Revisiting Trauma as a Graduate Student

In this post, a graduate student in a social sciences program reflects on some ways graduate experience may involve revisiting and managing past trauma.  

Yesterday, I woke up to someone wailing at the top of their lungs. It was the type of noise you would hear when people grieve uncontrollably. When I quickly scrambled out of my bed to look out of the window, I discovered nothing unusual other than maintenance fixing the community gate. No one else was outside of my apartment. As I unlocked my bedroom door to peek around the corner of the hallway, I overheard the television playing in the living room. I then realized that my roommate was watching a movie and the person screaming was Angelina Jolie. Nevertheless, this horrific wail triggered me unexpectedly and brought me back to a dark place that I had avoided for most of my adult life.

I immediately retreated to my room and threw myself onto the bed out of desperation. Memories of previous traumatic events began to flood back in my mind. My body began to tremble, while I was sweating bullets. My eyes glazed over and my breathing was tremendously heavy. My limbs became temporarily immobile. I ultimately went into a state of panic and anxiousness, while spiraling out of control with my thoughts. All those years of therapy felt completely worthless during that moment and nothing else seemed to matter. Trauma memories were stored in mind and my body quickly remembered and reacted consequently.

What seemed like hours lying motionless in bed was only about ten minutes. My body slowly began to recover as I realized that I was in a safe environment. I crawled to my yellow bathroom and eventually managed to take a shower, which always seemed to be therapeutic to me oddly enough. As my face became flushed by the scalding, hot water, I was reassured that I was very much alive.

During my panic attack, I initially thought that my body had ‘betrayed’ me by releasing trauma that I had buried for years. But after reading literature on trauma management and previously discussing trauma with mentors, I knew that the human body contributes physiological responses in triggering events to protect itself from potentially hazardous situations. My body was releasing the indescribable grief I held for so long. This unpleasant incident, surprisingly, gave me clearer insight regarding my recent traumas within the academy as a graduate student.

Since starting graduate school, I had unexpectedly relived my ‘big T’ traumas and experienced multiple ‘little t’ traumas. From discussing my horrific experiences with students related to gender, sexuality, and religion to discussing rape culture during lecture, I had to confront these fears for the sake of my health and activism. I murmur the words ‘me too’ underneath my breath as students disclose their trauma memories of sexual assault. I cry tears of joy whenever I successfully provide support and resources to students exploring their sexualities and gender, while reflecting on my personal discoveries. These moments have assisted me in my own trauma management by making me more comfortable discussing these sensitive topics in the classroom and activism.

Practicing self-care outside of graduate school has significantly helped me cope with my trauma. I now go on long walks during the evenings and watch the sunset. I call friends and mentors for advice. I recently rekindled my old love of vinyl records and dusted off my record player to play Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion. I distance myself from the academic world sometimes to keep my individuality, relationships, and passions intact. I force myself every day to not give into ‘graduate school guilt’ and to enjoy all the moments that bring meaning to my human experience. As a social scientist in training and as an activist, I must continue to practice self-care and know my limitations, so I can best help those I am assisting without being a ‘wounded warrior’ during the process.

Despite my successful attempts to recharge, I still see and revisit trauma every day in graduate school. This could be partly due to my unique experiences and understandings of the social world while performing multiple roles as a researcher, teaching assistant, graduate student, and activist. Nevertheless, in the social sciences, we do have the unique opportunity to change these all too familiar struggles within the academy, by maintaining interactive dialogues regarding trauma management and actively supporting members of marginalized groups.

Why is it that the academy often fails to tackle or even acknowledge the experiences of trauma among students and faculty, especially those who are women, LGBTQ people, and people of color? Surely academics recognize the crucial need of providing a safe, empathetic space to share their experiences of trauma, harassment, and microaggressions within the academy without the fear of negative consequence? Trauma should not be stigmatized in the academy nor should academics attempt to silence those who express their trauma memories. Leaders must drastically change how we train, support, and treat survivors of trauma. I hope this essay can be insightful and reflective to members of the academy, especially to those who are graduate students learning how to navigate revisiting experiences of trauma.

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Dear Cis “Gender” Researchers: Stop Erasing Trans* People (Part 2)

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. In Part One, they explained problems that emerge when cis researchers approach gender and transgender experience without paying attention to their own cis standpoints, assumptions, and biases, and issues this may cause for trans and gender nonconforming populations. Here, in Part Two, they share explanations from cisgender allies seeking to do transgender-inclusive work as an illustration for ways cis researchers may approach gender in more expansive, inclusive, and empirical ways beyond cisgender binaries and assumptions. Next week, in Part Three, they share the rest of their informal interviews with these scholars.

In my last post, I wrote something that, depending on your positionality, may be quite controversial: I wrote that taking a gender-expansive approach to research wasn’t hard in the least.  Now, if you are a cis scholar and you think gender is a “natural” phenomenon, or if you think this whole trans* thing is an exciting new trend, you likely don’t agree with me.  You may think gender is incredibly hard, and you may be completely over the feedback you get from trans* journal reviewers like me who make you unpack all of your normative, gender-binary assumptions when you say things like, “the participants were all men,” or “the participant pool consisted of x number of females.”  In fact, you may even be one of the few people who have actually said in my presence that you are offended by the use of the word cisgender to define your existence.  If you are one of these folks, then you’re in luck – this post and part 3 next week are just for you.  And if you aren’t quite there, but you still are scratching your head on how to further gender-expansive research, then you may want to keep reading, too.

For this post, I talked with two cisgender higher education scholars who are, in my estimation, doing amazing gender-based research.  I asked them a few questions, and have copied their answers below.  As I stated previously, this isn’t a #NotAllCisPeople sort of post, but one to amplify how doing gender-based research well isn’t as brain-busting or overly arduous as is often claimed.  It is also an effort to recognize that we as trans* scholars have some incredible accomplices who see us.  And, in a world that continues to loudly deny our humanity, these accomplices are really important.  So, without any further delay, below are the first two questions I asked my colleagues, along with their answers.  Next week, I will share the other three questions I asked, and their responses. While some of the answers are longer, I decided not to trim them down and instead put them into two posts, as I find them to be quite powerful and important in their entirety.  Plus, I’m fairly sure the cis people who need to read them can spare a few more minutes centering the lives and humanity of trans* folks.  Just sayin.

  1. Both of you do gender-based research; one of you does masculinities work and the other one of you does femininities work.  Can you tell me a story about one of the first times you started to realize you needed to approach your gender-based work through trans*-inclusive perspectives and frameworks?

Scholar #1: I hope it’s okay if I back up a bit to the larger question of “how does one develop an inclusive consciousness related to sexual violence?”  I would say that my sense that the universal narrative of “straight cis woman being assaulted by straight cis man” was inherently problematic and left a lot of people out of the picture of who is affected by sexual violence stemmed from my own experience.  I was sexually assaulted by my then-partner in college.  This person identifies as a cis gay man (at the time, he identified as bisexual).  His particular kind of sexual cruelty was a far cry from the “aggressive, drunken frat boy” trope that tends to dominate both the literature and our collective imaginary.  He didn’t embody any of the typical behaviors of those invested in hegemonic masculinity, and having reflected on our relationship and the assault itself extensively, I know that I viewed him as more “safe” due to his more feminine, in fact subversively queer, gender presentation/expression.

In my career as an advocate, I talked with many students of LGB and/or T identities who had similar experiences; trusting both the gender expression and politics of their partners as a safety signal, when in fact a very sinister if obscured kind of sexual aggression was present in their relationship.  In my work with queer students, I was always trying to get at the elusive why; why would members of our community embody sexual control and aggression, when they had eschewed other modes of oppressive behavior and expression?  Is it a power grab, born of a desire for power and “normalcy”?  Is it internalization of cismasculine behaviors and values, even when this wasn’t the case in other areas of perpetrator’s lives?   Was it in fact because one could hide behind the mantle of (safe) queerness that they were able to manipulate and harm?  As I became more aware of and conversant with the complexities of the relationship of gender to sexuality, I began to understand that missing from our ongoing sense of urgency about ending sexual violence was awareness of how trans* and non-binary identified individuals carry the shame and pain of sexual violence in a different way, and that their experiences (whether identifying as straight, gay, bi, poly, ace, etc.) defy the linear narrative as well.  Because it’s not only that trans* folks do not embody or embrace gender normativity, but also that when assaulted by trans* and non-binary partners, those relationships and their dynamics are not easily folded into our existing conceptions of how power operates in relationships, and in the sexual realm.  And when assaulted by cis perpetrators, the intensity of the post-traumatic oppression was even more pronounced, because it was often coupled with fear of being outed, shamed, killed, or all three.

I would often raise this in advocate circles and get puzzled looks.  Some of that, I think, was “why is this cis woman speculating about causes and conditions of sexual violence as it impacts trans* people?,” which is totally fair.  But the greater truth is, within the advocacy community, I think most people (who are mostly but not only cis women) simply want an easy, relatively uncomplicated way to frame sexual violence and power so that we can (erroneously) believe if we just end sexism, we can end sexual violence.  My evolving understanding of both my own experience and the larger experiences of trans* and non-binary survivors is that the equation is way more grey and muddled than we think.  Which is both good news—we can and must really look at the truth—and bad news, because the easy formula idea is rubbish.

Scholar #2: When I was doing my dissertation work in grad school, my professors would constantly reiterate to us that it was important to narrow down our focus.  Keep it simple, they would say.  I interpreted this to also mean (and this was affirmed by those same professors) that who we were studying should be kept narrowed as well.  For me, I was looking at understanding men and their experiences.  So I applied what I had been told and focused on cisgender men only, explaining in my rationale that the socialization of cisgender men and transgender men were different over the course of one’s life.  I believed my own constructed lie.

But that all changed after I had done the work and started to really consider the ways in which masculinity plays a role covertly and overtly in our lives.  That’s not to say that we all are socialized the same way or that we buy those messages wholeheartedly and internalize them.  But I do think that masculinity, particularly hegemonic masculinity, has often shaped individuals’ lives, regardless of one’s gender, and that really shifted the ways in which I looked at this work.

When I began to do work around gender-based violence and masculinity, I knew that I needed to include both cisgender and transgender men’s perspectives and narratives.  Of course, there were nuanced differences that might come up in those conversations, but ultimately it was important, given the statistics out there, to illuminate the stories of these survivors and consider the ways in which these stories are often erased, not shared, or overlooked.  That work has allowed me to really engage in more gender-expansive perspectives and frameworks in my research.

  1. What are strategies you use to continually center gender-expansive perspectives, frameworks, and narratives throughout your research, scholarship, and teaching?

Scholar #1: In my teaching, research, and advocacy, I see myself as a bit of a “detective of cissexism” in the work.  When the “easy formula” rears up, I actively question its assumptions: To whom is power ascribed, and how do we understand it to function as the operative construct in sexual violence?   Who wields it, against whom, and how do we know that?  How should/must the reality of the wide diversity of genders folks embody change up our assumptions and operative beliefs?  I think part of my role, part of a way I can and must use my privilege for good, is to continuously call out those assumptions, and to raise those questions actively, and then not relent when they’re not answered.  I think there’s a fine line here, because the truth is, there are some “solutions” or at least approaches to reduce violence that truly do only focus on changing the culture of typical, hegemonic cismasculinity, like fraternities.  Do I think we shouldn’t make these efforts, enact these approaches?  Of course we should, but not at the expense of everything else.  We simply can’t afford to believe that’s the whole answer; too many people, too many lives, are left out of those interventions.

Scholar #2: In my classroom and in my scholarship, I try to disrupt genderism as much as possible, but admittedly I sometimes make mistakes.  For me, it’s about naming those mistakes and then trying to do better the next time.  For example, when I first started teaching, I would often discuss gender as a binary of men and women.  Then I realized that I was reifying genderism.  So I began to instead talk about gender beyond the binary and include conversations about cis men, cis women, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals.  When I used pronouns in class, instead of focusing on him or her, I would also include hir or them to signal that there are multiple other pronouns in use today.  When creating case studies for class on topics beyond gender, I often would include details that the person identifies as transgender or gender non-conforming so that students are considering the role that other identities play into one’s holistic lived experience.  In my feedback to students on their papers and assignments, I’m often challenging their assumptions of sex and gender, trying to have them be clear in their writing and understanding of the differences between these two concepts and hold them accountable that articulating these differences may also play a keen role in their professional practice with students around these identities.

As I’ve already mentioned, my work is on masculinities, and the great joy of that work is understanding how complex and nuanced people’s definitions and perceptions of masculinities are.  In the discussions I’ve had through my research, I have folks who clearly buy into the most traditional views of hegemonic masculinity as well as others who say that they reject masculinity outright.  I’ve had transgender or transmasculine men talk about the ways in which they feel like an imposter when it comes to masculinity and others who abide by those traditional gender norms in order to pass.  I think that where I am right now in my work, I try not to judge the decisions people make around how they view masculinity, but do critique the larger constructs and how that can ultimately restrict behaviors and reinforce sexism, genderism, and homophobia.  As a result, I see that being a part of making a contribution that engages in gender-expansive frameworks just by showing the larger diversity of thought around issues of masculinity.

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Dear Cis “Gender” Researchers: Stop Erasing Trans* People (Part 1)

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. Here, in Part One, they discuss the erasure of transgender and gender nonconforming people in gender scholarship, and next week, in Part Two, they provide insights on ways cisgender scholars may do gender expansive research.

You know that feeling you get when you are pretty sure something is true, but you really hope you are wrong?  That twinge of remorse wrapped in hopeful misremembering was exactly what I was feeling when I decided to review two edited volumes about “gender” in higher education for what they said about trans* collegians.  I’m guessing my writing “gender” in quotations spells out what I thought I knew and feared, but if not, let me be clear: I figured there was almost no mention of trans* people in these two volumes that purported to discuss “gender” in higher education.  And, lest I be accused of burying the lead, I was right.  Out of 1,000+ pages, there were only two pages that had any form of substantive content about transgender people in college…and both were in one of the two books.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here; let me back up a bit.

When I saw the Write Where It Hurts call for blogposts about Trans Peer Review, I knew I wanted to review Drs. Harper and Harris III’s (2010) edited volume, College Men and Masculinities: Theory, Research, and Implications for Practice.  Prior to coming into my own trans*ness, and doing trans* research, I had been interested in “masculinities work,” particularly work that engaged with what at the time was referred to as “alternative masculinities” (it had such a grunge rock feel to it that, as a child of the 90’s, I appreciated on multiple levels).  However, as I got more invested in research, my own educational praxis, and understanding my own gender, I got more and more upset at the field of “masculinities.”  Simply put, there was seemingly no room for trans* people in the scholarship of college “men” and “masculinities.”  Like, none.  Nada.  Zippo.  Zilch.  Harper and Harris III’s edited volume is a reminder of that apparent lack of space.

In an effort to be precise, yet brief, let me offer a few of the ways trans* people are erased in a book supposedly about gender…

(1) In the Preface, Harper and Harris III (2010) wrote, “The terms ‘male’ and man’ are used interchangeably throughout this volume.  However, we acknowledge that male is a biological concept, whereas man encompasses the social meanings that are culturally defined as masculine and associated with traditionally male sex roles” (p. xvii).

Okay, let me just say this right now: Nope. Not okay.  Even if sex were biological (which reading Butler would at least have you question deeply, if not reject outright), the simple fact is that no educational scholars are doing chromosomal testing on their participants.  In reviewing every single study in the edited volume, there is no mention of hormonal or chromosomal testing, anyway.  Which makes me wonder: how can the authors and editors use these two terms as interchangeable, despite their seemingly distinct differences?

(2) Harper and Harris III (2010) go on to write, “Also understood is that sex is determined biologically and gender is socially constructed” (p. xvii, emphasis added).

Now this sentence is basic on multiple levels.  First, there is nothing about sex that is “determined biologically.”  In fact, sex is only “determined” insofar as we as a society determine it.  In fact, our “determination” of sex-as-biology is rooted in phallocentrism and patriarchy, to say nothing of the anti-Black racism in which science was originally vaulted as the marker of Truth in the United States.  Moreover, Harper and Harris III don’t discuss what “social construction” means for them.  As a result, the sentence reads as a glib throwaway, something the editors don’t really mean, nor do they really seem to care about.  Of course, as two cis researchers, there is seemingly little in it for them to really care about, and they can seemingly get away with such glibness.  The same (gratuitous) leeway is not afforded to myself and other trans* scholars, who must define every. Single. Gender. Word. We. Use. Ever.

(3) Surprisingly, the edited volume had an advisory board.  Unsurprisingly, none of the advisory board members listed were trans*.

This one should be a gimme.  Like, really?  You didn’t need to create an advisory board to create an edited volume (there is literally no explanation of what the advisory board did, which makes the list so odd), but if you did, why wouldn’t you want to have people of all genders?  Oh right, I forgot – trans* erasure is why.

Lest I be critiqued for just dragging one edited volume, I also took a peek at Bank’s (2011) Gender & Higher Education.  This text was marginally better…which is both (a) generous of me to say, and (b) accurate in many senses, because literally any mention of trans* people would be better from the complete and utter erasure of us in Harper and Harris III’s volume on “men and masculinities.”  And when I say “marginally better,” what I mean is there were two pages where trans* student identity development were discussed specifically.  Beyond that, the acronyms “LGBT,” LGBTQIA,” and “LGBTQ” were used to conflate gender and sexuality.  This move is not only deeply problematic, but as Nicolazzo (2017) discussed in her text Trans* In College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion, it is also an example of compulsory heterogenderism, or the conflation and subsequent erasure of one’s trans* identity based on sexuality-based stereotypes.

In fact, in many of the places where “queerness” was discussed in both volumes, there may have seemed to be a glimmer of hope for an understanding of gender beyond a binary discourse.  However, that “queerness” was connected to—and as a result conflated with—sexuality (most notably, one’s being gay), and thus, was just another example of heterogenderism.

Now, I have often been (correctly) accused of being quite the trans* killjoy.  While I do adore being in the company of a lineage of similarly angry womxn, a collection of people led by our Queen Mother Killjoy Sara Ahmed, I am also wanting to offer a bit of critical hope here.  Specifically, in Part Two of this post, I want to discuss and amplify the work of two cis scholars who do gender-based research and scholarship exceedingly right.  I feel the desire to do this not to forward a “Not All Cis People” argument, because eff that noise.  However, I do want to reflect on the fact that it really isn’t that hard, nor should it be seen as overly taxing, to do gender-expansive research, scholarship, and practice.  Like, it really isn’t.  And yet…so many people who do “gender” work just completely muck it up.  And, in a moment when trans* erasure, violence, threat, harm, and antagonism is all the more real with each passing day, the last thing we need to do is promote this sort of bogus “gender” research in practice in any academic or social sphere.

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The Cislation of Transness in Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholarship, Part 2

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. This week, they continue their discussion from last week (see Part One here) on the ways cisgender assumptions, norms and influence impact higher education scholarship and suggest some ways to overcome and work against these issues in higher education and other fields of scholarship. 

In part 1 of this piece, I began sharing my perspective and ire regarding the scholarship on trans campus populations in the field of higher education and student affairs (HESA). That post introduced Johnson’s (2015) conception of cissexist analytic pitfalls and provided a few initial examples of these within HESA scholarship. Part 2 picks up from there.

Qualitative studies ought to be able to do better, but they are still ripe with generalizations and objectification. The aggregation of “trans” is still an issue in most of the studies I have read, e.g. “5 of the participants identified as trans.” Readers are meant to draw assumptions based on what pronouns are used (which is not ok to begin with, but as a reader I also don’t know if those pronouns were asked for or put on), or some of the content of the study and quotes. Meaning our own gendered biases fill in the blanks, contributing to the removal of the students’ self-determination. When distinctions are made, they tend to include their medical transition status, which is almost always irrelevant to the topic at hand. Even in studies that are about gender, including ones exclusively focused on trans students, rarely do they inquire about the students’ conceptions of transness or how transness informs their conceptions of gender.

When trans students are aggregated in this way, whether in quantitative or qualitative studies, especially when their different gender identities are not at least nominally described, their experiences and perspectives are presented as a generalized “trans” experience/perspective. This is a huge problem, considering a particular study may actually only include trans men for example, with little or no representation of trans women or nonbinary students. Erasure also is a symptom of the fact that the vast majority of these studies do not share the students’ other identities, such as race, class, ability, etc., important mitigating factors in gender, as well as campus experiences in general. Sharing these identities is a base minimum. It would be better, but perhaps asking too much given where we are, to treat these identities intersectionally.

Reading many of these studies often makes me feel a little dirty, like someone (I didn’t want) caught me getting out of the shower. I have come to realize it’s the cis gaze staring through the academese. It clicked for me when some of the transmasculine students I talked to in my studies told me they no longer participated in research unless they knew the researcher was trans, because they were tired of being asked the same questions over and over again, sharing their “coming out” stories, things they were not, or at least no longer, interested in talking about. Trans students are eager to share their stories and perspectives, but have we stopped to ask them what they want to talk about? So the cis gaze doesn’t begin in the analysis stage, but from the onset, from the moment research questions and protocols are assembled. The essence of ciscentricity.

The cis gaze in HESA studies seems too often only able to see trans students through a lens of tragedy and deficit. It’s a miracle more of us are not killing ourselves given how horrible our lives are, how much we are hated – including by ourselves – and how little we have to contribute to our campuses and humanity. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at the hostility and trans-antagonizing environments on our campuses. But when we don’t situate that within the institutionalized and cultural systems of genderism/cissexism, the harassment and the microaggressions become individualized problems, behaviors of “bad” or “mean” individuals. When we individualize problems, it is only natural that we then individualize the solutions, making them about reactionary sensitivity trainings and sanctions through (racist, classist, etc.) conduct processes, rather than thinking about doing meaningful (and hard) transformative work.

Now I know where some of you have gone, if you’re not so frustrated that you gave up before you made it here – am I suggesting that cisgender people should not do research with trans participants? I mean, I won’t lie. If some want to actually take a break from this and make room for trans-driven scholarship to take up more space, I’m not going to be mad at them. Swing for the fences and maybe (financially or through uncompensated labor) even support trans-driven scholarship and trans scholars. While taking a break from trans-specific research, cisgender researchers can focus on trans-integrated research. Turns out gender or being trans isn’t the only thing trans students want to talk about. Some of them might want to participate in that leadership study; or take that quality of life survey; or join the disability office’s focus group. Can they access it – meaning, will they even find out about it and when they do will they be able to participate authentically? Are they being asked what pronouns to use for them in the write-ups? Cis researchers are also smart folks – I’m sure they can think of a number of ways to better integrate trans participants. And if not, some of us would not say no to a paid consulting opportunity.

For those who don’t want to or can’t take a break from it – hey, they might be steeped in the middle of it right now or working on a trans scholar’s research team – I’ll suggest two things. First, and most importantly, invest time in reflexivity. And I don’t mean the surface level “I identify as a cisgender white lesbian woman” type of reflexivity, where we get a laundry list of identity labels and nothing else. Rather the deep meaningful type of reflexivity, where cisgender researchers actually think about what being cisgender (and the rest of that laundry list) means to them, what it might mean to how they approach all parts of the research process, and for study participants to be vulnerable and generous with a cisgender person. They can take a look at Johnson’s (2015) article on transfeminist methodology and consider how they might have fallen into some of those pitfalls and what they can do to avoid them in the future. This might be laborious initially – tough! – but only with practice does it becomes habit to conduct trans-affirming research. Second, and very much relatedly cisgender researchers can take guidance from trans scholars. They can read our work, including some of our writing on trans epistemologies and methodologies, attend our presentations and ask us about how we approached various aspects of the studies (not irrelevantly about our own trans identities – yup, it’s happened), and bring us on to consult or even work with on these projects.

Luckily, some of what I have described above is finally beginning to shift, albeit slowly and incrementally. That shift is predominantly due to some of us trans student affairs practitioners deciding to move into the scholar/researcher camp, whether entirely leaving the practitioner camp or straddling them both to varying amounts (because we’re trans after all, and we don’t do binaries!). People like Z Nicolazzo, D-L Stewart, S Simmons, Erich Pitcher, finn schneider, Melvin Antoine Whitehead, Kari Dockendorff, and thankfully many others. It brings me hope and empowers me to know that there is a cohort of us writing ourselves, our selves as students, our selves as staff and faculty, into our scholarship. I’m emboldened by this, not only for perhaps that obvious reason, but also because that is a group of people I can rely on to pull me out of cissexist analytical pitfalls in my own work. As I grow older and more distant from students and their daily lives, as I grow more into myself as a fairly genderconforming able-bodied light-skinned transman of color, I need this cohort even if only as a reminder to stay intentional and connected to a vast network of trans communities. After all, it’s not just our selves that we are writing into existence, but also the selves, outlooks, challenges, and contributions of more and more trans and gender nonconforming people. And within this neoliberal-white-supremacist-colonial-ableist-patriarchal-heterosexist-monosexist-cissexist culture that is higher education, that is a tremendous privilege AND responsibility. Our existence is resistance, and our scholarship ought to reflect that.

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The Cislation of Transness in Higher Education and Student Affairs Scholarship, Part 1

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting research on higher education in the United States. Here, in Part One, they discuss cisgender assumptions, norms, and influence that impact higher education scholarship, and next week in Part Two, they continue this discussion and suggest ways to overcome and work against these issues in higher education and other fields of scholarship.

In my previous life, I was a student affairs practitioner, a role I thought I would stay in for a good long time. For folks who might not know what that is, student affairs practitioners are (usually) non-academic professionals on college campuses that are the student-facing individuals – for example, staff who work in residential life and housing, student activities, career services, or multicultural affairs, to name a few. Most recently, I was in the latter category and dabbled in some other ones, and I really saw myself moving up the campus diversity work chain.

Then I decided to go back to school and try out the faculty route instead.

One of the handful of reasons I did that, although admittedly not the primary one, is because of the incredible dearth of literature in the higher education and student affairs (HESA) field – yup, it’s a field of its own, supposedly interdisciplinary, and fairly young – about trans students. Trans staff and faculty didn’t really exist; what little there was was about students, primarily undergraduates. Very little of it was actually helpful for me as a practitioner, most of it was non-empirical (usually “best practices” or “trans 101” type of work), and hardly anything felt like it was about me.

The last point rings ironic to me now, because as an undergraduate student I was a participant in a study on trans students, one cited fairly often and actually one of the better studies out there. My words are in there – they’re in quotation marks, after all – but reading the published article now, something about it reads… not me. Sure, I myself have changed a lot since then, including how I see myself and articulate my conceptions of gender. But it’s not the words in the quotation marks that sound off. It’s the analysis, the translation of them to a dominantly cis readership, that puts a distance between them and me. The “trans-“ prefix in “translation” feels oddly inappropriate here. Maybe I should call it cislation instead.

Cislation goes hand-in-hand with ciscentricity, which Johnson (2015) described as a practice that imposes a cisgender worldview marking trans perspectives and experiences as other. Some of our experiences and how we talk about them don’t make sense to cisgender people. Additionally, because so much of our own hirstory and language is inaccessible to us, we might ourselves engage in cislation. As trans folks, we are also at times limited by our own internalized cisgender worldview and lack the ancestral know-how to articulate ourselves in a more authentic-to-us way, or try to simplify our complexities so that we are not too much to deal with for cisgender people.

Johnson (2015) also laid out a series of cissexist analytical pitfalls in research, which although were derived from examining sociology, could easily have been about HESA. In addition to ciscentricity, these pitfalls include cissexist double standards, objectification, and overgeneralization. That’s the dominant HESA literature on trans students in a nutshell right there.

Call it a lack of courage, call it a desire to stay connected to cisgender people, or whatever else you like, but my academic status makes me cautious here as I proceed. The HESA field is pretty small. Our scholarly association boasts 2,000 members as compared to over 13,000 in sociology or 115,000 in psychology, just to give you an idea. And if I’m invested in making an impact in the field as a whole (which I am), and not just at whichever institution I happen to work, I need to stay somewhat connected and not entirely a persona non-grata. So rather than stomp on specific research projects or scholars, I’m going to speak in generalities here. Most of the folks researching and writing about us so far in the field have been cisgender people and that reality has brought on some issues.

Let me start there – with researchers being cisgender. One of the things consistently missing from studies on trans students done by cisgender researchers is reflexivity – an acknowledgment and awareness of their own limited gendered worldview and how that might both exert power over trans participants, as well as influence what (yeah, we are holding back, because we don’t really know whether we can trust you as so many of you have hurt us) and how (we distill ourselves into descriptors that we think you might understand or accept) and which (it’s not just your gender identity that causes some of us not to respond to your call) participants share their experiences with them, not to mention the whole cislating thing again.

Speaking of cislating, one of the things I am tired of reading are long and often static/inaccurate/problematic/limiting terminology sections in every paper or book that includes trans people’s stories. Yup, I totally get it, some folks (including trans and gender-questioning folks) do want/need this in order to engage with the rest of the material and language can be very inaccessible. But what concerns me about the persistent existence of and demands for these terminology sections is that they continue to ‘other’ us, by positioning us and our identities as inherently unknown and un-understandable without quick and easy definitions. And it’s that “quick and easy” part that lends itself to further oversimplifying and generalizing our genders, and marking them as static rather than fluid and contextual. What if instead we admitted that language is limiting; that we can’t possibly fully understand everyone else’s gender and most of the time don’t really need to; and that to actually know the meanings behind the words we (each) use to describe our genders at any given time we would actually need to invest in building trusting relationships with each other? And this might seem a bit petty, but every time I’m asked to include one of these terminology sections, I have to then decide what to leave out in order to meet a particular journal’s word limit. Whose story is less compelling, which quote is less poignant, which implication is less important? We are literally being erased, and being asked to collude in that erasure, in order to make room for cisplanations.

Ironically, even with these long terminology sections, I often have no idea who the actual participants in the studies are and how they describe their genders. In quantitative studies, too often the numbers are crunched up as “male,” “female,” and “other” or “trans,” if there are even more than two options. There are a number of issues here: (1) the use of the terms “male” and female” as gender descriptors; (2) do I have to explain why “other” is problematic?; (3) the separation of “trans” from “male” and “female” or “man” and “woman” (which is more easily resolved with a “choose all that apply”), as if no trans people identify as men or women; and (4) the aggregation of “trans” into one category.” I’m not much a quant person, but I know enough to understand that depending on the study topic and the participant recruitment methods, it can be difficult to achieve statistical significance (I’ll set aside my feefees about trans people not being significant in stats) if an already low number of trans participants as compared to cisgender men or cisgender women is further broken down. I just don’t think it would be that much more work to initially add more specific gender options (e.g. transman, transwoman, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, another, etc.) and then add folks up into one trans grouping for the purpose of analysis. The more specific gender options allow participants to self-identify more accurately and thus be more likely to actually fill out the rest of the survey (I’ve stopped filling out countless surveys because of this) and be less distracted by the effects of the microaggression they experienced.

Have I riled you up much yet? Don’t worry, or maybe be ready for more worries, there’s more. In part 2 next week, I’ll move into my disappointments with qualitative studies, say a bit more about the cis gaze and its impact, and respond to the inevitable question of whether cisgender researchers can/should do any trans research. And I promise, I’ll end it with some sunshine and rainbows for the scholarship in our field.

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Invalid measures invalidate us: ciscentrism and ableism in the trans autism literature

The author of this post is a transgender person conducting autism research at a major Midwestern university. Here they reflect on ways cisgender bias may impact neuroscience findings and theories and how transgender and autistic voices and insights could help alleviate these problems.

 

Two relatively recent* publications (see, here and here) address rates of autism among transgender people, finding that autistic people are over-represented in transgender samples relative to cisgender samples. Both of these studies are informed by the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, which posits that personality traits/cognitive styles are reliably sexually dimorphic, and that autism is associated with extremely “male typical” traits. The extreme male brain theory relies on the assumption that personality traits are gendered AND consistently associated with the brain, and that increased prenatal androgen exposure is a likely cause of these brain differences. There has been a great deal of excellent scholarship (see, for example, here, here, and here) in feminist science and technology studies that critiques and questions these assumptions that I will not rehash.

These trans/autism studies have similar experimental designs: researchers collected data from a sample of transgender individuals receiving care at a gender clinic. These participants completed an assessment form called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). This form is designed to assess for traits associated with autism, and is divided into social, attention switching, attention to detail, communication, and imagination subscales. Both of these studies used the same dataset of cisgender people as their comparison sample. This cisgender dataset is previously published and includes AQ norms for a large sample of (presumed) cisgender people.

There may be more trans autistic people than would be expected from the prevalence of each of those identities in the broader population. I want to be clear that this is not a “problem” for which we need to determine the “cause.” I do, however, want to problematize the way that assessment tools, designed and normed for cis populations, can lead to invalid claims about transgender people. Importantly, many autistic people, trans and cis, have already critiqued the ways in which representations of autistic people in the research literature and elsewhere do not consider autistic perspectives (see, for example, here and here). Others have emphasized the way that autistic ways of communicating are pathologized in a literature dominated by neurotypical perspectives (see here for example). Measuring social skills by assessing comfort and enjoyment with interacting with neurotypical people misses the point. My critiques of ciscentrism in this literature are greatly indebted to the work of cis and trans autistic activists, writers, and scholars.

Many of the individuals in the current study have reported that they did not fit in with others; indeed, both MtF and FtM cohorts showed more dysfunctional scores in the social skills subscale…supporting a reported sense of impairment.” (Pasterski et al., 2014, p 391).

I am not socially impaired when I have difficulty fitting in cisgender culture or with cisgender people. The AQ has captured trans people’s experiences with marginalization and transphobia. Many of us prefer routines and predictability, one of the traits measured by this scale. Routines become important for many of us as strategies to avoid transphobic violence: this is the restroom I can use safely at school, if I take the 5:30 bus home from work I am less likely to be harassed, I wear my hair this way every day so I am less likely to be misgendered, etc. We “prefer to do things the same way over and over again” because it keeps us safe.

Likewise, questions on the AQ about enjoying childhood play remind us of the way our imaginary play was policed and gendered. Many of us did not enjoy playing imaginary games with our childhood peers, because there was no room for us to imagine our trans selves in a story, or because our favorite toys were taken from us. The AQ also assesses attention to detail with items such as: “I often notice small sounds when others do not” and “I tend to notice details that others do not”. Attention to detail also keeps us safe. Particularly given the high rates of PTSD in trans populations, high could be due to sensory hyper arousal, which can also be present in some autistic people, but is a general construct not necessarily related to autism per se. Items like “I find social situations easy”, “I find it hard to make new friends”, “I enjoy meeting new people”, etc. are all attributable to the difficulty we can experience navigating a cis-dominated world. “Social chitchat” is not enjoyable for me because it so often devolves into invasive personal questions about my transition status or my relationship with my parents.

Personally, I have a complex relationship with “thinking of myself as a good diplomat” because, as the only transgender PhD at my institution, colleagues constantly demand that I represent trans people. On days when I gently correct a colleague for casually insisting that “pronouns aren’t important,” I think of myself as an excellent diplomat. By the third time I’ve been asked to give an uncompensated Trans 101 in a month, not so much. Likewise, I am certain that many of my colleagues and friends are tired of hearing me talk about the poor scientific quality of the transgender medical and biology literatures. “People often tell us that we go on and on about the same thing” because we are compelled to speak ourselves into being in a culture that would prefer we not exist.

I would venture that at least twenty of the fifty questions on the AQ are not valid for transgender people. Because of ciscentric bias, these researchers forgot the most famous maxim in science: “correlation is not causation.” The authors attribute differences they observed in transgender people to be causal rather than correlational; they did not consider the (obvious to any trans person) idea that being transgender mediates social experiences. Attribution of elevated scores on the AQ to an “extreme male brain” among trans people makes several logical leaps.

These leaps aren’t “caught” by cisgender researchers because of their unexamined ciscentrism, although Pasterski and colleagues do acknowledge that the extreme male brain theory doesn’t fit their findings in trans women. Regardless, inclusion of transgender autistic people in the research process (from hypothesis generation to data interpretation) would improve the scientific quality of this work and increase its relevance to trans and autistic people. Chillingly, Jones and colleagues end their paper with the following recommendation: “Clinically, even if only for a minority of individuals considering sex reassignment surgery (sic), the formulation of undiagnosed autism might be a helpful alternative to explore” (p 305).

*It’s 2017 and trans research in psychology and neuroscience still regularly uses the Blanchard typology. 

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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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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Ripped Pages, Erased words – lessons from the unintended audience

A writer across genres and disciplines, this anonymous contributor is playing the professional field. She is debating whether to continue tenure track pursuits or focus on a career that lets her write what she chooses while pursuing advocacy work. She is grateful for the conversation/reflection that inspired this essay. 

There were two times in my life – once as a child, another as a young adult – where I was asked to destroy my words. In both situations, men asked me to get rid of my words – a journal and a blog. As a survivor of sexual assault and a feminist scholar aware of gendered language and silence, it was important for my own journey as a writer to fully name and forgive how I had responded to write as a result of those moments. I write this to remind myself why I write, for whom I write and to face the fears that have emerged in what I could/want to write and publish.

First, the journal writing I was doing as a 10-11 year old was framed by divorce, moving, death of a childhood friend and grandparents’ return to Puerto Rico. In that time period, abstract thought developing in my brain along with a great deal of loss in my environment creo un sentido de rencor, angustia y resentimiento. I was angry at everyone before I was a teenager. I had been lost, confused and I felt worthless given how much consistency I had lost. That anger was private until an elder read it. After reading it, he demanded I throw my words away because of how disrespectful and hurtful they were to the people I was framing in a negative manner. My words, my private thoughts were not protected because the journal was neither locked nor stored in a secret place. As a child I internalized the idea that my words did not belong to me. Once I ripped out the pages, I started writing fiction. Fiction as escape, as release, as an optimism I would not allow myself to find in an environment until I grew to live comfortably as a lesbian in a city located in the Western United States.

Ten or eleven years later, I was still acting and writing ‘straight’. I was writing straight fantasies, very PG, I thought, and the object of my affection demanded I take down the blog. Written without ever thinking he’d see it, I grew mortified that someone would share it, especially given the greater social context in which my ‘feelings’ for him were shared with him and how long it took him to tell me that someone told him. The person I was writing about yelled at me for how I felt, for writing it down and for publicizing it the way I had. Again, my words no longer belonged to me and I had to get rid of them. I did. Within months, I stopped associating with all involved. The wounds of being uncovered, of leaving and all that neither of us understand of each other’s life lay as an ever-increasing gap between us. Not just for the manner in which something public-private had been shared, but, more specifically, for what I understood that to represent at the time.

In both of these instances, I took for granted where I was writing. As a child, I needed locks and I needed hiding to keep my words mine. The uninvited and unintended audiences wanted to alter/erase my words because of what those words meant to them. Those words were not direct weapons against them. For me, in either instance, the words attempted to explore hurt, frustration, loneliness. The losses and change were overwhelming with minimal outlets available compared to the extent so many were suffering. I wrote as a means to escape, to let go of feelings. To have that taken from me, literally ripped out, informed fantasy writing that would sustain me until high school gave me access to password protected writing.

As a college student teetering on living in truth/coming out and trying to find smaller ways to be different, blogging was a way to connect with a handful of friends who had online journals and remained as invisible as I intended to be. Like in my childhood, I wanted a way to have a journal go with me wherever I was, operating on the belief that I was insignificant enough not to be distributed. It served as a way to explore curiosities, questions, internalized hetero-romantic idealism and other ideas that are of little significance to me now. In those moments, they were growing pains on paper/on screen. Growing pains that were mine. A question emerged that I will address after explaining how I viewed those two moments.

Those writings were a necessary process in my journey. Tremendous loss shaped how I perceived family because of how little control we had over our lives and over the affects of others’ choices on my ability to have, what I thought, was a normative childhood. No one wants to lose so much so quickly. Divorce and death shake foundations. Those I grew to rely on dispersed, and, in that, the grief of various communities – blood and peer – overwhelmed me. Grief transformed to hate because I could not bring my friend back. I could not go back to the house I had lived in for ten years. I did not have childhood friends I played with living next to me. I had more than my uncle had at my age, but that more was not something I would understand or forgive until others’ affluence taught me the power and resilience I had gained in that year of intense loss and change.

As for the online journal I kept in undergrad, I wanted to rewrite ownership of my sexuality. I didn’t think I owned it because – whether a gender or a community – I had spent a lifetime internalizing that my sexuality was not my own. Women grapple with this as much as those who struggle with being queer. I only allowed myself to understand that I had to hide, negotiate and perform resistance to the factors that informed the lack of ownership regarding my sexuality. Because of how new I had been to that community, because of the struggle I had relating to and working with cismen (of color), I was terrified of sharing the complex emotions I had around my body. When I did, I felt I was giving up too much too quickly. It has taken me years of poetry, therapy, and journaling to forgive myself and those young men for how naive we were about bodies, power, sexuality and desire.

The ownership others take over words based on their age/gender internalized authority remains a struggle in many communities. As writers, we each contend with the implications of ownership and measurement exercised by those who use social media to factor into whether one will be hired, published in the future, or deemed socially appropriate because of how in/visible we hope to be and because there are members of our audience we do not know. Reflecting over reactions remains key because there is a great deal we learn from ourselves in the process. Those lessons can, when we allow them to, spur our creative, intellectual and spiritual growth. Neither silence nor censorship will control the audience that thieves itself into the words to which we do not invite them. Neither silence/self-censorship will adequately erase the effects of our experiences. Writing is a choice, a demand for those of us who have born witness to suffering brought on by silence.

The quality of our writing can improve with awareness of how we control what we choose. As scholars, we control that which we are most informed. I take this out of my journal to share on this blog out of a need to forgive myself for who I couldn’t be for myself in moments I needed to express myself while protecting the integrity of my right to feel. As I grow as a writer, protection remains key, which is why I choose for this to remain anonymous for now. I want to control where my writing goes next. I want it to go to a place where, in the future, attaching my names to these words will not cause me nor any of the people in this narrative harm.

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Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he discusses experience with comprehensive exams often required for doctoral study, and the ways such exams mirror hazing patterns in other institutions and groups.  

As many graduate students know, comprehensive exams (sometimes also called preliminary exams, qualifying exams, prelims, comps, etc.) are often part of the grad school process. I’m sure I’m not the only person who heard horror stories about such tests from senior graduate students and faculty alike from the earliest days of grad school. The stories from graduate students went something like this:

 

“Oh my GOD. The semester you take the test is the worst semester of your life.”

“Get ready to hate everything when you take them.”

“I mean, people have failed before. It’s been documented.”

“Jeez, I don’t even remember half the stuff from the test, but make sure you know the stuff for the exam.”

“They’re so hard. The worst. Ugh I hate them.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

From faculty:

 

“You will seriously need to study. Plan on doing nothing else the semester you take them.”

“Your exams are what first demonstrate that you are going to be a scholar in (area X) of (discipline Y). So you need to take them seriously.”

“You need to remember everything from the readings. Yes everything.”

“People have failed them before.”

“Take them seriously or else you’ll have to take them again.”

 

Now, in my particular situation the students were assigned or selected a certain number of texts to read in order to reflect their expertise in a specific area of the discipline. Then over the course of many hours (sometimes in one day, sometimes in two) they sat in a specified room and typed our responses. Faculty then assessed our responses and assigned a score.  Then, we learned our score, but never saw the test again.

For me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, hearing all of this before taking my exams was extremely disconcerting. As I listened to my colleagues and faculty gush about the horror of the tests I started to wonder why we even do them anymore. Over and over again I heard graduate students and faculty alike reinforcing the notion that the tests need to be taken seriously, that they’re intimidating, horrifying, traumatizing even.

In the midst of all this advice, multiple graduate students repeatedly told me that no one ever asked them about the test in the months/years after completing them, so “just get through it and move on”. Each person I talked to portrayed their method of studying as the way to study for these tests. People shared their “survival strategies” with me in what seemed like an effort to soften the blow of this supposedly horrendous process.

When it came time for me to start studying, I kept all these things in mind: the terror of the test, the embarrassment that would come if I didn’t pass, the stress of being a slow reader trying to get through thousands of pages of texts. I woke up in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety more than once. It seemed my colleagues were right: comprehensive exams are terrible.

“But why?” I wondered to myself. “Why do they have to be terrible if this thing is just a valorized essay test that no one will ever ask me about ever again in my life once it’s over?” it was during this reflection that I realized that all comprehensive exams really are is a glorified hazing process for graduate students.

And I get it, if you think about it as a hazing process it all makes sense:

The tests are framed as the thing that will make you an expert in a field. This framing reinforces the notion that they are not only important, but that if we all really want to be experts then we need to do really well on them. In reality, a completed dissertation or set of publications is more likely to reflect your expertise in a given area, but pointing this out might undermine the ritual of comprehensive exams.

The tests are vaguely framed as scary and something we need to take seriously, even though most people pass, most programs allow you to take them more than once, and no one will ever ask you about them ever again. This fits the guidelines of a hazing ritual perfectly. If we aren’t repetitively told that the tests are scary then maybe we would see them for what they really are: timed essays shrouded in hype. Also, if students are scared into (over) studying for the test, then faculty can say “you must not have studied hard enough” in the face of someone who does fail. In this framework, failing the test becomes a personal failure, instead of a problem with the structure of the examination, and the structure of academia more broadly. Namely how the structure itself is specifically disadvantageous to neuro-atypical, racial/class/gender/sexual minority students who have been told over and over that we aren’t good enough, will never be good enough, and can’t succeed.

“Surviving” makes you one of the team, and then you get to tell future generations how awful the process is. This makes me think of a friend of mine who was involved in Greek life during his time in undergrad. A few years before he pledged his fraternity, their chapter got in trouble for hazing. As a result, they were under serious surveillance from the national office of their fraternity. The brothers who were seniors during his freshman year were the last pledge class to get hazed and were extremely bitter that the incoming class didn’t have to navigate the same emotionally stressful, degrading, “bonding” activities that they did. To these older brothers the initiation of my friend’s pledge class cheapened the meaning of brotherhood.

Comprehensive exams, as they exist now in many programs, operate in effectively the same way: Faculty and senior graduate students who made it through this format get to maintain boundaries between “them” and “us”, those who are “in” on the knowledge and those who are “out.” They do this by engaging in the same, ritualistic scare tactics that they experienced before they made it through the process, and in so doing justify and reinforce the meaning of their own experiences with the hazing process. Otherwise something that they spent a significant portion of their time in graduate school worrying about might be rendered meaningless.

Once you pass them, they don’t really matter. I took my comprehensive exams. I passed. And I’ve never been asked about them since (with the exception of other nervous graduate students who will take them in the future).

Now, to be fair, I learned a lot while studying for the tests, and it was not a total loss. I also understand the argument that we need to have something in place to make sure that people who are getting PhDs are truly experts in a field. I agree, I’m just not convinced that this format of evaluation is it. I also know that not all programs use this format, in fact some of them have (what I think) are much more useful evaluation methods.

For example, in an academic context where publishing is becoming increasingly more important, why not have students review a specific body of theoretical literature, craft a paper that makes a new theoretical contribution, and then submit it for publication? This format allows students to get the experience of reading broadly and deeply across a field, and the written result of all that work isn’t thrown into a vault where their ideas just waste away. Students could also do an archival research project of all the literature in one or two journals that relate directly to their dissertation topic and give an oral or written (but not timed) defense of that literature. Doing this could help students expedite their dissertation proposals and would give them a wide and deep understanding of their disciplinary sub-field/ fields.

I don’t expect changes to the current format overnight. So while what I mention above are just two potential alternatives to this format, I would like to share some thoughts for students who may be getting ready to take comprehensive exams that look like the ones I took:

Do take them seriously, but remember that they are not the end of the world. Yes, these tests do determine when/if you get to move on in the program, but they are not the be all and end all of your worth as a scholar or a human being.

If your program allows you to take comprehensive exams more than once, think about the first time you take them as a practice round. This is easier said than done, especially when the implicit knowledge around one’s department might be that failing is shameful. However, if you can do this it helps put them in perspective – just think, if you have to take them again at least you will know what you’re getting into. Also, you can spend the semester(s) between the first and second time taking them as a chance to work on your dissertation proposal, and then defend your proposal immediately after you (in all likelihood) pass them the next time.

Hey, senior graduate students and faculty, stop treating failing like its shameful. If you passed, good for you, but just because someone doesn’t pass their first time (or ever) doesn’t lessen their value. Help shrink this as a departmental (and academy-wide) norm. Yes, there might be people who fail because they didn’t study, but it can often be significantly more complicated that that. Again, minority scholars specifically are told their whole lives how likely we are to fail at any time. Instead of reinforcing this logic, work to create an environment where students can do better the next time.

Develop your own studying method(s). In the months leading up to comprehensive exams you will likely be inundated with advice on the best study methods. Really, the best method is whatever works for you. Maybe you audio record conversations you have with yourself about the readings, maybe you make flashcards. You could be someone that needs to structure every hour of their day, or a person to whom that degree of structure feels suffocating. Perhaps you discuss the readings with a study buddy over drinks or coffee, or conversely, you might like to study more solitarily. These and dozens of other methods exist – trust yourself to figure out the one that works best for you and run with it.

Don’t lose yourself. Take some evenings off and hang out with friends (or not), allow yourself to watch Netflix between a reading or two, take a long walk and listen to music – whatever feels like a relaxing activity to you, don’t be afraid to do it. In all likelihood that one evening, or one episode of Breaking Bad won’t make or break your experience with comprehensive exams.

All in all, we could seriously use a critical examination of the pedagogical reason these tests exist in this fashion. For now, though, hopefully this framing will help bring the process back down to earth for folks who will be managing this ritual in the future.

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