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. 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. 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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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. 

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

“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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

The following anonymous guest post is by a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States. In this post, she reflects on experiences confronting trauma and rape apologists in the evaluation of student assignments.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching – how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to try and grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender class.

It was the middle of the semester and we were covering rape culture. As any Feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they’ve been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they’ve actually committed rape, and struggle to reconcile this with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many Feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it’s like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few of the men in the class who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims including but not limited to the following:

In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of rapes have anything to do with clothing choice: “but don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”

In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”

In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media, and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”

In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they’re intoxicated:  “Well don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”

In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys.”

Every so often, however, male students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality.”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as non-binary people) to share their experiences with rape since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality reproduction that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender class, I hoped the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing a media example of a case where a woman on a college campus raped a man, and how poorly the campus responded. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a Men’s Rights Advocacy (MRA) group. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “students use terrible sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his “argument” quickly devolved into a tirade claiming – since he presented ONE case where a man was raped by a woman – Feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about “their problems.” He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about Feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example, but rather, he simply ranted against Feminism, women, and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something my rapist would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as the man who raped me – White, college male, between the ages of 18-22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I couldn’t concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he didn’t like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the “rational instructor” side of my brain could not overpower the “trauma survivor” part of my brain.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few Feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit, and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

“ZERO! YOU GET A FUCKING ZERO” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I wasn’t ready to return to grading papers yet so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a female instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I’ve had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath, and began to read it again. No one ever advised me about how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I have to navigate it.

Facebooktwitterby feather

To Be Seen, Not Heard at the Boys’ Table: Sexism in Academia

The following guest post is by a doctoral candidate in sociology at a public research university in the United States. In this post, ze reflects on experiences with sexism at academic conferences.


The systemic problem of gender inequality is often a driving force behind individuals’ decision to specialize in sociology and, more specifically, in the areas of sex and gender. Doe-eyed graduate students, such as myself, believe academia is where merit and opportunity are derived from hard work and meaningful contributions to science. A place were females, males, cisgender, and transgender individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexualities or social class, are accepted by their peers and discrimination is checked at the door. Academics, certainly those in sociology, would never discriminate against minorities and those who are different. Right? Wrong! So wrong, unfortunately. As a first year PhD student in sociology, and also a female, I have already experienced evidence that the boy’s club is still alive and kicking in academia.

For instance, I have been counseled multiple times that it is in my best interest this early in my career to abbreviate my feminine-sounding name on scholarly publications. The second and probably more disheartening sexist experience took place during an annual sociology conference; ironically, the theme of the conference was gender. I feel compelled to share my experience as well as the experience of my co-author (who is also a doctoral student in sociology) during our paper session at this particular conference in the hopes that others can read this and know that they are not alone. Our experiences as minorities deserve to be shared in hopes that they will act as a wakeup call to our more privileged peers.

Nobody Wants to Hear a Female Talk Longer than 6 Minutes

Although I had previously presented at this particular conference when I was a master’s student years ago, this was my co-author’s first time presenting at a sociological conference. We were both excited and bit nervous to present our paper among more seasoned academics. However, our enthusiasm was quickly stifled by the patronizing demeanor of the moderator during our session.

Our session was scheduled to begin at 11:00 am and end at 12:15 pm. This was a fairly small paper session with five presenters and only five audience members, so the moderator decided to start the session at 10:58 am. The moderator asked the five audience members as well as the presenters if any of us anticipated having questions at the end of the session. When one member said yes, the moderator decided that the presenters would have 12-13 minutes to present their work in order to leave sufficient time at the end for questions.

The first presenter was a female professor of sociology, who, mind you, traveled several hours by plane to present her research. About halfway through her PowerPoint presentation the moderator abruptly cut in to tell her that she needed to bring her talk to a close. Flabbergasted, she quickly attempted to finish her presentation while insisting that she was not given the 12-13 minutes promised. Dismayed by this, the first female presenter headed to the back on the conference room and began timing each presentation.

The next person to present was a male who was also giving a PowerPoint presentation. This presenter was politely and unobtrusively shown a written three-minute, hand-written warning by the moderator. The male presenter was then not only permitted to talk for those three minutes, but beyond that time as well, enabling him to complete his presentation in full.

Next up, my co-author and I, both females, were scheduled to present. Unfortunately, I forgot to start the timer on my phone, but the first female presenter had her timer going. Besides, I was confident that my co-author and I would not go over our 12-13 minute time limit. However, we were only about five minutes into our presentation when the moderator interrupted me, mid-sentence to tell us that we needed to conclude. He did not offer a three-minute warning as he had for the previous presenter, instead I was brusquely cut off from speaking. I fumbled to collect my thoughts and wrap up our presentation. The female who was timing us also feverishly waved her hands and stated that we were only given five minutes to talk, but it did not matter. Our time was up – all the practicing and nervous anticipation for five damn minutes!

The next presenter, a male, had time to complete his presentation in its entirety without interruption or suggestion from the moderator that he needed to “wrap it up.” And yes, his presentation took all 13 minutes. The moderator presented his paper last and adhered to the 12-13 minute time limit he set at the beginning of the session. When the moderator concluded, the time was 11:48 am. As the session began at 10:58 am with five presenters, it is obvious that not every presenter received an equal amount of time to convey their research, averaging around 10 minutes each. It was also quite apparent that the two presentations given by females were the two (and only two) that were cut short of the promised 12-13 minutes.

But it does not stop there. The remaining 25 minutes were devoted to putting each presenter, one-by-one, in what the moderator called “the hot seat,” inviting audience members to question each presenter. During the other female presenter’s “hot seat” time, the moderator challenged her in a condescending tone rather than engaging her professionally. He provoked an argument with her rather than a discussion and disrespectfully dismissed her responses to his questions. Finally, this awful, degrading paper session came to an end a few minutes early. The moderator quickly offered a general apology for cutting the session short and insisted that it was important for the audience to be permitted to have ample time to ask questions.

However, the moderator’s hollow apology was not directed at anyone in particular. As graduate students, we spent a great deal of time practicing and preparing our presentation to ensure we did not exceed the anticipated 10-15 minute time slot. Besides the frustration of only being allowed to speak for six minutes, the fact that this clearly only happened to the females and not the males at a sociology conference focused on gender seemed especially terrible.

It is in these very moments where I feel like throwing in the proverbial pink towel and walking away from academia. But, I am stronger than that. I have to remind myself that I earned my spot at that conference table and I will not allow sexist, close-minded individuals to make females (or anyone, for that matter) feel any less deserving. So, fellow minority grad students, let us beware: while we study the systems of inequality outside the walls of academia, the frontline of social injustice may still lie within.

Facebooktwitterby feather