Friends in the Pittsburgh area–come out for a good, hard, encouraging conversation.
Please share this flyer with friends who you think might be interested.
Not in Pittsburgh? Invite me to where you are!
Friends in the Pittsburgh area–come out for a good, hard, encouraging conversation.
Please share this flyer with friends who you think might be interested.
Not in Pittsburgh? Invite me to where you are!
I have found that the more structure I provide for students, the more confident they feel in engaging difficult ideas, the deeper they dive into the material, and the more prepared they are for class discussions. Here is the guide I’m currently using in my Soc of Religion class to yield that. Each week, students read one academic journal article or essay (among other tasks), using this format: sample sr reading notes
I find the Teaching Statement/Teaching Philosophy one of the hardest pieces of writing ever. I’ve never written one that I found to be really satisfactory, nor have I read many that have impressed me. I think this is a problem inherent in the genre: a teaching statement is to be a short (1 page, single spaced) narrative that connects your philosophy of teaching to the precise practices that you employ in the classroom. It’s not supposed to be general or trite, but, it also can’t scare away a hiring committee by setting goals that are too lofty, couldn’t be supported at the limited resources you’ll receive, or will make other teachers look like they’re underperforming. Also, it is somehow both supposed to be rooted in thoughtful, establish pedagogy (“best practices,” “evidence-based”) and also has to distinguish you from other applicants. You somehow have to be passionate without saying that you’re passionate (trite) and innovative without being demanding (and thus draining limited funds). Oh, and no matter what, you’ll ultimately have to fall in line with the folks over in Assessment, so don’t suggest things that won’t fly with them.
So, where does that leave you? You are aiming for something:
short: Just 1-2 pages if you are applying for a job, maybe 3-4 if you are up for tenure or review
first person in a voice that is consistent with your other materials: This should be as well-written as every other document you submit; unlike some of those, it will be in the first person, but it’s not excessively personal. It is still (despite being sometimes called a “Teaching Philosophy”) more of an argument, where you deliver a claim and back it up with proof.
disciplinary: What happens in a chem lab is different than what happens in a social work practicum or a discussion-based literature class. Think about the courses you will be teaching as described in the job call and focus your writing on those courses.
that delivers an argument and is also concrete: State the “philosophy” part in one sentence. Think of it like a thesis statement. Then, deliver a few specific pieces of evidence that you live out that philosophy. Give an illustrative example of a classroom interaction, describe a challenge that you surmounted in teaching, or talk about a successful assignment; deliver this as evidence that your actual teaching aligns with your stated philosophy. Need help generating ideas? Consider these questions:
The challenge of being specific is that there are all kinds of factors that shape our teaching that are out of our control, but we have to pretend, in a teaching statement, that they aren’t there. Ever teach in a classroom where the desks weren’t what you needed them to be? Perhaps they were bolted to the floor, so you couldn’t arrange the room to allow for discussions in which they could see each their classmates’ faces, or students were seated auditorium-style, with desks on different levels, so you weren’t able to have them get into small groups. Maybe you taught in a classroom without a ceiling in it, so any small group discussion quickly become very, very loud, or maybe the tech was so unreliable as to be useless. Maybe you had too many students to get to know them personally or assign work that would require extensive guidance or feedback in all your classes. These are the real conditions of teaching, but no one wants to hear about them. I’m not advocating lying, but teaching statements invite a kind of ignoring of real circumstances.
focused: Remember that this is short, so you don’t have time to address every worthwhile question. Instead, focus on a single theme. Look at the job call, the departmental mission statement, and the university’s mission or vision statement. Take the key words there and think about how your teaching aligns with them. For example, are you applying for a position at a public serving university where a high percent of students are Pell grant eligible? Teaching there is different from teaching at a private school with a large endowment. Show that you understand the scope of the job and value what the university values in teaching by focusing your statement on these concerns.
carefully crafted: The committee asked for this because they want it. If you don’t develop a thoughtful response to their question, you signal to them not only that you don’t care about teaching (which may or may not be true) but that you don’t care to be evaluated on your teaching. If you are applying to a teaching-focused position, that’s a bad move, but it also makes a terrible impression if you are applying for a job a research-intensive university. Your potential future colleagues have probably already had to deal with faculty who think they are above teaching, and that creates problems for them, forcing more mentoring, more teaching, and more cleaning up teaching-related messes on them. Show that you’re ready to carry your teaching weight by taking this seriously.
connected to your research: Do you conduct research on teaching? Teach about the stuff you research? Bring in guest speakers you know through your research? Assign students work that requires them to conduct primary research? Do you help students conduct research or publish it?
warm but not gushy, humble but not clueless: You know a lot about teaching, but you don’t know everything. Signal humility by talking about how your teaching has improved over time, your willingness to/history of participating in teaching forums or book clubs or mentoring programs, and speaking about your students in positive ways. Especially if you are a woman, avoid the words passionate and care about students, but also recognize that if you are a woman, you’ll be judged more harshly for failing to address the emotional needs of students. (This is just one reason why I’d like to see the Teaching Statement disappear as an application requirement.) In fact, get rid of all your verys and reallys and emotional words like delighted. I know that this totally sucks, because sometimes you are very excited about teaching, and sometimes it is a total pleasure to work with students, so taking these out undermines authenticity. But authenticity here is a performance, not, like, actual authenticity. No one wants to hear how the REAL you feels about teaching (I would like to assign more writing in my sciences, but the students at my university need more support than I can give them to make real improvement, so I’ve focused my energies on skills where I’ve found that they can make faster progress, like reading scholarly sources.); they want a you that is peppy but not obnoxious, smart but not so full of “the famous new methods”* that you’re going to want to revamp the whole curriculum.
My teaching philosophy changes according to the job that the teaching philosophy needs to do for me. I don’t consider that to be inconsistent; rather, I think it speaks to my ability to be flexible in my approach to teaching–that is, I am student focused, so my teaching philosophy is informed by the students I have in front of me. That is different in a private religious college compared to a regional school serving mostly first generation students from lower class families.
For my current position, at a mid-sized state school with a diverse and generally poorer student population, my focal statement (the thesis) is that higher education isn’t just merely about personal transformation for students but about changing their whole family tree–and thus about changing their communities. From there, I list ways that I teach to do this. It’s a teaching statement that won’t likely appeal to those who see higher ed as preparation for the “21st century workforce” or an individualist endeavor of self-improvement. But it is true to my vision of what higher education, at its best, does and why public higher education, in particular, is necessary for communities to flourish and democracy to thrive.
While I think my teaching statement is a good reflection of my values and approach to teaching, I don’t think its perfect, and I’m not sure that perfection is possible with these things. You don’t really know your audience, and the generic expectations are a bit undefined. In researching this blog post, I found a lot of conflicting advice from different but all reputable sources, yet I found little actual scholarship on teaching statements. What I see as the vital question–Does a teaching statement accurately reflect the kind of teaching a person does?–seems to be of no interest to researchers. We seem to assume that being good at writing a teaching statements is equivalent to being good at being a teacher, but that relationship isn’t proven at all–and, presumably, lots of the lousy teachers we know got their jobs based, at least in part, on decent teaching statements.
Above, Professor X from the X-Men, who probably never needed to write a Teaching Statement.
If we, as scholars, haven’t given attention to that question, which is the question that asks Is it worthwhile to require these? Do they tell us anything helpful?, then I’m not convinced that we take them seriously in hiring and promotion. And yet here we are, writing them. I suspect that’s because teaching statements can be a way to rule a candidate out rather than rule on one, which makes the work of a committee easier. We rule ourselves out when we decide not to apply for jobs that require them, saving the hiring committee the hassle of reading our application, and we get ruled out of we trip over unknown preferences in our committee, preferences that might not really matter in the classroom but that people hold on to dearly. You mention how important you think it is for students to read Shakespeare and the anti-canonist ax you; you mention that you craft your syllabi so that women are overrepresented among the authors read and the resident meninist vetoes you. Since you can’t know what these folks want, you are only risking alienating them, which pushes writers to be ever more vague or stick with the least offensive suggestions. (I say this knowing that I’d exclude a candidate from the pool of applicants if they talked about learning styles, but given that this theory has been so debunked, I think that’s fair.) Being risk averse makes sense when the risk–not getting the job, not getting tenure–are so high. But it also makes these documents pretty useless, I suspect, as evidence of our actual practices about teaching.
They do, though, signal to the university that the department cares about teaching, even if the department does not actually care about teaching. I mean, they are much easier to trot out as evidence that We Care about Students than things like a robust teaching portfolio with sample syllabi and assignments and graded student work. So, you’re doing a favor to your future department when you write them, which is a good start to getting that job.
*My teaching philosophy is probably closer to Althusser than Freire. Here is the French philosopher in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus“:
I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!). So little do they suspect it that their own devotion contributes to the maintenance and nourishment of this ideological representation of the School, which makes the School today as ‘natural’, indispensable-useful and even beneficial for our contemporaries as the Church was ‘natural’, indispensable and generous for our ancestors a few centuries ago.
A colleague caught me writing the other day at a time when they felt, perhaps, I should be doing something else. Attending a child’s rehearsal or athletic practice, I guess, or making something from Pinterest for an upcoming holiday or polishing the baseboards.
“You are so productive,” they said tentatively, and it wasn’t a compliment. “Do your children get enough–”
“Role models?” I interrupted. “Inspiration?”
As a reminder, even more of Karl Marx’s children would have starved to death while he wrote Capital if it hadn’t been for Engels. My benign neglect–let’s call it, opportunities for independence–is well within reason.
Which is one reason why this post circulating on social media the last week or so irked me:
It continues the lie that in order to be productive in academia, you have to sacrifice your personal life. We have to resist making that true by holding our institutions in check and preventing them from making ever increasing demands on our time. We have to ask, with each new demand, “What, specifically, would you like me to stop doing in order to do this?” We have to make it the norm that we don’t work round the clock.
We have to make sure that our personal lives are protected–whether that means resisting the pressure to go to every conference, giving up entire months of weekends each year, or resisting the pressure to allow our students to call us by our first names (unless we want them to).
It means resisting a culture of “wellness” and “self-care” that places responsibility for a culture of overwork on us an individual; instead, we must press for the unionization of labor in higher ed. It also means saying hell no to healthcare plans that punish people with higher premiums if they don’t meet “wellness” requirements set by insurers.
And it means writing, unapologetically.
To be clear: there are times (years and sometimes more than one of them in a row) when “academic productivity” may not be the goal, when other things–adjusting to parenthood, caring for an ill child, spending time with a dying parent, seeking breast cancer treatment–are the priorities. Those aren’t always choices we would like to make; sometimes, life makes them for us. Sometimes we can turn use them as opportunities to develop our virtues, but there isn’t always a silver lining.
But to say, in a blanket way, that writing is at odds with a good personal life is just a lie. In my experience, they go hand-in-hand: when I’m writing, I like the other parts of my life even better. Indeed, I think it’s often academics who aren’t writing who are the miserable ones. Instead of writing (which is hard, I know!), they avoid it by generating little dramas, prolonging meetings unnecessarily, implying that writing takes away from teaching (another version of the lie above), or, perhaps worst of all, creating unnecessary paperwork for the rest of us. If they’d just write, they wouldn’t have time for such nonsense, but since they aren’t writing, they have to justify their non-writing by being judgmental cranks. (If it is helpful, feel free to print this post out using the department printer and “forget” to pick it up.)
If you saw the post above this week and it left you feeling defeated, don’t be. It’s possible to be a happy writer and to have a happy life. If you want to know how I do it, check out the AGT monthly writing challenge, which starts the first Sunday of each month. The best part about it is being with other writers who recognize that writing is hard and that we’re happier when we’re doing it.
No good guys here.
Above, mourners at George H.W. Bush’s funeral include all the living former presidents and their wives, plus Donald and Melania Trump.
This photo represents so much grief to me. So much death.
6,979 soldiers killed in the Global War on Terror.
383 soldiers dead in the Gulf War.
Smaller numbers of military casualties almost too numerous too count under Carter, Bush I and II, Clinton, and Obama.
And the bigger numbers:
200,000 indigenous people dead and 1.5 million more displaced in Guatemala in a genocide that began during Carter’s term; under his leadership, the US failed to sanction Guatemala as the nation began a campaign of terror against peasants. We supplied training for military leaders, and tanks from Israel, subsidized with US war money, were used in the violence there.
Approximately 200,000 people in East Timor were slaughtered while Carter’s administration provided funding and weapons to the Suharto regime, whose atrocities were well-documented
More than 600 Namibians in a refugee camp killed by a South African airstrike in Angola, and Jimmy Carter refused to call for sanctions against South Africa (still an apartheid nation at the time) in the UN
Afghanistan destroyed–and ready to embrace the Taliban as an alternative to western warfare–after the US fomented rebellion against Soviet forces there under Carter. (Oh, and one of the men we trained to fight the Soviets was Osama bin Laden. So this grief is not foreign. This photo reminds me of the lives lost on September 11, too.)
75.000 civilians dead–85% of them at the hands of the government–in the Salvadoran Civil War. Carter’s administration gave at least $5 million, plus training, to in aid to the government. Among those dead were priests working for piece, including Oscar Romero.
Note that Reagan, whose interference in Latin America is a direct cause of so much suffering today, isn’t even in this picture.
Those seeking asylum in the US today are fleeing from violence that the US fomented in our fight against communism and the War on Drugs in Latin and South America.
Approximately 200 Panamanian civilians were killed during the US invasion of Panama and Operation Just Cause under George H.W. Bush.
Estimates of civilian deaths during Desert Storm range from 2,300 to more than 3,600.
In the War on Terror, we have no idea how many dead, and we have no desire to know, because the number would be so shaming and would likely inspire more terrorism against the US. Maybe 4 million or more.
Plus under George H.W. Bush, military excursions into Liberia, Zaire, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, and Kuwait. Under Clinton, Bosnia, Somalia (where 18 Americans were killed, 1 was captured, and 73 were wounded), Macedonia, Haiti, Central African Republic, Kuwait, Albania, Congo, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, East Timor, Serbia, and Kosovo–but, somehow, not Rwanda. Under George W. Bush, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Yemen, East Timor, Yemen, the Philippines, Georgia, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Haiti, and, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Obama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Uganda, Jordan, Turkey, Mali, Syria, and Cameroon. Under Trump, we continue to maintain 1.3 million US troops abroad, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Kuwait, Syria, Poland, and South Korea.
And, of course, at home: those who died of complications related to HIV due to government inaction during the Reagan/Bush years. Mass incarceration under Clinton. Rising hate crimes under Trump.
Below, Pakistani protestors remind Americans of the link between US-led killing of civilians via drones and terrorism. US presidents could care about human rights of the world’s most vulnerable people. If not, they are responsible for understanding that violence breeds terrorism, not security.
When a president dies, we invoke how “complicated” the presidency is. True. And you probably have to be a bit of a narcissist who is disconnected from reality to be able to withstand the pressure of getting the job. But it’s not “complicated” to engage in warfare that takes civilian lives 90% of the time.
When we say “complicated,” it could just be that we mean, “I’m scared of thinking about a world in which the US would not be able to destroy the entire world. I’m afraid of the work it would take to create a more just world. I am so scared that I’d rather elect a future war criminal than to work for peace. I’d rather send my children off to war than have to make peace on their behalf.”
I’d trade four living American presidents for the millions of brown-skinned civilians whose deaths they caused. In an instant. Of course. And so would the millions of enemies we made worldwide through our violence.
It’s the first day of finals week, which means I am getting roughly 6 emails per second from students who have just realized that they missed some key piece of information that I have shared with them no fewer than 9 times: in the syllabus, on the quiz over the syllabus, in the video of my explaining the syllabus that they can re-watch any time, in the transcript of that video, in the assignment, in the rubric to the assignment, in the announcement I put into our learning management system reminding them of the assignment, in the follow-up all-class email I sent to the whole class reminding them of the information, and, finally, two hours before the assignment is due and when I see that they still haven’t done it, in the targeted email reminder to all students who still have turned it in.
Which is why I need this post from my friends at Teaching is Intellectual:
I will add to this my own “how to” strategy for not snapping back with “It’s on the syllabus!”
When a student asks a question that has been explained clearly elsewhere in the class, I write back with a variation of this:
Screenshot the spot in the directions/syllabus/rubric that you are confused about, then send me the screenshot with your question about it. That way, I can make sure we are looking at the same document and are on the same page when I answer your question. You can screenshot something on a Mac using Cmd+Shift+4; on a PC, use the snipping tool. Attach is here using the paperclip icon, or paste it directly in the email.
Most of the time, when a student is reminded that they have all the skills they need to answer their own question, they do.Only sometimes do they have a real question. And sometimes they have discovered an inconsistency in the syllabus, which I, of course, want them to draw to my attention so I can fix it.
What is most common is that, in their question, they are asking, “Am I okay? Is this going to end well? Do I belong here? Can I do this?” They need my reminder–in the form of taking their question seriously but also in helping them remember that they can navigate college expectations without my direct intervention–that they are worthy of their place in the classroom. That’s the real lesson they need to learn, and it’s my job, especially as a teacher at a public university serving mostly first-generation students, to teach it, even amid the busy-ness of finals.
Whether you are already a fantastic, productive writer who can’t wait to get to your manuscript each day or you are stuck or struggling with half-done manuscripts, a backlog of pieces in your “to-revise” pile, and a feeling of dread when you open your computer each day, you are invited to join the monthly AGT Writing Challenge.
Each month, participants agree to write at least 400 words per day for 5 days each 7 day week, Sunday through Saturday. We start on the FIRST Sunday of every month, and since there are no breaks between monthly challenges, we are usually ending in the following month. If you meet your goals, you will write at least 8,000 words in a month with 4 weeks and 10,000 words in a month with 5 weeks. For December, we start on Sunday, December 2 and write through Saturday, January 5. That’s five big weeks of writing–so our goal is 25 days, which will produce a total of 10,000 new words.
Are you an academic writer worried about how finals and break will affect your productivity? Writers in the AGT writing challenge have shown over and over again we can write even when we have a lot of other obligations–and, in fact, we often enjoy those other obligations more when we meet our commitment to write. December is a great time to take time for yourself and your own writing goals.
Here’s how it works:
You buy into the challenge with US $20, payable via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you prefer, check. (Just email me at email@example.com to ask where to send it.)
You write 5/7 days each week, at least 400 words. Each day that you write, you send your writing to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the word count in the subject line. If you meet your goal for the month, you get your $20 back.
If you miss a day, you lose $3. If you miss 2 days, you lose $6. If you miss more than 2 days, you lose the full $20.
Forfeited funds go into a kitty that funds a small monthly prize, drawn at random from among those who meet their 20-day goal; occasional random drawings among participants for other contests; and administrative costs associated with organizing the AGT Writing Challenge.
How do I get started?
From the email address you prefer to use in our correspondence, email me with your name, the email address associated with your Facebook profile (so I can add you to our Facebook group), and how you plan on paying (PayPal or check). If you’d like an accountability partner, please let me know in email. Send any other information you think is important and any questions you might have.
While you can email me your intention to join and put in your $20 at any point, each AGT Writing Challenge begins on the first Sunday of every month. You may join up to two days after the start date but those two missed days will count as your skip days that week, so you’d need to write Tues-Sat of that first week to meet your goal. After the first Tuesday of a month, it’s too late to join for that month, so you’d need to join in the following month. Each challenge runs for four or five weeks–until the next month’s first Sunday.
Participants include professional writers, those writing after a hiatus, and people coming to writing for the first time. Some people are working on professional projects, while others are working on personal ones. Our writers are working on novels, short stories, academic articles, academic books, dissertations, blogs, religious devotionals, memoirs, and more.
What can I write about? Can I work on more than one writing project?
You can write about anything you like. Some folks work on one project the entire time they participate, while others switch between ongoing projects on a regular basis–sometimes even within the same day.
The AGT Writing Challenge is a good opportunity to work on writing that you might avoid otherwise–a spot in your novel where you are stuck, an academic article that has been languishing, or a short story that you think could be good if you’d just revise it.
Do you read my writing?
No. If you send your writing within the body of an email, I’ll see the first few lines when I open the document, but I don’t read it. If you send your writing as an attachment, I don’t open it except to do a word count if you’ve not included a word count in the subject line.
How does the AGT Writing Challenge support my writing?
In addition to regular email check-ins, you can participate in our secret Facebook group, where writers share inspiration and advice, ask questions, and support each other. If you like seeing your daily writing total add up, you can check in with our Google Sheet, an online spreadsheet where you can self-report (using your real name, initials, or a pseudonym) your daily writing progress and see how your efforts are comparing to others in the group. And you can request to be paired with an accountability partner from the group.
How do accountability partners work?
On the first day of the new Writing Challenge, I’ll share an invitation on FB for folks to request partners, and we’ll use the space there to match folks. If you want a partner but don’t use FB, just email me and let me know that you’d like to be matched. You and your partner are matched for the whole month, with new partners reassigned each month. You should figure out how you want to check in with each other (FB Messenger, text message, or something else ), how often (daily, M-F, every other day, etc.), and what you want to do in those check-ins (Sometimes a regular, specific question works well: “Did you write for that grant project you have due soon?” “How many words did you add to your chapter today?”).
What can I expect to get out of this?
If you stick with your goal, you will write at least 8000 words. But while many people join to pump up their output in terms of word count, they often find they experience other benefits like:
How does this work?
Some participants have called the AGT Writing Challenge “magical,” and I don’t disagree–but it’s not clear that the magic works the same way for everyone. Some folks are very motivated by the idea of losing their $20. Others see the $20 as a reward and put it toward a prize of their own to reward their hard work. Most people find that they can do 400 words a day–it’s enough to push their writing forward (You can get an idea out, develop an example, or write an important point in 400 words.) without it being too daunting. Watching your project advance is its own kind of motivation. By the time you’ve had your seat in your desk chair long enough to write 400 words, you often find that you have the time and energy to write more. 400 words can be done in lots of different settings and in a short amount of time, so it becomes harder to say “I don’t have time.”
When you overcome a writing obstacle–whether that’s a technical difficulty in writing, a plot point you’ve been struggling with, a piece of data you couldn’t explain, a bad habit (like interrupting yourself to check email), or something else–you become more confident that you can overcome the next difficulty.
And the AGT Writing Challenge is rooted in respect for writing, encouragement (rather than competition, which is, unfortunately, the situation many of us face at work), and the belief that we all lose when good ideas are lost–and when good thinkers don’t get their ideas out there.
What if I’m writing something I can’t share?
If you are working on a large project that can’t be shared due to privacy concerns, it’s probably not a good pick for the AGT Writing Challenge. However, if you must occasionally write a piece you can’t send in (a faculty review, a review for a book proposal, etc.), just send the word count and a note explaining what you worked on.
What do you do with the writing I send in?
I keep it in my dedicated AGT Writing Challenge email account for the duration of the month. Depending on the number of writers, it may take me up to a week to contact everyone to let them know if they met their goal for the month. After that, I usually wait about 3 days, just to make sure that I didn’t get anyone’s individual tally wrong, and then I delete the emails that contain your writing.
How long do people stay in the AGT Writing Challenge?
Some folks participate for just one month. Others pop in for a month, then take a month off, then come back. Some have participated every month since they joined. Stay as long as you like–and come back whenever you need to.
Do I have to be producing new words each day?
Recognizing that everyone needs to revise and edit (and some folks need to produce tables, which have relatively few words but are a necessary and time-consuming part of their work) here are some ways you can count these kinds of work:
If you have other strategies, suggest them! And feel free to experiment with different strategies until you find one that works for your needs.
Do you offer proofreading, editing, coaching, or writing services?
I do, and you can read about them here. And if I’m not available or not a good fit for you, I’m happy to recommend other editors or writing coaches.
I’m a student. Would you write my paper for me?
No, but I will contact your academic dean, your advisor, and the instructor of the class and let them know you asked.
Where did the idea for this Writing Challenge come from?
A few years ago, I applied for IRB approval to do something like this as an experiment in an online course. My university denied it, saying that the project was too much like gambling. The state’s Department of Finance and Administration (which oversees lotteries, bingo, and games of chance) disagreed, and I argued with the decision, citing a body of literature on similar projects on smoking cessation and weight loss, but the IRB committee was adamant–anything remotely like gambling was off limits. (Those in higher ed in Arkansas might see a joke in here: the state’s lotto funds higher ed scholarships.) But I kept thinking about the idea and eventually decided to apply it to one of my other interests: supporting writers.
We often get stuck thinking that the only way to progress is through criticism. I disagree. Personally, I’ve never once improved because someone tore me apart; I’ve only ever really improved when I felt confident and when others saw potential in me. I figured I wasn’t the only one, so a project like this one might work for other people, too. And if it chips away at a culture of humiliation, that’s a bonus! At the heart of this model is the idea that we can all succeed, that there is room enough for everyone’s ideas, and that we are not in competition for scarce resources but that the more of us in the conversation, the more opportunities we have to develop our ideas.
What motivates you to host this event?
Previously, I’ve directed Women and Gender Studies at Arkansas State University and worked as a dissertation and thesis coach at the University of Kansas. In both roles, I saw my work as helping others build their capacities for writing and research. I love that kind of work–encouraging others, supporting them as they move forward. I’m especially passionate about helping those traditionally underserved by higher ed, including women, first generation scholars, and people of color.
Hosting this been a lot of fun for me so far and encouraging in every way. I’ve cleared off lingering projects, moved new ones forward, got to experiment with new forms, learned a lot about myself as a writer, and reminded myself of why I got into academia in the first place (because I love writing! and I love seeing people succeed in their writing!). And, seriously EVERY SINGLE DAY I get to see AGT writers all bringing new ideas into the world!
I have some more questions.
Contact me at email@example.com.
Some students at the University of Limerick have been kindly engaging God Hates this semester and have asked a number of great questions about research ethics with a hate group. I answer them in a Q & A format below.
How do you gain access to a hate group?
It really depends on the group, so the first step is knowing as much about the group as you can learn without doing person-to-person research. Safety is paramount, and it’s not safe for everyone to do research with hate groups. We’re not trying to pull a BlacKkKlansman here, so you need to know, as far as you can, if they will accept you at all as a researcher. You have to be honest about who you are and what you are going to be doing with the information that you gather. This may mean that you have to avoid gathering information that would endanger your research participants. If you are observing illegal behavior, for example, you don’t want to gather information that would let you identify a participant. This means you have to think a lot (and have to work with your IRB) to decide what you can ethically observe. But respondents have to know that your work isn’t going to endanger them.
I do a lot of work with churches, which, compared to other groups, are relatively open, though, of course, there is secrecy within religious groups, too. I just mean that much of what a church does is done in public. If you are struggling to gain access to a group, you might begin by narrowing your research project to the data you can public gather, such as an analysis of the group’s website (if it one) or speeches from its leaders made in public. After you demonstrate some knowledge about the group, they may be more likely to give you access.
How do you build rapport with members of a hate group?
You listen carefully for what they want to talk about, and then you talk about those things until they are willing to talk about harder things.
In survey research, we often put the most important questions up front since, if people begin their surveys with questions about demographics, they may get bored quickly and not finish when they get to the harder questions. If they’ve already answered the harder questions, they feel invested in the process and are more likely to finish the quicker-to-answer demographic ones.
In contrast, with interviews, you have to ask the easy questions first to help people find their voices. This is especially true if you are recording, which can feel awkward to people. At the same time, many hate group interviewees will not want to share the kind of information that small-talk is likely to reveal. They can’t talk about where they work because they don’t want their employer to know that they are part of a hate group, for example, and they may find questions about their families threatening.
To find what people are willing to talk about, look for cues that they give: the logo on their t-shirt or on a button on their bag, the tattoo on their arm, the dog they brought to the interview. Find something to show interest in. If you are meeting in a coffee shop, let them order first and order the same thing and then comment on how you share a favorite drink.
It can be tempting to prime your respondent to answer by sharing a bit about yourself. It’s fine to share the name of your favorite drink at Starbucks or let your respondent know that you’ve never heard of the band on their t-shirt but that you’ll check them out, but you shouldn’t trade personal information–first, because it may be dangerous and, second, because you don’t want to distract the conversation with personal stories.
Practice interviewing on easy subjects–Trust me: your grandma would LOVE to help you, so give her a call and ask her questions!–before you get to members of hate groups. You’ll want to have a nice balance of questions–mostly open-ended and friendly. You have to ask 20 easy questions (even if they are not getting to the information you most care about) before you can ask a tough one, and that’s okay. Ethnography is a long process.
Finally, remember that companionable silence can also build rapport. Do something together, keeping your body busy until talking becomes easier. If the person or the group is doing something that you can participate in, do it. Go for a run or a walk with them, pitch in making the group’s common meal, clean up the dishes afterwards, etc. While you don’t want to be exploited or do anything that would cast a doubt on your scholarly interest, activities like this can make it easier for people to talk because they aren’t focusing on their words alone but also doing something else.
Would you describe any of your relationships as “friendships”? Is it okay to be friends with the people you study? If not, how do you prevent your relationship from becoming too close?
When working with “unloved” groups, it can be easy to believe that these are people just like you. But that’s not true. They’ve committed a significant part of their life to advocating hate toward other people. No matter how much like you they may be, they’re also different in a really significant way.
Can you be friends, outside of the research setting, with people who advocate hate? I guess it depends on what you consider to be the meaning of friendship. I think you can be friendly with them, in the sense that you can treat them with kindness and even enjoy them in small doses. But, for me, friendship requires some agreement on core values.
That said, I really enjoyed being with members of Westboro Baptist Church, probably more than they suspected. They are smart, engaged, funny. Many of them are kind and generous. I love theology and appreciate other people’s passionate engagement with it, so my talks with church members about theology were always fun. I felt respected by them, and there were times when I felt genuinely cared for because, I think, I was. But all of those things can’t cancel out the fact that they also do damage to other people.
Some of the people I met when I was attending the church regularly for research have since left and I would consider them to be real friends now.
How do you get detailed information in ethnographic research?
Ethnographic work requires a lengthy time investment. Unfortunately, the increasing cost of higher ed in the US and a push to graduate students ever faster may endanger it, which is a shame, because I also think it’s one of the best ways to understand complex phenomena.
Ethnography also requires a sensitivity that can be exhausting. You are trying to notice all things at once, which can be exhausting. One thing that I found helps was having a ritual of some kind that marks the transition between research and non-research. For me, preparing to enter a church service, I’d sit in my car for a few minutes before entering the building and practice some mind-clearing techniques. I’d open to a new page in my notebook and get out a nice pen and a freshly sharpened pencil. Those items–the blankness of the page, the pen full of ink and the pencil with a serious point–reminded me to be open and aware and to write a lot. Other rituals would work just as well, of course, but the point is to have something that reminds you Now I am paying attention.
You also have to repeat experiences. You have to go back and see the same thing over and over. You can’t catch everything the first time.
How do you stay safe during research?
The physical dangers of work with hate groups are real. During my time research WBC, the church was the target of an arson, and they were stalked by a man who expressed the intention to commit a mass shooting. So, for me, the risks weren’t from within the church but from without it.
In other groups, especially ones where guns and misogyny and homophobia come together, the threat is from within. Researchers need to have a plan for every conceivable situation, formed from the insights of others who have done work with such groups. What if they demand you undergo a pat down when you arrive? What if they take your cell phone upon entry? What if the group engages in weapon play? What if they insist that you get in a vehicle with them and go to a new location? What if they demand that you drink alcohol with them? What if you are in imminent danger? What if you discover that they are planning imminent violence–that is, violence that includes a feasible plan of action against a known target? You need to have those phone numbers in your phone (but not labeled with labels that would indicate that is who they belong to) before you begin field work.
Your IRB team should be able to provide some help here, but I also think it’s a good idea to ask colleagues to review your plan with you. While gangs and criminal enterprises aren’t hate groups, sociologists, criminologists, and anthropologists who do fieldwork with these groups may have some helpful strategies to share aw well.
How do you care for yourself in other ways during research?
Many people have hard jobs working with tough people: prison guards, social workers, nurses, teachers. However, to a certain extent, we understand risk as part of those jobs, and we have done some work to mitigate that risk. Unfortunately, academia hasn’t spent a lot of time training scholars who work with tough topics on how to handle the emotional and mental part of our work. Oh, we learn how to locate and read items in an archive or how to conduct interviews, but we’re not trained to even be aware of, much less address, our own pain when we see a postcard from a lynching, hear a recording of a racist speech, visit a mass grave, or interview a person who has committed a hate crime. That’s something that higher ed needs to do much better, because the risk of PTSD from research is real.
So much of what I have learned has come from other disciplines, like social work, and how they do this work, and from experience. From the start, you need to know yourself: What kind of things can you absolutely not handle? Be honest about those things and find ways to support the people who do that work while recognizing that it’s not for you. Also, once you begin your work, check in regularly with yourself. Have specific questions written out in advance that will help assess whether you are doing okay. Review those questions to see if there are new ones you need to add. If you aren’t caring for yourself, how will you know? Will it show up in your sleep? A jaw exhausted from clenching it or back pain? Stress eating? Drinking too much? Put those things in a list and check on yourself regularly. Also, put it in a list and share the list with friends. Ask them to ask after you, with a focus on those issues, and ask them to pay attention for you.
A good support team will be like a belaying partner in climbing; if you fall, they will feel it in their line. They’ll catch you, help you find your footing, and ask why you fell so you can figure out how not to do it again. You don’t need a huge support team, but you do need one with members who are committed to monitoring you and checking in with specific questions and who are looking for specific cues that you might not be doing well.
Finally, be aware that part of the work is the not-work. That is, you may have to enter and exit the work slowly, like a scuba diver who has to come up a bit at a time in order to avoid decompression sickness. That may feel like a waste of time, but it’s not. For example, after I left a Westboro Sunday service, I would typically take the next hour or so to type up my notes, which provided me with a chance to see patterns in what I was observing (and also notice if I wasn’t giving attention to something), translate my hurried handwriting into something I’d be able to read later, and also review what I’d observed with a little more distance. I’d do this in a little café near the church, and then I’d follow that by eating lunch while doing some other related reading–basically, stuff I needed to think about and that applied to my work but was a little more distant. Then I’d drive the 30-40 minutes home, putting even further distance between me and my observations.
Likewise, I’ve recently finished a project that involves watching a lot of videos produced by people who advocate for bombing abortion clinics. I had hours and hours and hours of videos to watch and code. You can’t zone out, because coding requires attention to detail–but you also can’t watch too many of these videos in a row. I just had to accept that about an hour a day on this project, from start to finish (which might be just 15 minutes of video watching) was enough. I also found that I had to watch them early in the day, because if I watched them later, closer to my return home in the evening and time with my young children, I struggled more to be present with them. I didn’t follow my own advice above (to have a list of things to pay attention to that would be evidence that I wasn’t doing well), and one night I came home from work, having just watched a bunch of videos that included images of fetal remains, and I started to make quail for dinner. The quail looked so much like dead fetuses (not really, I was able to see later, but my brain wasn’t believing it at the time), and I started vomiting. I’d been carrying the pain of those pictures with me, the pain of pregnant women, the pain of doctors who perform abortions, and the anger of people who bomb clinics, all represented in those images and how clinic bombers deploy them, and I didn’t realize it, but my body did, and it told me to be more careful.
I just had the pleasure of reading Jennifer Johnson’s Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire for Reading Religion, an online book review endeavor from the American Academy of Religion. You can read the review here.