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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teaching Science through the Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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My Work Starts at Home

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

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

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

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

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Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

————————————————————————————————————————————

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

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

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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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Comprehensive Exams are a Glorified Hazing Ritual

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From faculty:

 

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

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

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

“People have failed them before.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

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