sure you are not just in denial,” asked a good friend of mine when I told him that I am content with my unacceptable progress. This is a good question but I believe the answer to it is ultimately no. I am not denying that I am now officially certified as a lousy student, but rather embracing the fact that there is nothing I can do to change that at this exact moment. If a depressing string of thoughts about my academic fiascoes occurs late at night after a rather productive day, then why should I let it affect me? Instead, I now acknowledge these thoughts and the feelings they temporarily instill in me, and then I situate myself back in the present moment. I am so far managing this semester rather well – even though this essay is in part based on a paper which was late – and worrying about the past and future can only negatively impact me. Letting go of these thoughts of failure or impending suffering via mindfulness practices has been tremendously helpful in my day-to-day life, and therefore by default has also been helpful in the long run.

Perhaps the single largest stressor in my life is uncertainty. But in a paradoxical moment of clarity, I am now certain of one thing – that I will always be uncertain. I have never known the concept of “job security” and doubt I ever will, but that is part of the fun in life. I do not want to live a rationally ordered existence where one works to live. I rather enjoy spontaneity and wrinkles in life’s “plans”, and the ideal of omniscience tastes kind of bland. To be human is to feel, and perhaps this is part of the reason why negative experiences feel so bad – pain, misery, suffering, depression, etc. We do not want to have those feelings so we take measures to avoid situations where they may occur. But when the uncomforting notion of uncertainty is embraced as a constant and we let go of the desire for a predestined life, uncertainty becomes less distressing. I do not know where I will be or how I will secure life’s necessities come next fall and there is nothing I can do about that fact. Will worrying help improve my life situation? No, but I cannot help but to worry. In being mindful of worrying over uncertainty, I acknowledge the feeling and bring myself back to the present moment. Additionally, this is an empowering process (I am in control of my life right now) whereas worrying is a depowering process (I have no control over my fate). In an odd way, we gain power by surrendering power. We want control over our “fate” but this desire can overwhelm us with worry, guilt, and ultimately stress. Though a philosophical metacognitive argument, I believe that by letting go and enjoying the moment, we reclaim power over ourselves.

What I have been describing so far may seem self-defeating, judgmental, and critical in a negative manner. When I say that I am “the embodiment of unacceptable progress”, I am appealing to my own critically demented sense of humor. I tend to be a satirist and like to push negative aspects of my life into the realm of the absurd. Laughing is the kindest, most rewarding condition I can bring about myself. If I imagine that the professors who secretly make funding decisions do so in some kind of a dark ritual involving robes and goat blood – and this thought makes me laugh at the (very real) ridiculousness of the process – then I am better off for it. I know of nothing more loving than that.

I cried the entire day when I assembled my annual review this past December. After over 12 agonizing hours of reflecting upon and writing down my achievements and shortcomings (mostly shortcomings), I had a narrative of merely 1045 words to sum up the most painful year I have experienced so far in my life. I have not – and will not – receive any feedback on that most personal narrative either as that goes against protocol. So what good did that distressing day of forced reflection do to my then-present psyche? None whatsoever as the next few days in particular were spent more or less in a state of emotional and physical recovery. If I was aware of this then, I never would have engaged in that activity of needless suffering. I would have submitted a blank sheet of paper (if anything) to the annual review committee. The end result is me not getting funded, yet the approach I took was one of intense judging and self-loathing.

I have become accepting, even welcoming, of uncertainty as it relates to my future. This enhanced awareness has allowed me to reframe some situations in a more holistic light and eschew others altogether. I have no clue where I will be next semester and I am perfectly okay with this. I have even put some semi-serious applications into rather prestigious job openings – I did not get “hung up” on getting it right, but rather had fun writing the cover letters and such. Who knows what will happen. Maybe my passion for teaching will come across more clearly and I’ll get a call back.

Shit happens and it will forevermore. As a life-long overachiever, I have always strived to evade shit but was lost to the fact that I was centering my life on and around shit itself. Through my deliberate and rigorous avoidance of shit, my life had become shit. Shit happened and it will happen again, but right now as I write this paper, there is no shit in my life. It’s all good here. Even the cat boxes are clean. And that’s how I feel about my life right now as an “unacceptable progress” student. I may not complete my PhD by the time I am 30 years of age (a little over 3 years from now), but I feel “clean” by accepting this.

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The Anxiety Inscriptions

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences managing anxiety and graduate study.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts.

It is mid-February as I begin writing this post. I am sitting in my apartment at my computer, my hands floating apprehensively above the keyboard. This is an odd sensation considering the fact that usually I type so intensely that the tiny plastic squares pop off of my laptop and onto the floor. I can feel the words I want to write just out of reach, curled up in the darker corners of my brain. I start to feel my chest tightening. “No, no not right now, please not right now,” I plead with my brain. We have a constant dialogue going, but as of late it’s taken on a significantly more dominant role in those dialogues. I’ve come to know this feeling. It’s like watching a tornado bellowing toward me while being fastened to the ground. As the tornado gets closer and closer, I eventually give in to the fact that I will be swept up in the debris of my own internal natural disaster.

At this point, generally, when I can feel a panic attack coming on, I resign to it. Over the past few months, I’ve learned just how neurological and out of my control those events are, and that trying to resist them (and largely failing to do so) leaves me feeling significantly more exhausted, disappointed, and angry than if I just allow myself to lean into them, tear apart a cardboard box or two, and then sit quietly on my couch and listen to Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the calm after the storm.

See, I’ve known that I exhibit symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or Generalized Anxiety Condition, as I prefer to call it, since I am working against the internalized and institutionalized stigma that the ways my brain operates means there is something inherently broken about me) for a while. I’ve had nervous ticks like compulsively picking at my skin since as early as I can remember. I can be thrown into a state of total disarray over a two-lined text message that I’m afraid someone other than the intended recipient will get a hold of. I’ve found large crowds overwhelming for a long time, and regularly get up two to three times throughout the night to make sure I’ve locked my doors (so that no one can get into my apartment) and unplugged all the kitchen appliances / blown out all the candles (so that a fire doesn’t start when I’m asleep). On my walks to school, I try to replay my morning routine to make sure I locked the doors and unplugged the appliances, and if I can’t remember I will often text message my roommate (if he is home) to make sure I did. If he is not home, it is not uncommon for me to turn around and walk back home to check (even if I am only a few blocks away from school). I have to get to the airport or train station at least three hours before my trips out of town because I am constantly terrified that some catastrophic event will happen that prevents me from getting where I’m supposed to be, and I am known to check the pockets in my jacket up to 15 times before leaving my house, sometimes one right after the other, to make sure I haven’t accidentally lost my wallet, keys, or cigarettes.

All of these are symptoms I’ve learned to manage over the years. For example, I just plan my travel accordingly; I allow an extra 30-45 minutes before I go to bed to check the locks and plugs. I say out loud to myself that I locked my door as I leave my house in the morning so when I run over my morning routine repeatedly on my way to school, my own verbal affirmation to myself will be part of that narrative. And, historically, when I would get the occasional panic attack (every couple of weeks or months), I would allow myself to just experience them and make sure to try to get as much sleep as possible and drink lots of water.

Writing has also been a huge part of my anxiety management. For the past 14 years, I have been writing regularly in a journal. Presently, I am in my 94th book, and have no plans of stopping any time soon. Since I was old enough to hold a pen writing has been the place where I can document the conversations I am constantly having with my brain about all of the things I need to be worrying about or else something terrible will happen. Putting them down on paper both makes them feel real and also like something I don’t have to carry around in my head anymore (it can get quite crowded in there). Writing is the place I go during panic attacks when nothing makes sense and I can’t even really form complete sentences, yet something about the feeling of pen on paper keeps me anchored to this world. Writing is, without a doubt, my most significant and important survival strategy when it comes to my mental health.

So what do I do when I can’t write through the anxiety? For those of us that find a deep comfort in writing, the inability to do it is incredibly destabilizing and painful. Recently, I had to confront this question in a wholly unsettling manner.

For people who live with chronic mental health conditions and/or trauma, we know that triggers can pop up and derail our routines for hours, days, weeks, even months. We also know that triggers can come in the most unexpected contexts and magnitudes. So, just because one is perhaps prepared to handle a situation that has previously triggered them doesn’t mean they’ll be able to negotiate a totally new trigger with as much familiarity.

So, when my understanding of my life was recently upset by conditions entirely outside of my control, and unlike any trigger I’ve previously experienced, I began having panic attacks on a daily basis. Not only did they start occurring more frequently, but also at unexpected times compared to when they’ve previously boiled to the surface. By this point, though, I had convinced myself that writing was all I needed to settle the rush of chemicals in my brain. “Just write it out, Lain, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.” Yet when I sat down to put the chaotic words on paper nothing flowed. I was in a state of mental and emotional quicksand, sinking faster than I could get my words to secure me to this world.

This was even more unsettling because writing is not something I just do for personal pleasure or comfort anymore, it is part of my livelihood. I began to tell myself elaborate stories about how I will never be able to write again and my career as a sociologist is doomed to failure. I walked nervously around my apartment, screamed into pillows, ripped apart cardboard boxes, and smoked countless cigarettes to try and dilute the quicksand feeling but nothing worked. It was in this moment that my brain and I began to have a serious conversation and one unlike any talk we’ve had before.

“Maybe you should talk to someone, Lain. Maybe you really need that.”

“No, brain, I can manage this. You’re just really fucking with me right now. It’ll pass.”

“Will it?”

“It has to.”

“How do you know? Maybe you’re just like this forever. Maybe I’ll never stop.”

“Maybe I should talk to someone.”

“Should you, though? How do you know it will help anything?”

“I don’t.”

Before making an appointment with a therapist, I held my journal and a pen in my hand, so desperately hopeful that I would have some kind of breakthrough by just acknowledging that my mental condition is real, that this experience is out of my control (despite how much control I like to believe I have over it). Nothing. So, I made the appointment and had a flurry of panic shortly after doing so.

Over the past few months, I’ve started more openly acknowledging that I not only live with generalized anxiety everyday, but also that it profoundly influences my life in ways I never expected it would. I am continually learning that maintaining anxiety management strategies, such as writing, is one important component in a large equation of other management mechanisms, such as (for me) therapy, medication, painting, supportive friends and loved ones, and plenty of alone time. I am still learning to overcome the stigma associated with chronic mental health conditions (especially one like anxiety, that many people don’t believe to be real), and the path to figuring all of this out certainly defies the American ideal of a linear progress narrative.

Yet, here I am, in late March, sitting at a café finishing this essay that you are presently reading to the sound of Rilo Kiley’s song, “A Better Son or Daughter” and occasionally picking up the “I” and the “O” keys off the floor. The routine of bending over every seven or so minutes to fetch the tiny, plastic, lettered squares off the ground is a welcome reminder that I am still here, anxiety and all.

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Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman) is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist; they are an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which recently became a regular career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  In this post, Dr. Grollman reflects on negotiating and making sense of trauma related to graduate education. 

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.

 

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Our Peers, Ourselves: Introspective Tips for Insightful Reviews

This week’s post is the final in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing.  In this post, Xan provides tips for being a good reviewer.

Hello readers! Xan here again for our second of two posts on peer review. Last week I shared my thoughts on how peer review often goes wrong, as well as some general discussion on how it can go entirely right. This week, I’m following up with specific strategies to help you write awesome peer reviews that will support your fellow scholars in doing great work while also building your reputation as a professional.

Becoming a great peer reviewer is first and foremost about finding meaningful ways to connect with and support your fellow scholars when you can’t show your face or tell them your name. To do this effectively requires remembering one thing first and foremost, which brings me to my first suggestion to help you become the best reviewer you can be.

  1. Remember that today’s peer reviewers are tomorrow’s authors…and vice versa.

We all dream of receiving kind, thoughtful reviews that help us get to the top of our game as writers and thinkers. We can also probably point to at least a few examples from our careers where reviewers did exactly that, regardless of what the journal editor’s final decision was. Those reviews are the real game-changers, yet they are unnecessarily rare. It’s easier to write a thoughtful and constructive review—especially in cases where you have serious concerns about the methods or findings in a paper—if you remember that the authors truly are your peers. It’s easier still if you stop to think that tomorrow the tables may turn, and the same people might be reviewing one of your own papers. Model your reviews after the kind of feedback you yourself wish to receive!

  1. Read every word of the manuscript with care and consideration.

In academia as well as the applied world, we are often required to read and digest huge amounts of text in small amounts of time. This is a great skill to have, but there are some specific ways to apply it that will help you get the most out of a first manuscript reading so that you can write a really dynamite review. Ordinarily I am the supreme overlord of reading electronically, but I never do this for a peer review. Why? Reading in hard copy helps me to savor every word of the manuscript as if I were reading a favorite poem, and to think about all the ways in which I could possibly interpret each phrase.  This is crucial to writing excellent peer reviews, not only because it gives you a phenomenally solid grasp of the manuscript content, but also because it makes giving authors the benefit of the doubt much easier. How many times have you received a review in which you were asked to do something that you’d already done quite explicitly in your first draft—or worse, attacked for not doing that thing? Don’t be that reviewer. Instead, be the reviewer whose comments are accurate and precise. Editors and authors alike will appreciate your efforts!

  1. Take good notes and save them until a final decision on the manuscript has been provided.

To help you make those accurate and precise comments that will get you to the top of your reviewing game, take concise but thorough notes in line with the text that you can then use to write a point-by-point review. I suggest coding these notes with symbols that tell you where in the review to incorporate each piece of feedback.   Your specific system will vary depending on the precise structure you prefer for your reviews, but most editors will suggest that you offer some distinction between major issues with the manuscript and minor points for improvement.

  1. Consider that something being new or different doesn’t automatically make it wrong.

To be clear, major issues are things like conclusions that aren’t supported by the data, unclear relationships between the literature cited in the “front matter” and the content of the later sections, or weaknesses in the research methods that fundamentally call the findings into question. Some things that are *not* major issues include: need for English-language editing services, typographical or grammatical errors, unconventional choices of pronouns or identity labels, etc. Reviews often become a hotbed for microaggressions towards people who differ from ourselves in one or more ways. It’s much easier to keep the focus on the content when you take careful, detailed notes about why you think something is an issue and what you’d suggest the authors do about it. In cases where there really is a serious issue with the research, it’s also much easier to back up your concerns when you have a detailed record of your thinking.

  1. When you feel tempted to pass judgment on something, ask a question instead.

In my experience as a reviewer, for every paper with such severe flaws as to suggest problematic motives on the part of the authors, there have been numerous others with shortcomings owing more to clarity of expression or thoroughness of explanation than to conflicts of interest. When reviewing a paper that raises “red flags” in your mind, think about how you would want a fellow scholar to respond if they had similar concerns about your own work. Would you want them to eviscerate you on the spot for the possibility of your work not being honest, or would you want them to ask thoughtful questions and encourage you to share the facts before passing judgment? Give your authors enough rope to hang themselves. In most cases, you’ll find that said rope quickly becomes a lifeline that can rescue a sinking argument. And if you still have questions after the final version of a paper appears in print, why not write a thoughtful letter to the editor in response, and net yourself an additional publication while promoting constructive scholarly dialogue?

  1. If you make a suggestion, substantiate it with specific strategies and helpful resources.

I don’t know about all of you, but I love those reviews where someone suggests a change and then offers a citation or two to help me make it. That’s a great way to get yourself noticed as a constructive reviewer, and to make a great impact on the final published research. Humans are remarkably like other creatures in that if we can see a path of least resistance, we are likely to take it and do so gladly. Offer your authors a clear path to greatness and encourage them to follow it! To frame your comments, think about the most helpful and encouraging feedback you received from your mentors in school, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, and try to emulate that. Point out the precise reasons for which a specific item needs improvement, articulate a concrete strategy for making those improvements, and affirm that the end product will be stronger for the authors’ efforts in implementing your feedback.

  1. Know that being a great reviewer means both speaking thoughtfully and listening attentively.

As reviewers and as writers, we are stronger together than we are individually, especially when we take the time to look out for one another as we do for ourselves. This means not only sharing our own ideas, but also taking the time to consider the insights and perspectives of others whose experiences and contexts may differ substantially from our own. So I’ll put my money where my writing is and turn the floor over to our readers. What tips do all of you have for writing spectacular peer reviews? What lessons have you learned during your time as a peer reviewer that you’d like to pass along to others?

We encourage all of you to share your experiences in the comments—let’s make this one of those supposedly rare Internet postings where it actually *is* a good idea to read the comments—and spread that wisdom around to your colleagues. Writing Where It Hurts about your experiences with peer review makes it easier for all of us to review where it helps!

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