Teaching Science through the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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Creating Cigarettes & Wine – a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of outlining, composing, and publishing Cigarettes & Wine, a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s and based on zir experiences as a bisexual non-binary person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities over the past couple decades. 

Yesterday, my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – was officially released.  The novel is a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s based on hundreds of formal and informal interviews with sexual and gender minorities throughout the southeast I’ve collected over the past couple decades as, first, a curious bisexual and non-binary kid and later, as a researcher focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities.  In this post, I elaborate on the background and creation of the novel after many colleagues and friends have asked about its origins over the past few months.  For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.

Background

I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a colleague I deeply admire and appreciate.  We were talking about all kinds of things related to life, relationships, research, activism, teaching, and the world, and my colleague asked a question about the novels I completed in the preceding months.  The topic was especially relevant at the time since I had just submitted my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – for consideration for the Social Fictions book series, and since my colleague had done me the favor of being the first person outside my little chosen family / inner circle to read the drafts of the first two novels I had composed.  My colleague’s interest and support and feedback on Cigarettes & Wine at the time was and remains invaluable, but I also enjoyed just how hard I laughed when my colleague asked, “So, this was so real, I gotta know, is this you, your life, it is, isn’t it?”

I laughed because though I had not thought much about it at the time, I understood the question.  The narrator of the novel is a non-binary, bisexual raised in a small town in South Carolina.  So am I.  The novel is set in the same geographic area where I grew up, and in a fictional town similar to the one that I grew up in.  The events in the novel are all things that – both from my personal experiences, from interviews I’ve done over the years, and from a lot of the people who read drafts along the way – have happened to people and / or are familiar to people, and thus, they are real events.  The novel is also written in first person more like a diary of sorts.  I laughed because it was a reasonable conclusion that I could understand, but not one I thought much about while writing the book.  I laughed because my colleague was incorrect, but not entirely incorrect.

My colleague was incorrect because the novel is entirely fictional – none of the characters in the novel are actual people and none of them are me.  Each one of them are composites of many people I have met, observed, interviewed, had relationships with, and otherwise encountered throughout my life.  Desperate for information on and experiences of bisexual (across the spectrum), transgender (across the spectrum), and poly (across the spectrum) people like me, and for even more information on lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, kink, aromantic, and otherwise Queer people I admired, I began collecting the stories of everyone I could meet when I was a teenager.  Like the narrator, I would fill up journals with fictional versions of my own life (i.e., how it might be in other contexts) and fill journals up even further with all these stories of sexual and gender diverse experience, lives, and realities that were hidden just out of sight all around me.  Later in life, this actually ended up being incredibly useful training for life as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, content analysis, and interview-based researcher, and to this day, twenty years later, I still collect these stories every chance I get though now I do it both professionally and in my personal time.  My colleague was incorrect because the novel is not a retelling of my own story on its own, but rather, it’s more like a mix tape created by integrating the stories of hundreds of sexual and gender diverse / Queer people I have been lucky enough to meet, learn from, and become inspired by over the years.

At the same time, my colleague was not entirely incorrect.  While I do not exist in full in any of the characters or events, some of the events in the book are ones that I experienced as well.  Similarly, I remember very well living two distinct, separate lives as a younger person wherein almost all my straight friends and most of my family had no clue (to my knowledge, though I learned last year I was wrong in at least one case) about half of my life, and wherein my Queer friends knew more about the rest of my life but were never part of interactions I had with the straight, cis, mono world at the time (except secretly on rare occasions).  Further, there are little pieces of my personality, experience, and feelings as a teenager scattered throughout the book (i.e., a joke I like here, a place I hung out there, a conversation I had with someone here, emotions I felt in a tough or wonderful moment there, etc.), and in each of the main characters in the novel.  As someone very close to me put it after reading an early draft of the novel, “You’re everywhere and nowhere in this story.”  Put another way, the story is a mix tape of so many people’s stories, lives, experiences, and emotions, but I show up along the way as the curator of the collection hidden or embedded in this or that character or moment.

All these thoughts went running through my head as I sat in the hotel lobby with my colleague.  When I finished laughing, I simply said, “No, it’s not my story or the story of me, but it is one of what are likely millions of possible stories of people like me or like us.”  My colleague smiled, and asked what I meant.  I said, “Well, I basically took all the stories of people like us – mine and yours included – and put them together the best I could into a collective narrative illustrated through the lives of a group of kids in the 1990’s.”  My colleague laughed, and simply said, “How did you do that?”

Data and Methods

Integrating a wide variety of experiences is not easy, but luckily, it is what I do for a living as a researcher collecting and analyzing data sets of various sizes.  I began writing the stories that would become Cigarettes & Wine in my twenties, but I failed over and over again to accomplish whatever I wanted at the time (I’m still not sure).  I tried to write my own story, but I was never as good at that since I found other people more fascinating.  I tried to write it as a mix tape like I finally did last year, but I don’t think I had the skill set for that kind of writing before years of doing research for a living.  I tried to write it as a collection of disconnected journal entries from various people across the south, but it never seemed to work or flow well.  I gave up on it and pushed it aside when I got the chance to go to graduate school and try to develop a career as a scholar, researcher, activist, and teacher.  For eight years, while I published research, it sat there, a forgotten dream in the back of my mind.

When I decided to try it again last year with the support and encouragement of my life partner and best friend and after so many students suggested I should write a novel about all the stories I’d collected over the years, I approached the book as a research study and the stories I collected over the years – as well as my own experiences – as data for analysis.  Though I was only beginning to learn about it at the time, this approach is actually a rather common one in arts based research movements and traditions.  Despite the fact that, like the narrator in the story, I generally destroy my journals when I’m done with them because for some reason that feels good to me and they’re all made up fictional versions of life anyhow, I kept so many of the stories I collected from other people over the years and so I began to start reading back through them and thinking about remembering other ones and thinking about and making notes on my own experiences and those of other people.  Like I do with research papers, I began looking for patterns in the stories, and setting aside things that multiple people had experienced, dealt with, witnessed, or otherwise felt or known as part of their lives.  From this approach, I came up with a list of common events and experiences that appeared repeatedly in stories from people of varied sexualities, genders, locations in the south, religious backgrounds, family backgrounds, races, and other social characteristics.

Armed with these events as an outline for a narrative, I began creating characters based on integrating aspects of real people (say five or ten different people) into one whole character with thoughts, hopes, loves, fears, dreams, and personality quirks.  Although they changed a lot by the end of the composition process, these character profiles allowed me to start narrating the events that were common in the stories.  I initially tried telling the story from two other characters’ points of view before I finally got it to work with the narrator in the published version.  I also initially started telling a story that spanned from the 1990’s to now, but this proved to be way too much ground to cover so instead I broke it up into two and then three outlined novels (the second is now composed and the third is in progress of composition at present).  Once I had these raw materials (as I call them when I write research papers), I was ready to write the first rough draft of the story.

In the end, I wanted to accomplish three things with Cigarettes & Wine.  First, I wanted a bisexual and non-binary focused story after spending so many years wishing I could find one – much less one set in the world I grew up in – as a kid.  Second, I wanted a story where almost all of the character were Queer in one way or another and in different ways to illustrate the diversity of the amazing people I’ve met over the years who identify and live in so many different ways within the various umbrella terms we use.  Third and finally, I wanted a real story that captured experiences of Queerness in the south, and as a result, I only used events in the novel that showed up in multiple people’s lives over the years and explicitly sought to capture beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible things that Queer people experience in our world.

Results

Whether I’m thinking about my journalism, my blogging, my research publications, my short stories, or any other kinds of writing I have done over the years, I tend to agree with the perspective that only audiences can judge the results of a given work.  Personally, I feel like I accomplished the three things I set out to do with this novel, but now that it’s out, I believe that it will be up to readers to figure such things out.

Thinking about the responses and feedback of the people who were kind enough to do me the priceless favor of reading drafts of this work before now, I feel happy with the novel and I look forward to whatever comes next.  There were some that fully praised the work, and others who did not like it much at all.  There were some who thought it was too positive considering LGBTQIAP politics in America at present, and others who thought it was too negative in relation to the same.  There were some who thought the novel should have ended five chapters or so earlier, and others who thought it should have gone on for a few more chapters to offer more detail, resolution, or other bits of wrapping up.  For me, the fact that the reactions have spanned a diversity of opinions even among the relatively small pool of readers thus far suggests I may have got what I wanted – a real, complex portrait of the good, bad, and everywhere in between Queer people in the south experience.  I don’t know if this is correct or how others will interpret the work, but I’m happy with it and that counts for something in my mind.

Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Cigarettes & Wine as a now published work available for purchase by anyone, I think about the stories that have and continue to inspire me, that others have kindly shared with me so many times over the past couple decades, that resonate with me in cases of both similarity and difference, and that speak to a much wider, more complex, and more varied Queer existence then I can usually find in academic or mainstream media portraits and publications.

I think about talking with people in different states about things like burner phones, secret notes and mixtapes, and stolen kisses in the shadows where no one would see alongside so many other ways people found / find to live their Queerness in spaces that try to erase it from possible options.  I think about laughing with people of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders about awkward and sweet and sometimes scary moments when we first learned this term, that sexual practice, this type of toy or other material, or that type of intimacy.  I think about listening to stories about first loves who are still together – sometimes openly now and sometimes still secretive for many reasons – 30 years later, first loves that died way too soon, first loves that fizzled for any of a million reasons, first loves who were “such a mistake” and others who were “exactly what I needed.”  I think about violence that was explicitly directed at people for being sexual or gender diverse / Queer, violence that was simply tied to living in the south where guns and fights and poverty are often so visible and normal, violence that people heard about that shifted the ways they lived or felt in the moment, and violence that people were grateful for avoiding even when some felt guilty that they avoided it when others could not.  I think about discussions of accidents related to coming out or being outed by others, related to four wheelers, related to the friend who died when a gun went off or when the three wheeler flipped in the field, related to cars on highways and alcohol from plastic cups, related to lack of sexual education, and all kinds of other accidents that occurred as people tried to figure out who they were and tried to figure out how to manage rural and small town cultures.  I think about the conversations about the beauty of religion alongside the horror of religion alongside the fear and shame of religion alongside the liberation of religion depending on what religion, what location, and whether or not one’s Queerness was known to the religious.  I think about the conversations about hateful families alongside the conversations about supportive families alongside the conversations about chosen families.  I think about the conversations with so many more people who are out and open and relatively safe nowadays alongside the conversations with so many more who are still in hiding for one of a million understandable reasons who may or may not ever want to or be able to come out and live openly.

I think about all these stories and so many more, and for me, that’s what the book is about.  For me, Cigarettes & Wine is simply the first of a series of novels I am writing seeking to honor, celebrate, mourn, and embrace all the different forms and experiences of sexual and gender Queerness I’ve seen in my travels throughout the south.  For me, it is an attempt to share the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and in short, the complex wonder of the many different ways sexual and gender diversity play out and survive and even thrive even in places – like the Deep South – where we don’t often expect it or see it as openly displayed.  For me, it is also an attempt to say to Queer people in the south – and especially the bi and trans and poly folk like me who rarely see ourselves in even LGBT academic and mainstream media coverage – that you are not alone, that there is at least as much beauty as however much pain you might be facing, that the pain you may face is real and not your fault, that the beauty and wonder you find in you and your friends and lovers is also real and worth celebrating and fighting for, and that in the both the best and worst moments of your life you are part of a much larger population, story, and tradition that has and will continue to survive and fight with and for you.

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“You Poor Thing”: New Article Out in The Qualitative Report!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on and shares a recent publication in Qualitative Report (available at the link at the end of the post free of charge as an open access document) concerning the embodiment and management of visible chronic illness in daily life.  

Hello again readers! It’s a new season and a new academic year, and I’m happy to report that I also have a new autoethnographic publication coming out this week. If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, you may remember that earlier this year Sociology of Health and Illness published a piece called “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management”. This article, which focuses on the day-to-day processes and experiences of living with chronic disease, is still available online along with a video abstract introducing the piece.

In the process of writing “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word” I realized there was another rich topic nested within that study, and wound up breaking this theme out into its own critical autoethnography. Specifically, I focused on the nuances of visibility and representation for people whose chronic conditions produce readily apparent changes in physical appearance. The title comes from a comment made to me many years ago as the symptoms of my autoimmune disease became more visible to outside observers.

In this new autoethnography, I compare and contrast my own experiences of living inside a visibly ill body with others’ stated and implicit perceptions of what my life must be like. In doing so, I explore and refine theories of illness as deviance to accommodate multiple intersecting levels of divergence from normative expectations. I use interactionist sociological theories as well as a variety of other scholarly literature to analyze and contextualize my own lived experiences of embodying chronic illness.

As with most of my work, this piece strongly emphasizes the complex and dynamic interplay of multiple domains of life. These include personality traits, social structure, cultural context, political climate, and many more. Likewise, I focus on concepts of health equity and use my own experiences to amplify attention to persistent systems of marginalization and the voices of those affected. Above all else, I encourage other scholars with chronic conditions to share their own experiences of negotiating visible disease, and to advocate for active incorporation of these narratives in both formal systems of health care and informal systems of social support.

Please feel free to download and read the article at no cost here.

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Writing: Alone.

Craig Wood is a public school teacher as well as a PhD candidate with an interest in reflective practice methodologies. In this post, Craig’s reflections on lived experience and his conversations with fellow post-graduate colleagues become data and are expressed as a fictional representation. Where are you located in this story?

Promising himself just a short break, Frankie stepped out on to the terrace of his hotel suite. He was still 2500 words from finishing his Masters thesis and he could sense the demons of apprehension closing in on him.

Frankie sipped from his water bottle, drew a breath, and closed his eyes. The cacophony of noise from the Vegas strip below was somewhat dampened by nearly thirty stories of distance.

– Shrill screams from the Big Apple Coaster as it roared and clanked by the Statue of Liberty – The crisp sound of someone elegantly breaking the surface water of one of the hotel’s five pools

… laughter …

– Chinking glasses and cutlery falling on crockery

… voices …

– From the car park below, the bone jarring rattle of a hot-rod turning into West Tropicana Avenue and vibrating through the still air into the distance.

Then, the theme from Happy Days, Frankie’s ringtone for his manager, Sid. Frankie thought to reject the call but

– Hey Frankie! It’s Sid. Ya there yet?

– Yeah Sid.

Where are ya?

– I’m on the terrace.

Da terrace! Wadda ya mean ya on da terrace? Ya not spendin’ all damn day in dat hotel are ya?

– I just need to get away from everyone, Sid. Lock myself up. And write.

Frankie it’s Vegas! I gottya da best damn room, Frankie. Hey! Tell me I’m da bes’ damn manger, Frankie. Look down dat strip and tell me whadda ya see?

– Vegas, Sid.

Tha’s right, Frankie. Vegas. Three nigh’s time: You. Me. An da best damn ticke’s in town. Pacquiao V Bradley3. I’m da best ain’t I Frankie? Tell me I’m da bes’ manger.

– Yeah.

I’m da bes’?

– Yeah.

Good boy, Frankie. Now don’ go bustin’ yaself up on dat book o’ yours. You’re back in Vegas, Frankie. It’s your town. They luv ya!

– Yeah.

I’ll call ya tomorro’, Frankie.

– Yeah.

Frankie tried to at least say the words ‘Thanks, Sid’, and not just thanks for the room, or thanks for being the best damn manager. Frankie yearned to be able to find the words to tell Sid how important he was in Frankie’s life. Not that any of that mattered, Sid had already hung up. It wasn’t that Frankie was unintelligent. Since retiring from boxing he had balanced a public profile with his private pursuit of a Master of Science degree in Sports Management. Nor did he mean to be curt with Sid, Frankie loved Sid. It’s just that Frankie didn’t want to be around people; that’s a feeling he had had for some time.

Frankie looked out from the terrace. The sun’s rays of dusk were slowly rescinding from the Eiffel Tower, Caesar’s Palace, Treasure Island, and the rest; giving way to the flickering, shimmering neon energy of a Vegas night awakening. Beyond the desert the now deep dark blues of shadow blanketed the mountains that were holding up a horizon of pink and orange pastels. Looking at the emerald lights that were wrapping themselves around the terrace, Frankie briefly thought about giving himself just two rounds of bourbon in some bar, but, determined to stay focused, he sipped from his water bottle, stepped back into his room, shut the door and drew the curtains.

He was alone.

Letting the full drop of plush velvet separate him from the passions playing out beyond his terrace.

Alone.

Frankie flipped open his laptop and scrolled to the top of the document. Everything to everyone: Stories of balancing the demands of elite athletic performance with celebrity. By Frankie Rosetti.

He hovered over the title and changed the font size. Again.

Then the font type.

Then removed the underline…

… and made the title bold.

Then, clicking on his name, changed the text to Francis Rosetti.

An incoming email popped up on the screen. It was from Rex, Frankie’s supervisor.

Hi Frankie, I’ve just read your ethics chapter. Of course you are using pseudonyms for your informants, but I still need to be convinced about using your data to create an entire fiction.

Frankie reread the email seven times.

He could feel his eyes getting wet.

Clasping his hands over his cheeks he read the email twice more as waves of despair enveloped him.

Alone.

Frankie knew … in one of his three suitcases he had brought … he knew he had packed them … interview transcripts that were his data … as well as hand written minutes from all of the meetings he had with his supervisor … and he clearly recalled discussing how he intended to ethically manage his data in the dissemination of his research … it was that meeting, when, after interviewing twelve high profile athletes and meticulously transcribing the interviews, Rex had criticised Frankie for arranging the data alphabetically by sport: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Soccer.

“Where are the NASCAR drivers?” Rex had grilled Frankie, “and why are there no Olympic sports? These are omissions that are clearly gaps in your data. Where’s your own boxer colleagues? It’s all a bit basic, don’t you think”

Frankie clearly recalled leaving that meeting feeling demeaned. Like he was some kind of fraud who did not belong in graduate school. It was Sid who had offered a solution.

– Wadda ya so work’dup about, Frankie? You know I can take care o’ dis Rex if he’s bothrin’ ya. Waddas he know ‘bout sports?

Lissen, waddas it madder what sport anyone plays? Ain’t dis all about turning yasself inside out tryin’ to please everyone?

Sid had been right. Perfect even – not about the idea of taking care of Rex – but about the other stuff. So, with a new lease of energy, Frankie had rearranged his data in less than 48 hours. He had gone beyond ‘basic’ delineations based on specific sports and identified patterns in his data that he called: Personal tension; Franchise/team tension; Relationship tension; Fan tension; and Success tension. Then, with specific sports no longer an identifying label on the data, Frankie began the process of further de-identifying the data. The more he played with the data, the more readable it became. Even Sid commented.

– Dat interview stuff ya wrote, ain’t no one gonna read dat. But dis, well dis is like one of dem books ‘bout a person’s life.

Frankie found the minutes he was looking for. In a meeting with Rex where they were speaking about ethics and de-identification, another member of faculty suggested Frankie read Michael Angrosino’s Opportunity House. Frankie had done so. In fact he loved the idea so much that he had run a search to see who else had cited Angrosino. Google Scholar had returned over 2000 hits. A whole world had opened up: Laurel Richardson, Lisa Tillmann-Healy, Carolyn Ellis, Tony Adams. And then Frankie had found an entire book series dedicated to Social Fiction.

Rolling his chair back to his suitcases and opening the second one, Frankie looked over his collection of books by Norman Denzin, Michael Angrosino, Patricia Leavy, Art Bochner, and at least ten other social researchers. He clasped his hands out in front of him, then rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck.

Alone. But with a new sense of energy.

Frankie scrolled down to his chapter on managing data and began typing.

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“Hope” Springs Forth: New Article Out in Sociology of Health and Illness!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on a recent publication in Sociology of Health and Illness concerning the personal, political, and structural experience of managing chronic conditions in everyday life.

Hello readers! If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, or just know any of us editors outside of the blog, you may have heard a bit about my new article in Sociology of Health and Illness. It’s a critical analysis of my experiences with a prescription drug that has excellent benefits and a lot of potential side effects, and the many sociological lessons learned from trying to find the right balance between the two.

A lot of the illness management literature deconstructs major changes in health status, and the impacts of these events on identity formation and performance. This literature doesn’t yet contain as diverse an array of information and analysis on the day-to-day nuances of living with chronic conditions. I’m hoping to inspire other scholars to delve more into that area, and to do so with a richly intersectional perspective on relationships between health and social life.

To have this article published in Sociology of Health and Illness is a dream come true, and the product of about two years’ worth of work. So I’m thrilled to report that “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management” is now available online, along with an accompanying video abstract introducing the piece. The print version of the article will appear later this year. In the meantime, if you want to read the article and are having trouble getting access to the online version, just drop me an email.

I also encourage everyone to share the link to the online version with others who may be interested in this topic. I quite deliberately constructed this article as a narrative with theoretical commentary, not a research methods piece. It’s accessible for a wide variety of audiences, not just academics. I wrote the paper with patients, families, clinicians, advocates, and caregivers all well in mind. WWIH readers will recognize a lot of our key themes here: intersectionality of multiple social positions and roles, gender performances and violations of norms, racial and ethnic inequality, symbolic interactionism as a tool for understanding health experience, and of course a hefty dose of storytelling!

An essential contribution of this piece is detailed insight into the interplay between personality and social structure in the experience of chronic illness and the management thereof. By using my own voice to explore the complexities of different theories of social inequality, I hope to help build new ground for dialogue about what chronic illness feels like day-to-day that can inspire improvements in both community support and clinical care. I also hope to open doors for other scholars who occupy one or more marginalized social locations to share and critically analyze their own stories of illness management in everyday life.

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Incorporating Underrepresented Populations in Teaching and Research

In this post, the Write Where It Hurts editorial team reflects on their experience advocating strategies for teaching to and about marginalized populations often left out of mainstream educational materials, research protocols, and data sets (see our recently published Teaching Sociology article on this topic here) in hopes of facilitating dialogue about the incorporation of marginalized and otherwise underrepresented populations in teaching and research.

As people who belong to, write about, teach, study, and engage in advocacy related to varied populations marginalized or otherwise often left out of mainstream education and scholarship (i.e., donor conceived people, adopted people, transgender and non-binary people, people managing chronic physical and / or mental atypical experiences, etc.), we have become intimately aware of the limitations or missing elements within much existing scientific data and educational resources. At the same time, we know all too well the structural and ideological barriers that slow alteration and revision of existing educational rituals, traditions, and structural patterns in concrete settings. As we did in our recently published Teaching Sociology article focused on strategies for inclusive teaching about gender via the use of survey data that often does not explicitly measure the gender diversity of our shared world, we would like to encourage our colleagues to consider strategies for overcoming existing structural and ideological traditions in hopes of continuing dialogue about methods for creating greater diversity and inclusivity within and beyond scholarly and educational materials.

As we note in our recent article, many data sets called “representative” and used to make far-reaching claims often do not contain and / or do not explicitly measure people like us. If, for example, Xan seeks to learn about social patterns related to donor conceived or agender people, such data sets offer no answers despite the use of such data to “represent” national or other whole populations. Likewise, if J seeks to learn about the experiences of transgender, adopted, or sexually fluid people, all ze will learn from data is that such people are not part of the representation of this society. Similarly, if Lain seeks to ascertain attitudes concerning or held by genderqueer and / or bisexual people, most data sets called “representative” will only offer a “representation” wherein such groups do not exist in any identifiable manner. Despite these “missing” populations, researchers, teachers, and advocates will often utilize these sets to make claims about, for example, families, gender, and sexualities that – we would guess unintentionally – ultimately reproduce existing power structures as well as the marginalization of the groups left out of the official representation contained in the data. In fact, we can see similar problems for other marginalized groups including but not limited to homeless people, neuro-atypical people, and multi and inter racial people despite the use of such data to make claims about housing, mental and physical health, and racial dynamics on a regular basis.

Alongside growing recognition of issues with calling limited collections of people and measurements “representative,” we have heard some advocate doing away with these data sets while establishing more inclusive and diverse forms of data collection, measurement, and sampling. Doing so, however, would require massive changes structurally, ideologically, and institutionally, which will likely take much time, debate, and discussion to accomplish. At the same time, we have heard others advocate for maintaining existing practices or rituals while seeking to explain away the limitations or problems with existing data collection, measurement, and coding practices. Doing so, however, would require accepting the ongoing marginalization and erasure of many sections of the population from official representations. In our article, we propose a middle ground between these two extremes wherein we utilize the existing limitations to illustrate important patterns, power dynamics, and structural issues in contemporary society while continuing to push for revisions in existing data collection, measurement and sampling procedures and encouraging scholars, teachers, and others to talk about such data sets in more inclusive ways within publications and classrooms.

With this information in mind, we invite dialogue, commentary and discussion on strategies for inclusive teaching with existing data limitations and issues. Whether one seeks to join this conversation on this site or in relation to our call in Teaching Sociology or in any other space, we invite and appreciate other educators’ perspectives on these matters. To this end, ask yourself what do we say to unrepresented populations when we call data sources devoid of their presence or measurement representative of our world? What institutional and structural steps might we need to take to make our data sources and educational materials more inclusive of marginalized, underrepresented, and otherwise “missing” populations? Why do we push so hard for generalizations instead of seeking to empirically map the complexities, nuances, and diversity of our shared world, and is this pursuit of “representative” or “generalizable” claims worth the potential negative effects such practices may have on marginalized populations? While we will not pretend to have some “right” or “absolute” answers to these questions, our experiences to date within and beyond classrooms tell us these questions might be incredibly important and useful in many ways. Thus, we encourage members of our intellectual and activist communities to engage openly in these (admittedly challenging) conversations in order to move us closer to truly understanding the complexities of our social world and challenging the inequalities that exist within it.

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The Transgender Religion Survey

In this post, J. Sumerau discusses the motivations, contents, and goals of a survey effort seeking to document and amplify the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from social scientific surveys about religion and nonreligion in American society.

In the past few years, contemporary religious and nonreligious commentators have begun to issue formal and informal statements concerning sex and gender diversity. As transgender women and men, intersex people, non-binary people, agender people, genderqueer people, and other groups of people who do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “woman/man” sex and gender binaries gain more recognition in American society and continue to fight for equal rights and representation in this country, some of the largest religious traditions in the country – including but not limited to the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Catholic Church – have started issuing official statements about these groups of people. While some of these statements have been positive (such as the recent changes occurring within Reform Judaism to incorporate greater recognition of sex and gender diversity), many of them have been negative (such as the Southern Baptist Convention denouncing transgender, intersex, and non-binary existence).

At the same time, debates have emerged (especially online) within nonreligious communities about these populations and their place in American society. Like their religious counterparts, some of these examples have included positive depictions of such communities and calls for greater recognition, inclusion, and support of sex and gender diversity in America. However, some other nonreligious leaders and lay people have taken the opposite side while adopting and repeating negative stereotypes and condemnations of these communities. If the historical experiences of various marginalized people and communities offer any clues to these patterns, one may assume that religious and nonreligious statements about sex and gender diversity will only increase, that such statements may have far ranging effects on policy, politics, and the everyday experiences of many people, and that politicians (as presidential candidate Marco Rubio did earlier this week) may seize on these statements to justify opposition to equal rights for all people regardless of sex and gender status, identification, and experience.

As we watched these patterns unfold over the last couple of years while doing research and teaching concerning sex and gender groups and statuses often missing from traditional research agendas, measurement strategies, and protocols, some supportive colleagues and I became interested in what sex and gender groups typically missing from existing surveys might say about these patterns, the statements religious and nonreligious people made about sex and gender diversity, and their own religious and nonreligious experiences. To begin exploring this question, I began explicitly asking transgender, intersex, and non-binary people I encountered at various events for their opinions on these topics, for advice about incorporating these opinions and experiences into scholarship, and for advice concerning the best way to create a questionnaire or survey capable of capturing such opinions for scholarly dissemination and publication. While I initially only went to events and meetings I already attended occasionally or was already acquainted with, I gradually began to find and attend other meetings and events in hopes of gathering the most diverse array of advice, opinions, and suggestions I could. Specifically, I sought out people in each of these groups who experienced life in varied racial, class, regional, community, and political contexts in hopes of developing a study that could be as inclusive as possible of the immense variation contained within any common sex and gender status, group, or community categories.

Overall, the lesson I learned from all these informal inquiries was that if anything characterized the groups experiences of and opinions about religion and nonreligion it was diversity. People in each group agreed about many things, disagreed about many other things, and accomplished both of these options from question to question at times. As a result, I decided to fashion a survey that would allow people to self-identify and self-define their selves, experiences, and attitudes concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of American society. With this goal in mind, I turned to a supportive colleague with extensive experience designing surveys, and we further recruited another colleague who did their master’s work on sex and gender diversity and worked with us on other pieces on these issues related to religion. The three of us developed survey questions that allowed for a lot of variation in terms of responses, and then I took these questions back to people I had consulted previously to evaluate our efforts.

Over time, this process of construction and revision led to a survey instrument wherein respondents who choose to participate may define themselves (via multiple options or written in their own words; for example the gender identification question has 17 multiple choice options and an open-ended other response respondents may write in) in varied ways on every single variable, discuss their experiences and attitudes in their own words via open-ended options tied to questions about religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions and categories (for example, rather than assuming an experience with sex status, there is an open-ended question where respondents can share and define such experience in their own words), and wherein respondents may answer questions commonly offered on other religion and nonreligion surveys that generally do not have sex and gender measurements or only allow male/female or man/woman options for sex and / or gender.

Recently, we launched this survey online, and we are currently in the process of recruiting and gathering respondents through social media, conversations with national organizations, and through word of mouth in various communities. With recruitment under way, I wanted to use this space to discuss the details of the survey for anyone who may be considering participation. Simply put, the survey is a combination of multiple choice and open ended questions focused on religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions in contemporary America. Anyone who participates will have the opportunity to self define (either through the selection of one of many options provided in the survey or by writing in their own self identification in their own words) their own gender, sex, sexuality, race, education, income, religious or nonreligious affiliation, year of birth, state or region of residence, employment status, healthcare access, and political views. Respondents will also encounter a series of questions ascertaining religious, nonreligious, and other social experiences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs (most of these also include open ended options for response and / or elaboration). Rather than assuming anything about the populations eligible for this study, we have specifically designed the survey itself to allow people to identify in their own ways, and discuss their own opinions, experiences, attitudes and beliefs.

Since our goal here is to document and amplify the experiences and opinions of sex and gender populations typically left out of surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other social institutions, anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries is eligible for participation in this study. As such, the focus of this survey rests upon comparing and contrasting the variation, diversity and complexity of sex and gender groups typically missing from previous surveys concerning religion, nonreligion, and other aspects of social life.

As part of contemporary institutional research processes, we developed a shorthand  label for describing and explaining the project to audiences and reviewers beyond the target population. After consulting with various members of different sex and / or gender groups, we decided to name the project the Transgender Religion Survey for official purposes because this option received the most support from members of these various social groups.

Especially considering that many sex and gender groups do not necessarily use or identify with the term “transgender” and many spiritual, nonreligious, and even some religious people do not necessarily use or identify with the term “religion,” we recognize that this name is not perfect and understand the perspectives of people who might prefer other names or not use or identify with these terms in daily life. However, for the purposes of this study and following the lead of some other large scale efforts to incorporate sex and gender groups often marginalized and erased in contemporary American society, we use transgender in the official survey documentation as a broad umbrella term for anyone who does not fit neatly into societal assumptions about binary sex and / or gender status, identification, expression, and / or display. Likewise, for the purposes of this study religion is defined as of or having to do with assumptions, beliefs, and practices regarding the supernatural.

While many people who fit within the broad definitions noted above identify in a wide variety of ways, shift and change language and identification terms and definitions over time in varied ways, and have very distinct experiences, beliefs and characteristics, we selected these terms as broad descriptors for the overall effort. Within the survey itself, respondents will define themselves in terms of sex, gender, and religion, and our analyses and use of this data will be built upon the ways people self identify and describe themselves, the variations and distinct experiences shared by the varied populations, and the representations respondents select for their distinct lives, groups, and experiences with religion, nonreligion, and other social phenomena. Rather than attempting to pick a definition for this or that group, we thus allow people to define themselves, and we will utilize their self definitions to compare and contrast variation among sex and gender groups concerning religion, nonreligion, and other elements of contemporary American society.

As a result, this project does not seek to define the characteristics of specific groups (i.e., what is transgender, what is Christian, what is atheist, what is intersex, etc.). There are many talented and capable activists and scholars engaged in such work at present, but in this case we will utilize the definitions and terms selected and discussed by the respondents themselves. Our goal is thus to compliment the work of sex and gender activists and scholars by incorporating the voices of sex and gender groups typically missing from other surveys into other areas of contemporary scholarship.

In closing, I encourage all eligible people (i.e., anyone who identifies or exists in ways that do not fit neatly into “male/female” and / or “man/woman” binaries) to consider participating in this study. While I hope for the day when all sex and gender groups are regularly recognized, included, and represented in scholarly efforts, I am reminded of how far we have to go to reach this goal every year when I encounter students that learn of many sex and gender groups for the first time in my classes. With this survey effort, we seek to continue and compliment ongoing efforts to increase the awareness and recognition of sex and gender diversity in contemporary society by documenting some ways varied sex and gender groups experience and think about religion and nonreligion.

For more information, official survey documentation noted above, and / or to participate in the study, please visit: http://researchsurveyor.com/surveys/index.php?r=survey%2Findex&sid=568681&lang=en

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Beyond White Canes: Translating Experiential Learning into Student Support

Building on last week’s post, this week Xan Nowakowski explores importance of supporting and including students with different functional and ability statuses in our research and teaching.  

In my last post honoring White Cane Day, I shared some experiences from my childhood and adolescence that helped me to think about how people with blindness and visual impairment may experience life, as well as the broader importance of taking a proactive approach to accommodating students with disabilities. Today I’ll be sharing a story from early in my teaching career that highlights prejudices and misconceptions students with visual functioning differences often face, ways to address and remove those barriers, and benefits of creating inclusive environments for learning.

I got interested in issues of functioning and accommodation from a young age because my mother, a neuroscientist with multiple forms of visual impairment, helped me to learn about disability both within and outside of educational settings. My own experiences with loss of physical functioning later in life also contributed to this learning, and to my ability to put thinking into practice. These experiences also helped me to understand the rights and responsibilities outlined for students and educators in the Americans with Disabilities Act, first and foremost the idea that people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations”.

So when a graduate student I had just spent 10 minutes on the phone with about participating in a research project sounded hesitant and nervous the whole time we were on the phone, and then said “there’s something else I need to tell you” in a hesitant tone after I expressed enthusiasm for working with them, I certainly didn’t expect the next words out of their mouth to be “I’m blind”. I hadn’t assumed that they could or couldn’t see—this was the first time I’d ever spoken with them—but blindness didn’t seem like a reason to worry that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to participate in research. One of the best scientists I knew had significant vision impairment, and they worked in a highly visual field of study! I had friends with no light perception at all who were engineers, computer scientists, teachers, lawyers, artists, and so much more.

I stayed silent, waiting for the rest, waiting for them to tell me why their blindness might be a barrier to participating in my project that couldn’t be addressed through accommodations, turning the question over in my mind and coming up with nothing. Finally I said, “Okay…I’m sorry for sounding so obtuse here, but why would that impact my decision about working with you?” The silence that followed seemed to stretch on forever before they said “You don’t see that as an issue? I mean, I can’t see *at all*. I have no light perception.”

I didn’t want to dismiss their read on the situation, so I tried to affirm their concerns while also assuring them that they’d be fully accommodated and included. “No. Should I? I’m thinking about what kinds of challenges here could prevent you from participating, and I just don’t know how we wouldn’t be able to work around each one. If you need transportation, that’s easy—you can just ride with me when we go out into the field. If you need assistive technology that you don’t have already, I’ll get it for you or partner you with another student who can do the looking while you do the talking. If you need directions on how to do things that don’t require visual input, I’ll give them to you. And if I screw up any of this, you can be blunt with me about that and I’ll make any needed adjustments.”

My student sounded a little gobsmacked, but accepted my invitation for them and their guide dog to meet with me at my office and get started on the project. I then sent them an email with detailed directions using non-visual landmarks to help them navigate my office building—things like how many paces it takes me to get from the main door to the hallway from my office, when they’d hear a water fountain running, when they’d feel a vent blowing on their face, what the carpeting near my office would feel like beneath their feet. They showed up early, accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever who curled up at my feet while my student and I talked. We went over the key activities for the project, and talked through how we’d approach each one. They showed me their Braille translator, and all the features they liked to use on their computer to read screens and create documents. To this day, I have yet to work with a student who creates clearer or more concise PowerPoint presentations.

My student explained to me that this was a new experience for them—to have a professor show enthusiasm for working with a blind student. This troubled me deeply, and I asked them to promise that if they ever felt even a bit marginalized while working with me, they’d tell me. “If you’re left out in any way,” I stressed, “that’s my problem, not yours, and I have to take responsibility for it. It’s my job to think about what an educational experience is going to be like for you and plan accordingly.” They shook their head. “That’s just it,” they said. “You’re never going to make me feel left out. I already know that. You’re different. It’s like…well, those directions you gave me. It’s like you know how the world feels to me.” Then they paused. “Is that because you have visual impairments too?”

I thought about that for a moment. “No,” I said. “But my mother does. She’s a scientist who built her career on doing incredibly precise and detailed visual tracing of cells in the developing brain. She perceives light, and she uses some different technology than you do, but I learned enough from her to use my imagination. It’s not that hard to close my eyes and think about the input I’m getting from my other senses. And while I don’t have vision limitations myself, I’m losing function in my hands because of an autoimmune disease.” I asked if I could shake their hand, felt them flinch at the icy quality of my skin. “Cold, right? I don’t have much circulation in my fingers. Sometimes they won’t grip and sometimes they freeze up so I can’t use them at all. So I know what it’s like to have a disability and feel terrified that you won’t be able to finish school because of it.”

This seemed to put my student totally at ease, and we got down to real talk about our health conditions and the journeys we’ve taken to manage them. My student showed me one of their glass eyes, painted to exacting perfection. They told me about some of the absurd stereotypes about blindness they had encountered on campus. I thought the strangest one was the anger people had shown when my student wasn’t using a cane to navigate the sidewalks, as if it were their responsibility to wear a sign announcing to the world that they had no light perception. “I’m not about the cane. I have one, but I don’t use it much. Things are so much easier with my dog, so I bring her anywhere I can. And sometimes I just use my hands to navigate. It really depends on the situation and how I feel that day.”

We went over the survey quickly, and agreed to meet up at the formal training for student assistants in a couple of weeks. Having a non-sighted student participate in the project turned out to be a huge win for our team, as well as for their own confidence about what they could accomplish with their graduate degree. Other students didn’t miss a beat, making sure that walking paths in the classroom were clear while also not pushing any assistance that wasn’t desired. My student came prepared with Braille versions of each survey and showed them to the other research assistants. Partnering up wasn’t necessary when the time came to do data collection—we arranged piles of the two surveys at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock at my student’s station, and they used their Braille versions to read the surveys to anyone who requested help.

My student took the lead on developing presentations to share our data with the community. We’d been learning all summer about health challenges in Havana, a small town north of Tallahassee, and my student excelled in putting all of the data together in a community-friendly PowerPoint. They worked with our other graduate student, who had more quantitative training but did not enjoy qualitative analysis or making presentations nearly as much, to get some statistics for the slides. Both students were invited to speak to the community, but only one accepted—my sighted student hadn’t found their comfort zone yet with public speaking, so I let them take the lead on writing a research report instead while we went out and talked to area residents.

At the meetings, participants were enthralled by the Braille notes my student used to present our results and get feedback from the group. Several people mentioned that it made them feel more comfortable talking about their own health challenges to meet researchers with different functional limitations and chronic conditions. What was a disability in a technical sense became an opportunity in a social one—an indication that people could speak openly about their own experiences without shame or judgment. I had seen this time and again in my own work, but my student said it was a first for them. “It had better not be the last,” I noted. “Your professors and employers have a responsibility to accommodate you for any task that you can safely do.”

It has been a few years since this particular student studied on campus, with or without a white cane. But we have many other students with different types of visual impairments, all of whom go about navigating the campus a bit differently. If you’ve met one person with vision challenges, you’ve met that one person, and you probably met them under a specific set of circumstances where they approached tasks a certain way. Maybe you didn’t know what the world looked like to them, or if it looked like anything at all. But if you asked yourself that question, and really took the time to think about the answer, you performed the most basic task of accommodation and inclusion. As more evidence of that sort of thinking appears on our campus each year, we all have new opportunities to take that thinking to a higher level, and ask ourselves what we can do better in the future.

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White Canes and Black Coffee: Reflections on Different Ways of Seeing the World

In this post, Xan Nowakowski discusses the importance of White Cane Day and accommodations for students and scholars with different levels of visual functioning.  

I walked into my office smiling last Thursday because change was in the air. It was White Cane Day, and this year our campus was decked out with materials to promote awareness and accommodation for blindness and visual impairment. I smiled because I’d never seen so much activity here for White Cane Day before, and it made me think about other positive changes I’ve been noticing lately to make the campus more accessible for people with limited sight. We’ve installed accessible pedestrian signals that chirp assertively when someone gets near a construction fence or crosswalk. We’ve increased the size and prominence of trigger plates for automated doors, and on some of the signs for classrooms and conference rooms that use Braille text. Hopefully these improvements are signs of good things to come.

Visual functioning has been on my mind a lot since I was very young. Despite having a lot of other challenges with physical health, I have always had strong eyesight. Even during times where my vision was affected by severely low potassium levels or side effects from medications, I was always able to see more than well enough to navigate different physical environments, drive a car, and read written text. But I grew up thinking about accommodations because of what I learned to do for others in my life, beginning at home.

My mother is one of over 85 percent of people with significant visual impairment who have few challenges with light perception. By contrast, only between 10 and 15 percent of people who score as “blind” on current clinical assessments have no light perception. I learned over time that when my mother said that she was “blind without glasses”, she didn’t mean that she couldn’t see at all. Rather, she could see a sort of “big picture” of the world with no details, either up close or at distance.

I watched my mom use adaptive techniques and technologies to complete every task she’d set for herself during the day to her exacting standards. Mom is a developmental neuroscientist by training, and spent about 30 years doing laboratory research and intensive neuroscience education before shifting her focus more prominently to teaching, course leadership, and curriculum development. When I was little, she’d fiddle with her top-quality Zeiss microscope to get a tiny section of mouse brain perfectly into focus. Then she’d trace cells onto white paper in red and blue pencil, marking the path of the ones she and my father were tracking as the brain continued to develop.

I always wondered how she achieved that level of precision in her work—how anyone would. And as my autoimmune disease slowly destroyed nerves and blood vessels in my hands, and my ability to use pens and pencils for more than quick tasks along with them, I was hit with the sharp realization that I couldn’t have done her job without the aid of a modern computer. Other things, I could have done more easily. My mother is notorious for making beautifully detailed and labeled slides for her students, which she builds by getting her screens adjusted just right so she can see the text clearly at close range. It’s a simple accommodation that a lot of people make, and that technology has made much more available to people throughout the world.

Mom’s attention to detail is razor-sharp even moments after she wakes from sleep—always has been. It’s what made her a technical wizard in the lab when she first got her start as a scientist. I’d watch her measure scoops of coffee for the percolator, each one perfectly level and symmetrical.   Sometimes she’d tease me for asking her about something visual early in the morning, before she had her trifocal glasses on. Her jokes helped me learn that what seems like a perfectly reasonable question to a person without visual impairment can seem totally absurd to someone whose vision functions differently. The fact that she could measure out coffee to the grain didn’t mean I could just expect her to process new visual information without the right glasses.

As I got older, I met many other people with varying degrees of visual impairment. From a colleague with Down syndrome, I learned that often what prevents people with this condition from living alone is not cognitive functioning challenges, but rather visual impairments that make getting a driver’s license impossible under current law. From a friend with glaucoma, I learned about smartphone apps that make it easy to read and write on a small device. From a friend with Duane syndrome, I learned about different types of special lenses that help to strengthen muscles that support the eye.

I kept learning from my mother, too—when the retina detached in her “bad eye”, when the macula puckered in her “good” one, when the cataracts started to grow from multiple surgeries. Then she had the larger cataract from her former “good” eye removed and we started playing a game called “Camera 1, Camera 2” where she’d close one eye and then the other to make the world appear in white or yellow tones. It felt okay to laugh in those moments. After all, this surgery was the first to improve Mom’s visual functioning, and she actually had to return to wearing an old pair of glasses with a weaker prescription.

Just from watching and listening to my mother over the years, I learned a lot about how people with different types of functional limitations complete tasks and solve problems. I also learned a tremendous amount about how to start constructive discussions surrounding ability and disability, and create inclusive environments for learning. Mom won several awards over the years for her work in medical education, and her office was constantly filled with students seeking help negotiating challenges in the classroom. She’d share some of these stories with me, never naming any names but making sure I understood the basics of each case.

Always the educator, my mother would ask me how I’d handle accommodations for that student if I were teaching the class. We’d talk about all of the different intersecting issues in providing reasonable and helpful accommodations: fairness to students with accommodations as well as other students, responsibilities of professors versus those of students, current laws and school policies about accommodations, social responses to people with disabilities, and much more. I didn’t know it at the time, but the education I received from my mom about disability and accommodation would become a very important resource for my own teaching activities later in life. Indeed, it would become a cornerstone of my approach to student engagement. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the ways in which these early-life experiences have helped me create opportunities and remove barriers for students with blindness and visual impairment.

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Our Peers, Ourselves: Introspective Tips for Insightful Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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