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Earlier this month, I attended the summer Teaching and Learning Workshop of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), held at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. ACS is an organization of private liberal arts colleges in the US South, including my own institution (University of Richmond). My university offered funding for any faculty, especially those of us on the tenure-track, to attend, as this summer program can enhance one’s teaching. I jumped at the opportunity to attend, admittedly, in part, to signal my immediate willingness to grow as a teacher. I attended the program genuinely open to learning and receiving feedback on areas where I may improve, and I ended up finding the workshop extremely helpful.
The crux of the teaching training at the summer workshop is microteaching. Workshop attendees were divided into groups of six, in which we stayed for the week. In these groups, we took turns teaching a seven-minute “slice” of a full lecture. Other members of one’s group participated as students, took notes, asked questions, and attempted to understand the material — but as themselves, not pretending to be a typical student. The slice was recorded, and immediately played back for the class. Before and after playback of the slice, the teacher reflected on how the lesson went, and offered specific concerns and areas of improvement for the class to attend to. Then, guided by the teacher’s reflections, students articulated what they thought, felt, and experienced during the slice. The major challenge during these reflection sessions was for the teacher to simply listen to the students’ experiences without responding, and for students to avoid giving advice or reflecting on what should/could/would happen outside of the slice.
As you can imagine, this process challenged each workshop attendee. Finding a solid seven minutes of material, which would hopefully be engaging and understandable to a group of students outside of your own discipline, was tough. And, seven minutes seemed to be just enough time to get started, but to stop just before getting to the heart of one’s lecture or exercise. Many — myself included — find it strange, even uncomfortable, to watch yourself teach immediately after the slice, and then to hear how five other instructors-as-learners experienced the lesson.
This aspect of the workshop was extremely powerful for me — and emotional. In each of the three slices that I taught, I was asked to open up about how the experience of teaching was for me. This usually meant expressing self-doubt, worry, and uncertainty. And, watching the playback offered even more opportunity to be my biggest critic. Ironically, nothing the students said was ever as harsh as the things I said about my teaching. In fact, the feedback was generally positive, including the sentiment that my self-identified nervousness was never apparent to my students. (Although, several students mentioned my nervousness in their course evaluations of one of my spring semester classes.) There were a few areas wherein students felt uncomfortable or confused, but I could readily identify how to improve the lecture in my mind.
This process is also designed to make us feel safe and braver as teachers. We were encouraged to experiment and take risks with each subsequent microteaching session. I took the program staff up on this challenge. On day 2, I pushed myself to use John R. Brouillette and Ronny E. Turner’s “spit” exercise to teach social constructionism, even though I felt other academics would find the exercise silly or childish. Fortunately, this exercise went well and was very effective. This usually goes well in my classes. But, in this context, the immediate feedback session allowed me to hear why. These students were able to pinpoint their own visceral reaction to someone’s spit as driving home the point that “spit” (how we understand and react to it) is socially constructed.
On the third day, I challenged myself to give a lecture on sexual violence. As usual, I agonized over this lecture, worrying that it might upset students. The slice went fine. But, when invited to express how I felt after seeing the video of me teaching, I got choked up. Though not at a conscious level, I had found a safe space to express how charged the topic has been for me, in general and specifically in the classroom. I left that microteaching session feeling encouraged and empowered to take more risks in the classroom — and to feel comfortable having certain emotions related to the lecture.
Outside of teaching, we attended daily plenaries that exposed us to various classroom activities and teaching styles. Some of these sessions were devoted to reflection, either to process what we had done earlier that day or to develop goals for teaching upon our return home. In a later plenary, we were asked to choose one issue that we had not had the chance to address yet during the week, which we would share with a small group and receive feedback. I felt reassured to hear that I did not appear nervous when teaching, but feeling nervous and the pesky issue of self-doubt in general continued to plague me. During this plenary, I received encouragement and many suggestions to kick self-doubt to the curb for good.
Clearly, I enjoyed the workshop! Admittedly, I did not feel up to attending, as it was scheduled right at the point that I felt recovered from academic year. But, it was truly worthwhile, providing feedback on teaching that you cannot find anywhere else. I highly recommend attending ACS’s or similar workshops.
Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth. So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective. Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience. While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).
Researchers Are Human
In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful. I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s). In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd. I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.
Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness. Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.* There are few people in the US — the world even — like me. And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world. I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness. I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research. And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.
In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born. In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews. There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination. But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized. It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.
In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn. I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health. In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination. I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research. But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections. (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)
Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective. Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it). In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons. Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.
Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities. Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences? With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.? Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career? By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.
Personal Motivations For Research
No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research. Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:
It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.
I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study. Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism. The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color. I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry. Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work. Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?
I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study. For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses. Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome. (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.) But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses. If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health. A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.
And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published. To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia. There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom. But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.
There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism — “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.” In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower. I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).
Embrace Your Inner Unicorn
To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must. But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research. It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.
Can we stop pretending objectivity exists? Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons? Conformity is overrated. And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education. Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place. Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education. Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!
* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color. We’re already below 1% of the population here. Narrow that to multiracial gay men. And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs. Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.
Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought. Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations. Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world. (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”) However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work. For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding. And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).
It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are regulated and used that reflect inequality. I became interested in the sociology of emotions through my introduction to Arlie Hochschild‘s book, The Managed Heart – a study of the emotional labor of (women) flight attendants and the wear it has on their health and well-being. In particular, when forcing a positive, nurturing emotion for so long, the flight attendants in her study noted feeling disconnected from their authentic emotions. I can also relate to the idea of emotion work as a means of navigating oppression (i.e., avoiding discrimination and violence) in Doug Schrock‘s research on transwomen.
I am also interested in, and particularly sensitive to, the seemingly innocent ways in which we attempt to control others’ emotions. “Boys don’t cry.” “Stop your whining.” “Must be PMS. Amiright?!” “Calm down.” “He’s an angry Black man.” Some of these requests reflect good intentions. Some are simply demands to stop emoting in a certain way. Whatever the intention, these are attempts to control another person. But, I worry that the burden of emotional control — or being emotionally controlled, I should say — falls too often on marginalized people. In fact, certain emotions are seen as particularly threatening or inappropriate because of one’s social location.
It almost seems “angry Black” is redundant based on the way that Black people are criticized for presumably publicly expressing anger — anger that would be seen as understandable in a white person. It also seems that anger is read no matter one’s actual internal emotional state and one’s behavior or outward expression of emotion. So, to avoid the penalties of being read as angry and Black, some have to work even harder to seem
I would argue that at the heart of this desire to control marginalized individuals’ emotions is an unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate their experiences. The best example of this is the seemingly concerned and innocent question, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” This question suggests that your way of responding to an event or condition exceeds what is seen as appropriate. The flaw, however, is typically in the inquirer’s underestimation of how intense the situation is — and how frequently it occurs.
Let me give a specific example. Well, none come to mind because it has happened repeatedly in my life. In relaying that I feel upset after I have heard something so offensive, or even been victimized by discrimination, to a trusted friend or colleague, I have been asked, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” Now that I reflect on the question, it is unclear whether the inquirer is suggesting my perception of the event is inaccurate or my emotional response is inappropriate — it is probably both. The question sets me off because I do not feel the inquirer believes my perception of my own experiences, and has attempted to control my emotional responses to them.
It is insult to injury.
The most frustrating piece is that the question of overreacting presumes that the reaction is to an isolated incident. “So, he accidentally alluded that whites are American and people of color are not. I am sure he…” blah blah blah, benefit of the doubt. Because, you know, we are uncomfortable assuming someone is a bigot or fails to acknowledge their privilege, even when their behavior says otherwise. In reality for the oppressed person, these seemingly minor expressions of prejudice or discriminatory acts open up the wound from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of crap. It is not just that one racist asshole — it is yet another reminder that I will forever encounter racist assholes, who are then given the benefit of the doubt, while I am told an appropriate way to emote (if I am allowed to at all).
As these events add up, and the efforts to control your response add up, the larger picture becomes one of an oppressed life with nothing less than a smile on your face. You do not have the right to be upset about your oppressed status. If you are angry that you are oppressed, and that anger is understood by the oppressor, that oppression is no longer justifiable. We can longer reference happy Black slaves, and then miserable freed Blacks. We would not be able to justify the racism-motivated opposition President Obama has faced since the beginning of his presidency if we understood and appreciated his anger; so, we must undercut him by alluding to angry Black men.
Do me a favor. Strike “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” from your vocabulary. Never string those words together when someone has confided in you about their experiences — even beyond the examples above related to discrimination and prejudice. Particularly for marginalized people, we have already replayed the event in our heads a few times before naming it as unfair, discrimination, or at least worth of an upset response. We already have weighed the possibility of being dismissed or told that we are overreacting or simply hypersensitive before telling another soul.
Try, instead, telling someone you believe them (if you do). And, even if you do not, affirm their right to emote however feels right to their experiences. If you cannot muster that, just listen. Be just that one person who does not demand that an upset person justify to you that they experienced what they experienced and are properly responding to those experiences.
It is too easy to look back on stupid things I said, did, or thought in my youth. But, at times, I can look into my past with pleasant surprise regarding a thought or action. “Wow — how did I know what the heck I was talking about then?” Since I started the countdown to finishing my PhD around this time last year, I have been reflecting a lot on my college years. Maybe I am looking back to compare my experiences as a college student to what I imagine my students experience. There is also a bit of nostalgia because — well — graduate school was just a different beast. Related to that aside, I also find myself reflecting on the past because I actually knew things before grad school (despite the implicit messages I received)!
A Culture Of Opposition
One memory that, now, looking back surprises me is giving advice on navigating what I called a “culture of opposition” in academia. As a graduating senior, having served as president of the student activities group that year, I was invited to give parting advice to incoming student leaders. In planning events on campus, involvement in other organizations, and advocating for greater services for LGBT students on campus, I had amassed experience in working with students, staff, faculty, and administration. Through my experiences, it seemed you could assume most people were either not interested or invested in your efforts, and a few even took an extra step to get in your way. So, while attempting not to be a pessimist, I emphasized that one should not be naive about others’ willingness to support you.
A Pocket Of Opportunity
In the picture above, you can see the poster I created as a visual aid for my advice to incoming student leaders. That is me on the right, going through my South Pole clothing phase. The ominous mass on the outside is the aforementioned “culture of opposition.” I recall seeing a shocked face on one staff member’s face when I misspoke, saying “culture of oppression.” (I thought it was funny.)
On the inside of the circle, in the center, is what I referred to as a “pocket of opportunity.” I made an attempt to draw a pants pocket that is releasing little hearts into the air. For me, this pocket was student life. The fellow students with whom I worked, but more so student affairs staff, offered a safe, encouraging space that provided what felt like limitless opportunities for me to pursue my passions. They, along with a few faculty and administrators, supported me in my efforts to create a campus resource center for LGBT students. Within an otherwise disinterested and, at times, oppositional culture on campus, I found this small pocket of protection, encouragement, and support.
Find Your Own Pocket
I am reemphasizing a (provocative) point I made before: we, as marginalized people, do ourselves a disservice by buying into the fairytale of academia as a safe, inclusive, and equal place. Despite my wisdom about the “culture of opposition” as a graduating senior, I made the mistake of assuming the best about academia as I entered graduate school. And, I embarrassed to admit I did so again as I started as a professor (albeit to a lesser extent). There is no place that I can think of that will automatically be “home” for me, that will automatically be welcoming and encouraging for people like me.
In order to survive and thrive, we have to find our own pocket of protection/opportunity/support. Unfortunately, I do not have advice beyond knowing that we have to search, for it is not a given for marginalized individuals. I cannot say that I have readily known where to look, but it became clear that I had to look for allies, mentors, sponsors, and supportive communities. This has meant broadening my search beyond my own cohort, department, university — and, outside of academia.