Our Peers, Ourselves: Introspective Tips for Insightful Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doc Eat Doc World? Thinking Differently About Peer Review

This week’s post is the third in a four part series where Xan and J share experience and tips managing academic publication and reviewing.  In this post, Xan discusses the elements of being a good reviewer and some ways to capitalize on reviewing opportunities in terms of careers and networks.

Hello readers, Xan here! Over the last couple weeks, we got some great tips from J on how to publish a whole bunch – see here and here. This week, I’m offering some insights on sitting at that other side of the publishing table: being a reviewer! I’ll follow up this first post next week with my own top tips for writing awesome peer reviews, and building your reputation as a scholar in the process.

Writing peer reviews is a great way to support your fellow scholars and have a hand in getting good research published. There’s a lot of good research floating around out there in peer review, so this is a very important task! Serving as a peer reviewer also provides you with the opportunity to strengthen manuscripts that are merely okay with suggestions that help the authors make them truly great.

It also certainly doesn’t hurt that writing peer reviews for a diverse array of journals looks great on your CV. If you’re Writing Where It Hurts on the regular by doing scholarship and outreach on controversial topics, or if you occupy a marginalized social location within academia, or if you just want that promotion so badly you can taste it, writing awesome peer reviews can help you get there! Being a peer reviewer helps you to shine not only by diversifying your record of professional service, but also by increasing your own chances of publishing in the journals of your choice.

As J pointed out earlier this fall, publishing a lot is very much about building strong relationships with editors at your target journals. Offering your services as a peer reviewer and writing thoughtful, constructive reviews is a wonderful way to accomplish this. There are certainly others, of course, but being a dependable and affirming peer reviewer is one of the best.

Editors absolutely do take notice of the content and quality of reviews you submit. And if you’re writing good ones, odds are you’ll receive more than a few emails from editors expressing gratitude for your excellent work, and urging you to submit your own work to that journal. Here at Write Where It Hurts, we get a lot of these emails, and we’d like to spread that good fortune around to as many people as possible.

Making an editor’s day with a really excellent manuscript review hardly requires a doctoral degree—indeed, it’s something all of you readers can do even if you are still in graduate school. Writing good reviews isn’t about the particular credentials you hold, but rather the critical thinking skills and spirit of curiosity you brought with you upon matriculation.

Of course, if you’re in graduate school right now, you’re probably also hearing a fair few horror stories about the peer review process. We all have them, and if you’re looking to publish a lot, your best bet is to treat them like literal horror stories—i.e., macabre entertainment. A certain neuroscientist whom I admire greatly once regaled me with tales of how a peer reviewer told her that her manuscript “should really be two papers, neither of which should be published”. She went on to publish the paper in another top journal.

J has given you plenty of excellent ideas for turning garbage into gold when receiving spiteful or just plain incoherent peer reviews. I’ll give you my own detailed perspectives later on how to write a truly golden review, even in those cases where you may think that a paper is absolute garbage. I have had this thought precisely once in the course of many years as a peer reviewer, and approached reviewing it from the perspective of coaching the research team in salvaging the paper if at all possible. The review earned me lengthy accolades from the journal’s editor, who in turn strongly encouraged the authors to incorporate my feedback for future submissions.

So I speak from experience in saying that the secret to writing good peer reviews is first and foremost to remember that we are all in this together. Although our perspectives as scholars may differ dramatically at times, we are ultimately part of a shared community of learners and teachers. We do our best work as members of this community when we remember that we do not stand in it alone, and that anonymity does not equate to null consequences for our own behavior. Even anonymity itself is a fantasy, of course. While the authors may never know who wrote that petty and vitriolic review, the editors certainly do, and they will remember.

Perhaps the more important question here, though, is why anyone would *want* to hit their fellow scholars below the belt in the first place. It’s a question I can’t answer with a high amount confidence because the correct response likely varies by individual, but I can certainly make some educated guesses. The hateful peer reviewer is academia’s equivalent of the Internet troll, a person whose only socially acceptable outlet for rage, which likely owes to a fair amount of perceived marginalization in their own life, is ranting into the abyss.

I suspect every person reading this article has experienced marginalization on at least one occasion in their life, and in turn entered a sort of “sneaky hate spiral” in which they eventually lose their composure and all semblance of social graces over a seemingly innocuous exchange. I’ve been there myself, and look back with a mixture of regret and empathy at those times where I’ve chewed out a customer service representative or scathingly silenced a grocery bagger for asking one too many questions about my personal life.

But likewise, I’ve tried to use those moments as an opportunity to understand what makes us find so much satisfaction in cutting down someone who has no power over us in the first place—and to use them as a means of connecting meaningfully with them and others afterwards. Beyond the world of academia, this has led me not only to apologize on the spot if I’ve snapped at someone, but also to explain what led me to do so. Without fail, the other person has responded with appreciation and compassion.

So what if we could do the same as peer reviewers—or better yet, simply jump ahead to the territory of sharing and connectedness? In my experience, we can and sometimes do…and it’s easier than we might think. Tune in next week for some tips on bridging the gap between criticism and critique by exploring our own thoughts as we examine those of others.

What does teaching feel like?

In this post, J. Sumerau asks us to consider and reflect upon what teaching feels like and how such feelings may vary and / or be illustrative in relation to different people, approaches, and social locations.

This week I experience one of my favorite times of the year – the beginning of classes for a new academic year. As I walk to and through campus, all the signs are there that a new year has begun. Some of the students are excited, others are nervous, and still more seem just plain lost as they look around for some kind of guidance. Some of the faculty are bouncing around with glee, others appear annoyed beyond belief, and still more are arguing about parking. I always experience a mixture of fear and exhilaration personally, which I figured I’d write about for a bit since it makes me wonder about variations in how teaching feels for different people.

In terms of fear, I find myself locking up – physically, emotionally, and even mentally – this time of year with anxiety about the fact that I must talk to and deal with people constantly from this point forward after a summer usually spent mostly in isolation – or as some friends say “hiding in my cave.” While my students rarely believe it until they see me outside of school, I’m not very social and interpersonal interactions are often very difficult for me to navigate so when I’m able to I simply avoid interacting with people (I prefer to watch them from a distance so to speak as I roam around cities alone listening to random conversations and / or whatever records I’m interested in at the moment). There may be nothing more awkward in my daily or normal routines than the thought of speaking to a room full of people and / or making small talk in a given hallway, and yet these are two of the most common elements of my occupational experience.

Companions who understand this about me sometimes express surprise that I love teaching as a way to make a living and spend my time. The answer lies in the other side of the coin – constantly doing something terrifying is in many ways exhilarating and never boring for me. My life – especially the parts that require human interaction and communication not accomplished via typing – feels like a constant adventure, a kind of boxing match between my fear of people and my desire not to be ruled by fear. While I have friends who spend days and hours deciding exactly what to say and do in classes, I almost never have any clue which of twenty or more outlined directions any given class might go. If I try to be more specific than that – as I learned by trying to do so in graduate school – I lock up, have a panic attack, and can’t speak. For whatever reason, deciding exactly what to say ahead of time creates more anxiety because I then worry about going off script or forgetting something important so – in much the same way I approach presentations at conferences – I instead come up with a bunch of different possible scenarios and then read my audience for cues as to what might be fun and useful (i.e., the same way I navigate interpersonal interactions outside the classroom).

If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that there may be an unlimited amount of ways to teach well, experience classrooms, and manage the self and the class in educational endeavors. From the colleague I know that designs a specific game for each concept to the colleague I know that maps out every possible student response so ze has an example and / or resource ready at hand at all times, people prepare and experience classrooms in a wide variety of ways. From the colleague that giggles whenever anyone says “course prep” because ze does not do any of that “boring stuff” and instead uses improv experience to run classrooms based on topics ze already knows well to the colleague who spends the entire summer preparing detailed and sophisticated lectures with graphs and charts because the structure eases their own anxiety about talking in public, the spectrum of possible approaches suggests – and I admit I’ve benefited from personally thanks to countless conversations with others on the matter – a wealth of information to be found sharing teaching approaches, experiences, and styles with one another.

These simple observations about the experience of and approaches to teaching lead me to wonder how others experience these dynamics. While rarely mentioned or written about (that I have seen) aside from social media posts here and there and online groups where teachers share frustrations and celebrations during the year, the way it feels to teach is likely a fascinating topic and would likely reveal a lot about the ways educators navigate the world and their lives within it. As I continue enjoying the fear and exhilaration of my own latest week one, I thus ask us all to reflect on what it feels like to teach and what lessons we could learn about teaching and ourselves from such reflection.

All the Pain Money Can Buy: How Far We Haven’t Come with Pain Control

Editor Xan Nowakowski, whose own experiences with a painful chronic disease have inspired much of their own research, reflects on seven years of scholarship on clinical pain management, and what they have learned from lived experience along the way.

When I started doing pain management research as a graduate student at Rutgers in 2008, it was an exciting time for the field. New technologies as well as off-label uses of less recent ones like the Interstim device seemed to hold tremendous promise, and intrathecal pumps and ambulatory catheters were achieving significant penetrance among a variety of service populations. Especially in the world of post-surgical pain management, new reasons to envision a bright future were cropping up all the time.

In the long-term pain management field, pharmaceutical companies were racing to develop drugs to address underlying causes of chronic pain. At the time, I was taking one of those drugs—Elmiron, the much-lauded “wonder drug” for management of interstitial cystitis. Those of us with chronic conditions dared to hope a bit too, even as we rode the capricious waves of hope and despair that living with persistent illness always seems to bring.

The summer of 2009 was a watershed time for me. I was completing my Master of Public Health fieldwork, preparing to finish the program, and thinking about my next moves. Though I did not know it at the time, within six months of completing my research I would make the life-changing decision to move to Florida. I would leave behind the place where chronic pain had brought me to the brink of suicide, and where I had learned firsthand why pain and post-traumatic stress so often go hand in hand.

I drove all around New Jersey that summer, interviewing hospital providers and administrators about the pain management modalities they provided, and the barriers they encountered in offering alternatives to opioid narcotics. One of the most instructive aspects of my own experience with chronic pain had been the Scylla and Charybdis choice I faced for over a decade, trying to reconcile my fears of opioid dependency and functional disability with my equally pervasive fears of ultimately losing my will to continue living with intractable agony. I would later learn that I was hardly alone in these fears.

The hospital personnel I interviewed were many, representing about 35 percent of all hospitals in New Jersey. They held a variety of advanced degrees and came from a variety of backgrounds, with differences in beliefs and practices that reflected the variations in their training. But what stood out most to me was the levels and awareness and compassion I consistently observed in the people I interviewed. Every single person I talked to viewed chronic pain as a serious problem worthy of serious clinical attention.

Likewise, each and every one of them reported feeling frustrated with insurance companies’ lack of willingness to pay for non-opioid treatment modalities. According to my study participants, this was the most prominent barrier to providing what they viewed as truly effective and responsive pain management in accordance with national guidelines. We shared those frustrations—I told my story to many of those providers after we wrapped up our interviews, and learned a lot of things “off the record” that have informed much of the work I have done since.

The people I interviewed shared my frustrations over care practices not being able to keep pace with scientific innovations as a result of funding barriers. Predictably, these problems were often worst in hospitals with a high charity care population. Some of these hospitals found creative solutions for their patients with chronic pain from conditions like sickle cell anemia by working with local Federally Qualified Health Centers. But as often happens in low-resource communities, need for these services greatly exceeded clinics’ capacity to provide them.

We still had plenty of reasons to hope, though. With so many new medications and technologies hitting the market and starting to permeate best practice recommendations for clinical care, there was ample justification for thinking about a pipeline effect in which impactful innovations would reach more and more health care users with each passing year, becoming more affordable in the process. The promise of affordable health care legislation from the Obama administration gave additional weight to this vision.

The summer of 2015 is now drawing to a close, and once again I am wrapping up a study on clinical pain management. This time I had a partner in research and less driving to do, and a ready team of MPH students and undergraduate research assistants eager to assist. We conducted semi-structured interviews with university health care providers, working excitedly to fill a gaping hole in the published literature on pain management. We had a wonderful experience getting to know one another and completing our study, and I loved every moment of watching my students shine as they enhanced their key informant interviewing and qualitative content analysis skills.

Yet as we finish coding our data and begin writing up our findings, my happiness has become increasingly bittersweet. My students’ achievements mean everything to me, and always will. Their thoroughness, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword. What my students unearthed in their probing of our study participants was an old familiar tale that rang all too true: lots of good options offered up by science, but no functional translation of these modalities into affordable clinical care for people with chronic pain.

It is 2015, and I still have to carry a bottle of opioid medication everywhere I go. This mostly achieves the purpose of quelling the crippling fear of not being able to control my pain if nothing else works. Indeed, the literature suggests that often the most helpful aspect of opioid medications is their ability to confer a sense of mastery to people who live with painful conditions. I feel this restoration of personal agency quite a bit when sitting in relative comfort as I am now, typing away on an article or blog post that makes me feel like my own experiences are gifts that yield professional insight.

I do not feel it as much during those times every few weeks when I lie curled up beneath my desk, praying into empty air that my medication will kick in. I do not feel it when phenazopyridine stains the edges of the toilet bowl, or when bleach fumes rise into my nostrils as I wipe away the evidence of how far we haven’t come in providing real options for people like me.   I especially do not feel it when the phenazopyridine fails to enhance the effect of the diphenhydramine I have already taken, and I have to reach for the bottle of narcotic tablets that I still associate with defeat.

I also do not feel any mastery when I remember why I stopped taking Elmiron—the surreal moment of standing in my parents’ kitchen holding an absurdly dainty gingham-topped jam jar of my own urine, staring in suspicion at the rubbery threads of unidentifiable discharge that had started appearing with alarming frequency. I had a moment where I realized that urinating through a tea strainer to catch “specimens” was about my limit. One is perceived as deviant enough when one lives with a mysterious autoimmune disease, even without making a habit of urinating in jars to inspect the contents.

I should interject that these shortcomings in the field are not entirely the fault of insurance companies. As the Affordable Care Act was being developed and organizations like the Institute of Medicine were continuing to refine their recommendations for best practices in clinical pain control, a storm was brewing that set the field of innovative chronic pain management back substantially. The retraction of some two dozen published studies on multimodal analgesia crippled other clinicians’ efforts to incorporate integrative approaches using new therapies into their own programs of care. As predicted, the field has yet to recover fully.

Of course, when you live with a painful chronic disease, you learn quickly that you never truly recover. Your body changes; your life changes; and your brain changes right along with them. Illness management becomes the name of the game—one that often feels like Whac-a-Mole rather than a game in which one defeats a series of bosses and wins. Good science, conducted by people with curious minds and compassionate hearts, is one of the best weapons we have in this game. But abuses of research ethics—even by scientists who may have the best of intentions in mind—can leave us fighting fisticuffs against enemies we cannot hope to vanquish on our own.

Later this fall, I will be doing a follow-up post here about the 2009 multimodal analgesia scandal and its broader implications for ethics in medical research, adding a perspective of lived experience to the insights offered by other clinicians as they reacted to the news about Dr. Scott Reuben’s research fabrications. In the meantime, I know that when many of you Write Where It Hurts, you are doing so in the most concrete and literal sense possible! So I encourage all of our readers to share stories and insights about pain management, including any research you have done on the topic and any lived experiences that inform your work.

What’s in a Name: On Bi and Pan Sexualities

A few weeks ago, I posted two pieces on Conditionally Accepted (see here and here) and one here on Write Where It Hurts exploring bisexuality in varied contexts and defined in varied ways. At the same time, Lain Mathers posted a piece here on Write Where It Hurts examining the ways these meanings and conflicts around bisexuality play out in lesbian/gay and heterosexual spaces. In this post, I want to reflect upon a question that regularly emerged in response to these posts – the relationship between bisexuality and pansexuality.

As I noted in the midst of some of the productive conversations that emerged in comment threads, the term pansexuality or pansexual (like bisexual, bisexuality and other fluid identity terms) is often rife with conflict. In my experience, this conflict arises as a result of the use of the term in three distinct ways by varied individuals and groups.

Before discussing these uses and the conflicts they contain, however, a little her-his-our-story may be useful. Initially, pansexuality was not coined as an identity term (i.e., like bi, homo, and hetero sexualities), but rather as a statement (often attributed to Freud and others at the time) on the presumed innate sexual desire of all humans. This elaboration is automatically problematic because it erases asexual existence and experience, but thankfully, this is not how the term is generally used at present. Rather, these days pansexuality is generally used as a form of sexual identification that dates back (at least) 3 or 4 decades. In this elaboration, it was initially established as a type or form of bisexuality wherein the person in question did not factor genital possession in the establishment of sexual desire and practice. In fact, many bisexual people I have known (myself included) use this term interchangeably with bisexual, fluid, and Queer among others to denote experience and identification with this end (i.e., lack of concern for genitals in matters of attraction and / or sexual activity and / or romance) of the bisexual spectrum (i.e., I may say I’m bi, pan, fluid, and Queer within a few breaths of the same conversation since for me (and historically) this is like saying I like guitars, fender guitars, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and bass guitars = I like guitars and here are certain types of guitars that especially fit my needs).

When this identification practice emerged, bisexuality (even in general use) typically referred to those people attracted to their own body and / or genital type and the bodies and genital types of others who were not the same as their own (i.e., these were people who engaged in both homo and hetero sexualities, therefore bisexual). Within this umbrella definition, some bisexuals were (1) attracted to more than one type of genital set or sex, some bisexuals were (2) attracted to more than one type of physical form (i.e., size, shape, race, sex, gender presentation, etc), some bisexuals (like me) were (3) attracted to all types of bodies (i.e., like mine and not like mine) whether or not they looked like their own body type, and some bisexuals (4) fluctuated along varied points of this spectrum throughout their lives. Within this spectrum of possibilities between self (1) and other (2) body types (i.e., bisexuality) and between homo (1) and hetero (2) sexualities, pansexual referred to the third type noted above (as did ambisexual, polysexual, and other terms).

In fact, this spectrum still finds voice within bisexual communities and umbrella designations, and remains the most common definition of bisexuality I have seen among bisexual identified people. Other terms, such as fluid (noted as number 4 above), have even been established to make sense of bisexual people’s locations within this spectrum / umbrella. However, the last few decades witnessed systematic erasure and marginalization of bisexuality within lesbian/gay and heterosexual communities predicated upon transforming the word “bi” from an expression of two ends of a complex spectrum of human engagement and desire preference into a simplified binary articulation of the male/female genital binary homo and hetero sex norms are built upon. Instead of bisexual referring to both homo and hetero sexualities, people began linking it to sex / gender binaries to essentialize homo and hetero sexuality. To put this into perspective, imagine if we began saying homo and hetero sexual meant one sex only instead of preferences for a type of sexual engagement – you would have the same thing that has been done to bisexuality over the past few decades, and it would likely sound as silly to homo and hetero sexual folks as it does to most bisexual folks aware of this history. In the process of this extermination of bisexual complexity in the hetero-homo imagination, some people (not surprisingly) began to identify as pansexual in order to avoid biphobia and monosexism within lesbian/gay/straight communities.

It is within this context that (at least) three uses of pansexuality have emerged as regular components of normative or mainstream sexual politics. In the first case, people adopt a more traditional interpretation of pansexuality as a type of bisexuality that refers to sexual attraction and / or engagement regardless of genital consideration. In such cases, pansexuals stand along side other bisexual people against monosexism and biphobia (and in many cases hetero and cis sexism), sometimes refer to themselves as bi-pansexuals or pan-bisexuals though just as often simply say they are pansexual and / or bisexual (or any other terms within the bi spectrum) in varied contexts and with varied others, and often find comfort and security in larger bi communities while working to provide the same for other bi people in lesbian/gay/straight communities. In such cases, pansexuality is not problematic at all – it is simply someone exercising their self and bodily autonomy to identity in the way that best fits their experiences and desires. They are harming no one, and often, as members of larger bi communities, helping others. In such cases, their identification efforts are similar to working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual when identifying themselves, but do not have issues with or fight against middle class people who prefer to use the terms gay or lesbian or straight to identify themselves – they are merely identifying as they see fit within a larger umbrella of binary sexual (homo and / or hetero) others who they support and embrace.

The second most common way I see pansexuality used, however, is deeply problematic. In this case, people identify as pansexual to distance themselves from bisexual communities and avoid the marginalization of these communities within lesbian/gay/straight (i.e., binary sexual) communities. In such cases, these people will call themselves pansexual in a positive way, but then repeat biphobic notions of binary bisexualities used to marginalize bisexuality (however termed) within gay/lesbian/straight spaces. In so doing, they will generally receive affirmation and better treatment from binary sexual communities (lesbian/gay or straight identified) in exchange for supporting monosexism (i.e., sexual binaries) – a process referred to as trading power for patronage in inequality studies (i.e., the process wherein a subordinate accepts subordination on certain terms to gain a more comfortable location within a given matrix of inequality). In such cases, pansexuality is incredibly problematic because it is used as a form of sexual inequality reproduction that further marginalizes other forms of bisexuality and non-binary existence. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to some working class people who prefer homosexual or heterosexual to identify themselves, and then say those using the terms like gay or lesbian or straight are misguided or wrong or not “really” authentic and / or middle class and above people who prefer the terms like gay and lesbian and straight, and then say those using homosexual or other terms are misguided or wrong or automatically hurting them or not “really” authentic – they are using their own preferred terminology as a mechanism for demonizing people who prefer other terms for describing similar (in many cases the exact same) sexual desires and identities.

Within the aforementioned uses of pansexuality, there lies another common use that actually demonstrates the importance of the first two patterns. In this case, people grow up in spaces and communities devoid of bisexual our-his-her-story and understanding, and as a result, learn binary sexual (lesbian/gay/straight) perspectives of the world only. In such cases, they are taught horror stories and insults and jokes about bisexuality that reproduce monosexism and biphobia, and then adopt pansexuality as a term for themselves because they don’t look like or want to be like the negative depictions they are taught by those who benefit from monosexism. In such cases, they rarely know that pansexuality emerged as a form of bisexual identification, or the patterns of ongoing bi-erasure, marginalization, and just plain fear embedded within many contemporary binary sexual (lesbian/gay and straight) communities. Without access to this backstory, they simply identify in the way that appears “acceptable” to the people around them and embrace the biphobia promoted in the same circles. In such cases, pansexuality is once again problematic for the same reasons noted above, but it is nuanced because some of these people will change their behaviors and / or identities and / or politics when they meet bisexual communities, learn about bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, and / or continue to encounter marginalization (though often in a more polite form) within lesbian/gay/straight circles due to their non-binary sexual desires and practices. Others, however, will have grown accustomed to the comfort achieved by contributing to bi oppression, and thus slide into pattern two noted above over time. Finally, still more may never become acquainted with bi-pan-Queer-fluid backstories, perspectives, and / or communities, and remain ignorant of these dynamics or the ways their own self presentation and politics speak to these long term patterns. In such cases, pansexual identification efforts are similar to people who only grow up hearing heterosexual perspectives on the world, and internalize these depictions of dangerous or scary gay/lesbian/homosexual people and wrestle with these depictions whether or not they ever encounter gay/lesbian/homosexual backstories, perspectives, or communities in their own lives – they adopt terminology (i.e., I do this, but I’m not gay/lesbian/homosexual/bisexual/pansexual/etc) due to the fear, guilt and shame they were taught by others seeking to preserve their own position within binary sexual politics and power structures.

With these patterns in mind, I return to the conflicted positions of contemporary pansexual identification. As suggested in my use of gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts I’ve observed over the years, the use of pansexuality as an identification term is complicated, nuanced, and not a new issue for sexual minority communities (i.e., one only needs to look back at previous conflicts between homophile and gay identifications or conflicts over lesbian and gay woman to see the exact same patterns play out in binary sexual minority (i.e., lesbian/gay) communities in the past). As a result, I tend to interpret these conflicts in much the same way I do in relation to the gay/lesbian/homosexual conflicts noted above.  As Queer scholars have long suggested, I focus on the actions tied to the label instead of obsessing over whether or not someone identifies in a “specific” way (i.e., I focus on sexual justice instead of identity politics).

As such, if someone identifies as pansexual while embracing and working for other types of bisexual people, then I see no problem, welcome them to the club, and stand beside them in any way I can. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual, or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while embracing equality for all beings of varied sexual identifications and working for such equality, I want to support them in all ways I can.

If, on the other hand, someone identifies as pansexual while demonizing and working against (intentionally or otherwise) other types of bisexual people, then I see a problem, oppose them in any way I can, and call them out on their biphobia, monosexism, and / or heterosexism. This is the same way I approach bisexual, lesbian/gay, heterosexual or asexual people – if they identify as their chosen term while demonizing other beings of one or more sexual identifications and working against such people, they are facilitators the pain of many other people, and I oppose them in all the ways I can.

I take a similar approach – no matter someone’s sexual identification – in relation to cissexism, racism, sexism, ablism, classism, colorism, nationalism, religious oppression (maybe religism?), and other forms of inequality. If the person in question is working to oppose these systems that cause so many people so much pain, then I stand with them whether our identities match or not and / or whether or not I agree with their chosen identification terms, but if they (intentionally or otherwise) feed these systems I stand against them, do my best to call them out, monitor myself to make sure I don’t slip into such practice or catch any practices like this in my own activities I’m not aware of yet, and otherwise seek to end (in any way I can with my one life) these systems and their power.

As a result, my ultimate suggestion in regards to differential sexual identification terms is to focus on equality and justice for all beings regardless of sexual identification. Do you identify and act in ways that support the equality of others? Do you identify and act against monosexism, heterosexism, biphobia, homophobia, and other forms of sexual violence and marginalization? Do you identify and act in ways that support the right of other people to exercise autonomy in self identification and activity even when such autonomy leads them to prefer different identifications and practices than your own? Do you identify and act in ways that support consent, bodily autonomy for all, sexual freedom for all, and the dignity and respect of all people who embrace and support these ideals? For me, these are the important questions regardless of the term one prefers to use to describe their own sexual practices and desires.

J. Sumerau

Making the Most of a False Arrest

In this guest post, Dr. Jerome Krase reflects on an experience of false arrest in the 1990’s and the perils of navigating academic, legal, and political systems.  Dr. Krase is a public activist-scholar serving as a consultant to public and private agencies regarding urban community issues residing in Brooklyn who writes regularly on local and global social and political issues.  

The following, slightly edited, first person narrative was originally published in The Brooklyn Free Press in the Spring of 1998 as “Bill, Me and Sexual McCarthyism.” It is the kind of experience most people, not to mention, college professors would rather forget. I am grateful for the creation of a space to Write Where it Hurts to share and reflect upon very personal and emotional aspects of my own teaching and research.

Bill Clinton and I have two things in common; we both lean to the left and have been accused of sexual misconduct. The similarity ends there. Bill did “it”. I didn’t. For most of us an accusation of Sexual Harassment or Sexual Abuse would be punishment enough. In my case, the accuser, someone I choose to call Student X, understood the power of Sexual McCarthyism by which the fear of even unfounded accusations leads one to silence. He was also aided and abetted by incompetent and indifferent public authorities who assumed that their crimes of omission would be covered up by my embarrassment. I will not be silent.

For years critics have complained about “standards” at The City University of New York. Having gone through a year of personal hell I can tell you that the “standards” of officials in the Police Department, Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, PSC/CUNY Faculty Union, and Brooklyn College are much lower than those of my most unprepared students.

March 25, 1998, 10:30 A.M. I stood in Criminal Court as Bogus Charges of Sex Abuse in the Third Degree against me were dismissed. How I got to this low point in my life is a story only Kafka could appreciate.

Tuesday, December 2, 1997, 6:30 P.M. Brooklyn College. While I was addressing my class Student X entered, tossed a second rewrite of his failed mid-term onto my desk and made his way to the back of the overcrowded classroom. It had an extra page for “Comments by Professor Jerome Kraze.” When he became disruptive I indicated that he should leave. He went out, but stood in the hallway glaring at me through the open door. I closed it. He opened it. I closed it. He opened it, stepped into the classroom, kicked in the doorstop, and then retook his post outside. I closed the door again. During the next hour and a half he entered and left the class at least twice more. Finally it was time for the student evaluation. Mr. X asked what was going on. I told him to listen to the student proctors. I smelled alcohol. He wanted to speak with me, “Now!” I hurried out and down the long corridor. He stayed on my heels, muttering. “You going down the elevator?” I knew it was not a good idea.

On the escalator, I told him he was a problem in class. He said the “other colleges said the same thing”. He called me “the white professor”. I said if he didn’t leave me alone I would go to Security. He said if I reported him, he would report me. At the exit, I asked the guard to hold him while I went to my car.

Thursday morning, December 4. Brooklyn College. I spoke to Dr. Wertheim in Counseling about my problem student. Her first question was “Do you have tenure?” Then she said protect yourself and contact the Student Life Office for disciplinary action. She asked for his name and social security number. She left me a copy of “How to Identity, Assist and Refer Students with Personal Problems and/or Disruptive Behavior” in her office. I never heard from her again.

I assumed that Student X was entitled to “special” protections because of mental or emotional problems. In the past, such “persons” had been placed in my classes because I was a “sensitive” instructor. I called the Vice President for Student Life to find out his status. He was at a meeting. I was referred to his assistant, who was also not available. They sent me “forms” to fill out.

Sunday evening, December 7. There was a message to call Professor Natov at home. She informed me that Student X had accused me of Sexual Harassment. He also made a complaint to the Police that I had “grabbed his groin” on the escalator. She said the charge is unbelievable but the school is required to go through a process. I told my wife, three daughters, son-in-law, and my daughter’s police office fiancé, Juan Carlo, who all had joined us for dinner. They thought I was joking. I called my chairperson. He said, “not to worry”.

After several unanswered calls Juan Carlo and I took a ride to the 70th Precinct and found the civilian clerk eating at her desk while the phone rang off the hook. Student X had filed complaint #14135 that I had “grabbed comp in his groin area”. I filed complaint # 14307 against him. I was assured it would be treated as another “he said-he said” dispute. I called an NYPD lawyer friend of mine. He felt there was no need for me to get an attorney because the police are required to make a thorough investigation.

Monday morning, December 8. I called Student Life VP Hillary A. Gold. He had already seen the student’s accusation. I asked him to bar the student from the college and protect me. He couldn’t do anything until he “had paper” on the student. I made an appointment with his assistant, Dr. Williams. He said he would call back. He never did. Later that day, Public Safety Director Donald A. Wenz, called. Mr. Wenz said he had assigned me a guard. There were, however, no notes in the Security Log about the incident.

Mid-day, Tuesday, December 9. Dr. Williams said she had worked in the Brooklyn DAs Office and “it seems like an ex-con thing”. Student X didn’t have the course pre-requisites and she was not surprised he was floundering. I asked if she heard from Dr. Wertheim from Counseling. She said the offices don’t communicate with each other.

I went to my class. The students were worried because they heard him muttering threats, saw Student X follow me out of class, and also had smelled “liquor” on his breath. They tried to call me but something was wrong with the phones. When two female students were bringing the student evaluations back to the office Student X verbally abused and threatened them. A Security Guard intervened. Later that night Student X, confronted and threatened one of them on the subway. I asked them to tell the security guard what had happened. He told them to go to Security to fill out forms.

After class, I was told to call Detective Belgrave at the Seven O. I told my story, and what I learned that night. He had already spoken to Brooklyn College. He reassured me that he thought the charge was false, but had to proceed. I informed him that I had filed a counter complaint against Student X. He said he would interview him, and that I should call him on Thursday.

Wednesday morning, December 10. I called a NYC official, for help and advice. He said he didn’t think there would be a problem. Then I called Dr. Williams’s office about what I learned from the students on Tuesday night and about the guards not taking notes or filing reports. She said they were “not required” to.

Later that day my friend-the-official called to say that the best he could do was that I not be put “through the system” (held overnight for arraignment). I told him that my son-in-law-the-dentist thinks I should get a criminal attorney. He agreed it was a good idea. I called Detective Belgrave and asked him to complete the processing in time for me to meet my Thursday classes. I left a message for my lawyer about my impending arrest.

Early Thursday morning, December 11. My wife and my first-year-law-student-daughter accompanied me to the 70th Precinct where we met Belgrave who said he was sympathetic but must arrest me. He asked me how I spelled my name. I told him. He smiled. Student X had said my name was spelled Kraze.

Belgrave left the room several times. During one trip another detective called out that there was a lawyer (mine) on the phone looking for him. When he returned they said nothing to him. I told him that my lawyer had called. He said it was “too late”.

The detectives were comedians. The Columbian Association representative was trying to recruit them. One said: “Where’s the headquarters of the Columbians, the Bergen Hunt and Fish Club?” When I was taken for my mug shot another called out “Get the Brooklyn College ID in the shot!”

As a Black police officer, Belgrave didn’t seem to have much rapport with the Caucasian wise guys. But his own ironic racism had more subtle expressions. He explained that Student X was “credible” because he wore “clean” pants, and “spoke well,” as if this was unusual for Black complainants. I asked Belgrave if he contacted any of my other students. He hadn’t. I asked him if he would act on my complaint. He said “No.”, because it was only a Class E. Misdemeanor. I said as a “Bias Crime”, it was a felony. He said he would check with his Lieutenant. I never heard from him again. He handed me a Desk Appearance Ticket for January 12, 1998 to answer to a charge of Sex Abuse 3.

Friday, December, Court Street. 8:30 A.M. My attorney informed me that District Attorney, Charles Joseph Hynes, had implemented a Mandatory Arrest Policy in cases of domestic violence and sex abuse. By his fiat the IV, V and XIV Amendments to the United States Constitution no longer applied in Kings County. Hynes allegedly told defense attorneys; “I don’t care if they can prove they were in bed with a judge at the time.” I became a victim because the NYPD and the DA had been burned too often for not arresting really dangerous people. And, perhaps because Hynes needed Black support in the gubernatorial primary, justice for a white man who was brought to the Abner Louima Precinct for sexually abusing a black man was impolitic.

I asked my attorney how much this was going to cost. He said although I can’t be convicted, it could cost a lot. He told me to forget about “justice”. It is merely a “process”. He said the DA’s Office would contact him. They never did. He advised me against participating in the Sexual Harassment hearings.

A few days later I asked my union for help. They didn’t believe that what the college had done to me was a “grievance”. The PSC/CUNY Union attorney advised that although the union is sympathetic it can’t help, but for my $600 a year dues he did wish me “Good luck.”

December 16. I learned that Student X was a transfer student from an upstate Community College, that he failed the CUNY Quantitative and Writing Entrance Exams, and that he should not have been in my advanced Sociology class.

Monday, January 12, 1998. My wife and daughter came with me for my first court appearance at 9:30 A.M. at 120 Schermerhorn Street. My lawyer told us to get there early. It was good advice. The ground floor lobby was a huge cattle pen, and the line of innocents-until-proven-guilty flowed outside and snaked around the corner. We took off our jewelry, and emptied our pockets. I took off my belt. We put our things in a basket, handed it to a court officer, and went through a metal detector. Then we crammed ourselves onto an elevator. We waited in the hallway outside the courtroom for an hour. When my attorney arrived they told him my files were not there. He asked for a new date. I asked what was going on. He said it was normal – “It’s part of the process.”

The next day, I received a Certified Registered letter from Brooklyn College dated January 12, 1998. It read in part: “…I concur with the “findings that there was no evidence to substantiate the allegation of sexual harassment.” Sincerely, President Vernon E. Lattin, Brooklyn College. I faxed my attorney a copy.

Thursday morning, February 19. My wife and I made our second Court appearance. Although some of the paper work was still not presented charges were filed against me. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK V. JEROME KRASE…THE DEFENDANT DID GRAB INFORMANT’S GROIN AREA WHILE TRAVELLING ON AN EXCALATOR OF THE BROOKLYN COLLEGE. I pleaded “Not guilty”. Student X was granted an Order of Protection against me. My attorney asked for another court date.

Wednesday morning, March 25. We made our third court appearance. The prosecution was still not ready to proceed so my attorney moved to dismiss because the case had not met some requirement. After a discussion with the ADA his motion to dismiss was approved without opposition. I was not elated. I had to pay $5 for each copy of my Certificate of Disposition #502235. I sent one to President Lattin of Brooklyn College.

My attorney explained that although my record would be officially sealed, my name was now “in the system”. I got to hope that another 40 year old black male doesn’t walk into a station house and say he was grabbed by a middle-aged blue eyed white male with a Ph.D.

I have since learned that at one of the Sexual Harassment hearings Student X appeared drunk. He denied he disrupted the class during the night in question as described by other student witnesses. He also refused to account for several years of his life history. Student X took four or five classes in the Fall 1997 Semester. Two or three were remedial. He received only one grade – an “S” for Remedial Writing (Probably for my mid-term essay rewrite). In the Spring he registered for two classes but never attended them.

I asked Brooklyn College to bar Student X from campus for my own protection, and that of the other faculty, staff, and students. The College sees no need to bar him from campus. If he comes they will refer him to the Office of Student Life where “He will be advised that he is neither to contact you nor to retaliate against you…” And, appropriate security measures will be taken.

I asked the College to pay for a criminal attorney if Student X makes another false charge, and also reimburse me for my first attorney. Pamela Pollack, the college attorney, said she’d get back to me on that. She never did.

Finally, I asked why after learning all they had about Student X, even before my first court appearance, the college never contacted my attorney, the Police Department, or the District Attorney. Counselor Pollock said they never called. My attorney was right, it is just a process, and, I might add, one that never seems to end.

As I have reflected on this experience over the years, I have increasingly thought about what might have happened to me had I not been so privileged. I was, as he said, a “white professor.” I also had political connections enough not to suffer the immediate consequences of arrest. What would have happened had the alleged victim been a white woman and I a black professor or fellow student? There was also some implication on the part of police that I was Jewish and gay, and was hitting on black students so anti-Semitism and homophobia may have also played a role in their lack of interest in investigating the accusation. There are so many ways in which this could have been played out, but the most important factor in broadcasting my troubles was my wife’s insistence that I write and publish the story as soon as the charges were dropped. It should be noted that only the student in this story remains unnamed. Given the suggestion that he had been incarcerated, as an African-American male he was more of victim than I. I was just a more or less convenient target for his rage.

Caught in a Dream: Discovering an Integrated Self After Dissociation

This post will be the first of two focusing on ties between sociology and popular music. In this first entry I use the music of one of my favorite artists (Alice Cooper – all the block quotations below come from Alice Cooper’s songs and may be found here) to explore and narrate my experiences of dissociative identity.

I discuss how I developed this condition, how I lived with it for years without knowing that anything was amiss, and how I eventually discovered I had it because I began to reintegrate on my own. In the process, I talk about the development of my career as a medical sociologist and how I conflated functionality in the workplace with overall mental well-being. I also discuss how I have used music to understand my experiences, and as a tool for moving past what I now regard as a very dark time in my life.

Next week on the SSSI Music Blog, I will be sharing a guest post with some interactionist analysis of Alice’s music! This second post will focus on identity work and the presentation of self, using Goffman’s concept of masks to explore how Alice negotiates his personal and professional identities through song.

Thought I was living, but you can’t never tell. What I thought was heaven turned out to be hell… When you see me with a smile on my face, then you’ll know I’m a mental case. I’m caught in a dream, so what? I don’t know what I’m going through. I’m right in between, so I’ll…I’ll just play along with you.

When I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, everything I thought I knew about myself crumbled, leaving me to sort through the dust for pieces of someone who might once more be whole. I never expected this, never suspected a thing for the 12-plus years I lived with this condition. From the time I was very young, I had felt a strong and cohesive sense of identity. My parents named me “Alexandra”, and I still use this name in formal writing. But my two year-old self quickly chirped “I’m Xan” at anyone who used my given name verbally. I felt very strongly that this was what I should be called, and my parents recognized and affirmed this desire. To this day, everyone who knows me in person or on social media calls me “Xan”.

Well, I told her that I came from Detroit City, and I played guitar in a long-haired rock and roll band. She asked me why the singer’s name was Alice. I said “Listen baby, you really wouldn’t understand.”

Identity work would later become tricky business for me. I am a donor conceived person, the biological product of one of my mother’s eggs and the sperm of an unknown donor. In my mother’s words, my father “adopted me before I was born”. He is the only real father I will ever have, but even as a young child I somehow knew that we did not share any genetic material. I had a sense of something being missing, someone else being relevant. I asked my parents repeatedly about this, but they had no vocabulary to discuss it, and fear tied their tongues in knots. Neither wanted to risk upsetting the bonds between us, even though they had always planned to tell me the truth of how I came into the world. We were so close, even though that closeness sometimes came with pain as parent-child relationships tend to do. But I had never felt any pain like this.

“I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart. Took eighteen years to get this far. Don’t always know what I’m talking about. Feels like I’m living in the middle of doubt, ‘cause I’m eighteen. I get confused every day. Eighteen, I just don’t know what to say. Eighteen, I gotta get away…”

When it finally did come tumbling forth, the revelation of this fact—the hardest story my mother ever had to tell—was the very thing that split me in two. Suddenly the question I had asked my parents periodically throughout my entire childhood and adolescence suddenly had a different answer now that I was 18, an adult in my own right. I knew that my mother was crying silently into her wine glass and that the landscape stretching before us—an immense olive grove in Delphi, Greece—seemed to swallow my words before they made any sound. I cried too, not because I had really learned anything new about how I must have gotten here, but because I had lost the ability to trust either of my parents. At 18 I knew enough to know that rebuilding that trust would be a long process, if I managed to succeed with it at all.

“And I know trouble is brewing out there, but I can hardly care. They fight all night about his private secretary—lipstick stain, blonde hair. What are you gonna do? I tell you what I’m gonna do. Why don’t you get away? I’m gonna leave today…”

In the years that followed, I would leave portions of myself behind without even knowing I had abandoned them. I suppose my definition of the situation had changed to one of survival, the world fading to a dull gray in places where it had once been bright. It was in this state that I made some other choices with my life that I probably would not have made had I not already been dissociating. As I write this, I hold a lot inside, the realization cutting through me anew that my first spouse never knew all of me, because I was already broken apart when we met. We both suffered because of it, I think. And as much as those things hurt, I have been fortunate to have his support in the years that brought my first steps toward healing, and the final horrible moment where everything crashed back together. He had also supported me during a time when my family seemed to be coming apart at the seams. I look back on those days with sorrow and empathy where once I felt only numbness, the absence of something that had once been.

“She’s an overnight sensation in the mirror on her wall. She gets a standing ovation at every shower curtain call. And she becomes a pop star in the safety of her car. And then she falls to pieces at the karaoke bar. And she’s perfect, until the lights go on. And then it all goes wrong, ‘cause now she’s not so perfect.”

Seemingly overnight, I lost interest in activities that had once delighted me. I did not realize this at the time, of course. It was only years later that I would look back and realize how little I had sung aloud, played instruments, or otherwise participated in music with others. I would buy budget CDs—a hobby of mine—and go to concerts occasionally. But I never sung in front of others, except occasionally with my first spouse in moments where I felt a strange and desperate desire to reveal something deeper about myself. Maybe those were attempts at recovering a person who was gone, identity work by force and sheer grit. As my desire to produce music faded into a black space masked by amnesia, I developed an almost obsessive fixation with my studies and developing my career, which itself would take many twists and turns as my physical health spiraled downward. I would sing only in the quiet moments at night when my spouse was falling asleep, perhaps because then I could convince myself that my words went unheard and that part of myself would never surface. We did not talk about it, and in retrospect I feel glad that he did not know just how much of me had been lost.

“I sent you a postcard, thought it would be funny. Would have sent a souvenir, but they took all my money. It’s pretty warm down here, but it ain’t sunny… And I’m having a hell of a time, my dear. Wish you were here…”

My former husband could see the pain in me, and often did a wonderful job of giving me space to talk about it in those early years. I still believe it was because of him that I was eventually able to talk a bit with my family about how much it had hurt to be lied to. But after one conversation in which I forgave both of them, I shut down in even worse ways. It was as if that act of forgiveness had cleaved me fully in two, a sort of transference of blame onto myself for the hurt that I had internalized. There were no more songs after that day, not even when my spouse slept. I pulled away from everything, save for the work that I had come to regard as my entire life’s mission and meaning. This was of course complicated by the fact that I was beginning to die properly from a chronic disease that had haunted me my whole life, culminating in a four-day stay in intensive care when I was 23.

“This quiet place, it ain’t so new to me. Its haunted atmosphere has heard so many screams. My home away from home, my twilight zone, my strangest dream… My confidant, I have confessed my life. The Quiet Room knows more about me than my wife.”

The night I was told that I would likely die may have started me on some kind of path toward healing, as the resolution of those inchoate feelings with the affirmation that my health actually was in crisis gave me a renewed sense of purpose in life. But it also started me on a path towards a different kind of separation. I stayed with my spouse for another two and a half years after that night, but emotionally I was drifting away into a dark, narrow space where no one could reach me. I stopped feeling the most basic of emotions. Everything was white noise. I had one facial expression—a sort of half-pout that always made it look as if my face were in transition to a different state, but I never made it there. I was frozen. The pared-down self I had embraced bloomed within its planter, branching out into new crevices of study and inquiry. I grew tall within an invisible cage that seemed to expand as my professional life did. But even though I did not remember the parts of myself that had been cut away, others experienced them.

“Mind gets scrambled like eggs, gets bruised and erased. When you live in a brainstorm, noise seems logically right, ringing in the night. Hard hearted Alice is what we want to be. Hard hearted Alice is what you want to see.”

I probably said and did things in my first marriage that I do not remember—expressed anger, pain, sorrow that my lucid self kept inside. All I remember is feeling numb, and wanting to sleep for a very long time. I sang no songs and played no instruments in those years, but I took a lot of comfort in my music collection. I had discovered Alice Cooper’s music when I was 15 years old, and that discovery led me to many of the happiest things in my present life. It gave me the opportunity to meet the person who, other than my life partner and parents, I still consider to be my best friend. He was the one person I really shared music with in any depth during those lost years, and indeed one of the only people I allowed myself to talk to in detail about my feelings concerning my donor conception and its aftermath. I had become an adult with him in some ways, so many of my first experiences of intimacy being tied to him and so many of the most glorious moments of that time being spent with him. I was 18 and did not need to know what I wanted. I could enjoy moments more on their own terms, an ability I would later lose.

“Little do they know, when I’m alone in bed at night, I become the king of the silver screen. I stare at the ceiling there; I know where I belong.”

I am not sure if I can fully explain why Alice’s music captivated me so much and so quickly. I know that the way in which I discovered him—watching Behind the Music on VH1—exposed me to his life story and the struggles he had endured in coping with alcoholism. But what struck me most of all, even at 15 with my own worst days still well ahead of me, was how he seemed to have figured out how to be two totally different people and still be one integrated person. I was going through a rift in my own life where I had to decide on a direction. In one corner were the performing arts that I had spent so much time and energy on, and loved so well but was questioning as a career choice. In the other were the research and writing for which I had always shown so much promise, and on which I could see actually building some semblance of a stable life. It fascinated me that Alice had simultaneously developed this grandiose persona who defined his professional life, and yet people knew him professionally in other ways too—a philanthropist, a golfer, a music educator, a producer, an actor, and eventually a restaurateur. And his personal life somehow supported and yet remained wholly separate from these things, a place from which he beat back darkness by sheer grit as he recovered from alcoholism and embraced a future with his partner and children.

“If I ain’t cool, my daddy gonna send me to military school. If I ain’t nice, my girlie gonna freeze me with cold shoulder ice. If I’m real late, my teacher gonna use me for alligator bait. So I better be good, I better be good.”

At the time, I simply chose a path and figured I would do the other things as a hobby. But when I began to dissociate three years later, the part of me I had left behind in professional focus seemed to die entirely, becoming lost to me. In the beginning, I remember thinking that being just the one person—the researcher, the academic, the writer, the serious scholar—would make me more pleasing to my parents. After all, how could anyone deny that I was their child if I were just like them, an apple dropped from a nearby tree? Neither of my parents liked to put on makeup and travel to far-off places within themselves, though I would later learn that my mother had actually been quite involved in performing arts herself at a young age. She is also a musician who almost never plays. The apple did indeed fall close to the tree, but perhaps not quite in the ways I intended. I was caught between the desire to be just like my parents and to cut myself off from them completely, and it seemed that professional development held the key to achieving both of these things simultaneously. Perhaps ironically, it was this choice—to become an academic researcher, but to do so in my own image and to chart a different path than my neurobiologist parents had—that led to my own intimate and professional partnership with a fellow PhD.

“The world needs guts; the world needs power. Show me some blood; show me some cuts; show me some scars. The world needs guts; the world needs us.”

Somewhere along the way, I grew legs and decided to heal, to leave the tree behind for greener pastures. I also chose to stay right where I was, by that point a successful academic in my own right. The choice to heal was not random, and I suspect that the single strongest factor in that choice was my relationship with my life partner and the healing I saw hir doing when we first met. Apparently ze recognized signs of DID in me from the earliest days of our relationship, and perhaps more amazing to me in retrospect is the fact that I trusted them enough to open up about my own suspicions that I might have more than just PTSD myself. I did not remember these moments, of course—I had no physical evidence of them and they vanished in the storm before the calm that signaled my reintegration. In the meantime, I had managed to acquire almost every Alice Cooper album ever recorded, and listened to them with almost obsessive regularity despite rarely listening to other things more than once in a blue moon because I simply had amassed so many albums. I loved being surrounded by my music—it served as sign equipment to suggest that things were all right, that I was home and that I was well. These signifiers were living, breathing proof to me that I had not lost everything, even as I failed to remember that once I had made music instead of simply listening to it. I would later learn just how deep those black patches in my memory went, and how many had formed.

“My tape recorder, it must be lying, ‘cause this I just can’t believe. I hear a voice that’s cryin’, that’s not me. The wheel goes ‘round; I hear a sound. It’s coming out all wrong…and I swear to you, I never wrote that song. I been living in my own shell so long, the only place I ever feel at home. And oh, that music. I hate those lyrics. It stayed inside me so long…and I swear to you, I never wrote that song.”

I managed to be very functional while living with DID—a successful career, several intimate relationships and close friendships, and a great many positive experiences that seem no less sweet for their birth in darkness. I also now know that many of the more negative experiences I had during this time fed into and reinforced my dissociation, creating a vicious cycle that trapped me for years. So I never suspected a thing until I met my partner, who reminded me a bit too much of myself for comfort. They brought out something in me that I couldn’t quite describe, an endless sense of fascination and wonder much like what I had felt for Alice and his music the moment I first listened to him speak. Here was a person who was not just two, but many different people, all at the same time! It made me question everything I thought I knew about identity and selfhood. They seemed to cross every boundary the world had and a fair few of mine as well. And perhaps as a result, the wall between the self I lived with every day and the one that had broken off to shadow me quietly began to crumble in places. I felt my body starting to light up with music again, bits of songs bursting out when I thought nobody could hear.

“Sometimes when you’re asleep and I’m just staring at the ceiling, I want to reach out and touch you, but you just go on dreaming. If I could take you to heaven, that would make my day complete, but you and me ain’t movie stars. What we are is what we are…and I tell you babe, well that’s enough for me.”

Of course, someone could hear, and would later tell me so during the terrible moments where memories overwhelmed me. If you know me outside of Write Where It Hurts, you already know that the person in the person in the story is the person who edits this blog with me, my partner and future spouse and unquestionably the love of my life. J could go everywhere when nobody else could—not my parents, not my closest friend, certainly not my first spouse. I never gave any of them the chance. Studying for my PhD seemed easy compared to the things I began to learn about myself in J’s presence. I would later learn that I met a lot of these discoveries with anger and rejection, sometimes in waking life and sometimes during sleep. Either way, I never remembered a thing; the abandoned parts of myself trailed me like shadows, vanishing when I actually tried to look for them. But falling in love—probably the only time I have ever really done that, and understood what it means to be “in love” with a person—was also easy. I chose not to freeze out the desire to be close to this person, and instead to open myself to them. What I was not prepared for was what would emerge when I did.

“Welcome to my breakdown. I hope I didn’t scare you. That’s just the way we are when we come down. We sweat and laugh and scream here, ‘cause life is just a dream here. You know inside you feel right at home, here. Yeah, welcome to my nightmare.”

Over the next few years, I would learn a lot. Some of that would lead to a PhD in medical sociology. But with the PhD out of the way, I was left to deal with the rest without school to distract me on top of the full-time research job I had continued to hold. I was a new faculty member, with students of my own and “Doctor” ringing in my ears. I began to feel strange. Memories were scratching at the surface of a dark lake, making me question my eidetic nature. I remember things in exquisite detail, even if they seem fairly insignificant to others. A useful skill in school, but murder on anyone dealing with trauma. Years of agonizing chronic pain and the unfortunate fallout from those experiences in other areas of my life had left me with post-traumatic stress disorder—that much I already knew, and had accepted. I had a partner who understood those things firsthand, so I figured I would do all right. My partner was also empathetic beyond all reckoning, something I would later reflect on when trying to put all of this together with lyrics from Alice’s massive recording catalog. Having read a lot of interviews with him over the years, I was always struck by the degree to which his relationship with his life partner and how they continued to shape each other seemed to parallel my own experiences with J.

“I wonder if anyone missed me. Or have I been gone so long they thought that I’d died? How many said, “I wonder what happened to Alice?” How many shrugged or laughed? How many cried?”

What I had not realized was that my brain had shielded me from the worst of the memories, turning them into empty spaces that got covered over by the richness of all my other recollections. How could I have blank spots when I had so many vivid images and sounds, such perfect recall? J watched me unravel, knew there was nothing for it but to let it happen for me just as it had for hir long ago. Even writing these words brings tears to my eyes. I have not done as well with forgiving myself for the pain my own healing process caused my partner as I have with forgiving J for the similar experiences they went through years prior. I am not even very adept at remembering that the catalyst for my reintegration was formally proposing marriage to J, knowing full well what the answer would be. I cannot even think about that night without finding endless flaws in what I did and what I said, a night J sees as perfect because of what it meant for our future. Perhaps in time I will feel that same kindness toward myself—it does get easier. I have heard Alice talk about this in his interviews and writings, and I have to let myself believe it. If he could have a happy ending of sorts after so much struggle, and find such inspiration in reconciling pieces of himself that always seemed to be at odds before his recovery, perhaps I can too. I certainly listen to a lot of Alice these days, with a new appreciation for the magnitude of his work both on and off the stage.

“Hello! Hooray! Let the show begin; I’ve been ready. Hello! Hooray! Let the lights grow dim; I’ve been ready. Ready as this audience that’s coming here to dream. Loving every second, every moment, every scream. I’ve been waiting so long to sing my song. I’ve been waiting so long for this thing to come. Yeah, I’ve been thinking so long I was the only one…”

J also takes me to see Alice perform whenever he is nearby. Living in Florida, this happens a lot. It is perhaps fitting that the first time I ever got to see Alice perform came at the height of my breakdown, that horrible month in which I spontaneously began to reintegrate and promptly freaked out because suddenly another person was inside of me. I had no idea how to deal with this other person who was absent one moment and present the next. I raged at myself and lashed out at J. During those days I was essentially a heat-seeking missile for whatever actions and words would hurt J most of all, push hir as hard as I could, seeking the rejection I had gotten on such a fundamental level that had split me apart in the first place. Alone in Delphi, the treasured memories of knowing who I was a million miles away in distance and spirit. Alone in a hospital room, life leaving my body as I tried to hang on. Alone in my pain, huddled on the kitchen floor with thoughts of suicide. Alone in the black patches my mind created, alone with my music, alone with the research that never quite seemed to fill that hole inside.

“I walk the streets alone; on feeble bones I ride. My sins are etched in stone; I got no place to hide. Well, I was unshakeable in what I did believe. I feel so breakable, but have I been deceived?”

At the end of a week of tears and questions I did not feel remotely ready to answer, the Alice concert was a galvanizing experience, a lifeline thrown down the dark well I was in. The night felt that way both because of the music and because of whom I was sharing it with. Even in those moments where I had tried so ardently to push my partner away, they were there, loving me and affirming me. I could be two people inside one person, and loved for both and the sum of their parts in equal measure. If it worked for Alice, why not for me as well? The night gave me hope. It put me on a path back into myself, gave me the motivation I needed to get integrated and stay integrated. I began seeing a psychologist. This helped so much that I only needed a few sessions to start doing the work of integration on my own, outside of a clinical setting. And while it cut deeply to discover how far the gaps in my memory went, and the horror of what had vanished inside of them, I do feel that it ultimately helped me to hear from an informed professional that I had dissociative identity. The scary moments and behavior I experienced in the summer of 2014 were, in his words, an “integrating episode” that signaled the beginning of a new journey.

“Well, people love to talk when I can hardly walk. To them I’m probably just the News at Eleven. It’s the edge of night, as the world turns. Misunderstood, it’s just the wrong medication. I wish, I wish upon a star. I wish it hadn’t gone this far. Been up so long it looks like down to me…”

Slowly at first, I started talking about my experiences and the memories that were coming back, even when doing so caused excruciating pain. I suppose that like Alice, I have never shied away from a bit of blood, or from a difficult challenge that at first leaves one feeling more alone than they ever had bfore. I allowed myself to trust both J and my parents in ways that I had not before. And finally, I told my parents my own terrible truth: I have DID.   It started the night you told me the truth. I’ve blamed myself for everything for 12 years. I tried to make myself into the person I thought you wanted when you made the choice to have a child that way. I can’t do that anymore. I need to get well and I need you to love me when I do. I need to hear it again, what you always told me when I was a child—that you would always love me, no matter what. I need to hear that and I need to let myself believe it. They told me, of course. They felt relieved too. They had spent the last 12 years questioning their choices, worrying that they had caused me irreparable harm—for my entire life with a chronic autoimmune disease that clearly has genetic origins, and likewise with the pain of knowing even before they told me that I was not like other people.

“I guess I’m a loner and I don’t fit in. I ain’t too comfortable in my skin. And I don’t play well with the others… I’m stuck somewhere between high school and old school. I can’t decide between my rules and your rules…”

One of the worst things for me as an integrated person is knowing that I will never see the other person who made it possible for me to be alive. They will always be a blank space in my mind, a lack-of-memory, an empty set. I have some genetic information that I got from doing basic saliva testing. But that is all I will ever have, other than my parents’ musings that the donor was probably a medical student. I do wish I could see a picture. The curiosity killed me for years, ate me up inside. When I did tell my parents I felt that way once I began to reintegrate, they smiled and said Of course you do. It’s natural to feel curious. We wish we could give you that information, sweetheart. We wish that with all our hearts. It made things easier, knowing that my parents felt that same kind of cognitive dissonance between their perceived roles as parents and the reality of our situation. Again I thought about Alice, and the love his own parents always showed him even as his life diverged from theirs in very striking ways. People do not need to look alike on the outside to share deep roots on the inside, and this is what I now tell anyone who remarks on how different my father and I appear on the outside. My dad takes a more succinct approach: Irrelevant. You’re obviously my daughter.

“You were screaming for the villain up there, and I was much obliged. The old road sure screwed me good this time. It’s hard to see where the vicious circle ends. I’m stuck here on the inside looking out. That’s no big disgrace. Where’s my makeup, where’s my face? On the inside…”

When I became fully integrated and felt confident that I could stay that way, I knew it without question. I celebrated by agreeing to let J buy me an engagement present at long last, something music-themed like the one I had chosen for hir long ago. The specific present I picked was really more of a present for the person who had broken off than the one who had always been at the center of things, which is probably why I chose it. I play my Gaspar 3R, an electric guitar modeled on the Fender Stratocaster, almost every night. It calms me and makes me feel happy to be whole. It lives in my music room, along with the little Yamaha Junior folk guitar J bought for me when I decided I wanted an acoustic as well. I never had a single lesson, just taught myself. I have been playing for only eight months, but can fool professional musicians into thinking I have played for several years at least. Guitar came to me naturally—something I was born to do and never had to think about too much. I get that from my mother, I think. She has gone on a journey of her own these past few years, charting boundaries on her own career and nurturing a passion for medical education—so much that she has left the world of basic science. Last winter I heard her play guitar for the first time in more than two decades. No Alice songs, but she has her own watershed artists who can sing her life story with a few well-chosen words.

“Well, I live at the 7-Eleven. Well, I’m trying to play this guitar. Well, I’m learning Stairway to Heaven…’cause heaven’s where you are.”

One of the first songs I taught myself to play on the Gaspar was Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen”. I play it so much that I have begun to experience a bit of auditory dissonance when I hear the original version from Love It to Death or the many wonderful live versions of the song, but I think I love them even more now that I can also play my own rendition. People recognize the music instantly when I play it. There are some things that time and experience do not wash away, even for people without eidetic memories. No matter how many times I listen to Alice’s records or see him perform live, I never lose that sense of magic I felt when I was 15 and just discovering his work. Indeed, that magic has grown stronger over the years as it has helped me to feel whole again. And part of that process has been accepting that feeling broken and confused at times, like being 18 and just not knowing what I want, does not mean I am not whole in my present form.

“I was scared to death, afraid to close my eyes and find that I was gone. Like every other one who left before the dawn, I vanished in the air. Am I still there? Wake me gently, if you can. Wake me gently; just touch my hand. Wake me gently, pull my sleeve…’cause where I’m at is where I want to leave.”

I am two people. I am the ambitious academic who regularly ventures into uncharted territory, who breaks silences and explores taboo topics and shows their scars. I am the professor whose students say, You changed my life. When you told us your story, you gave me the courage to tell mine too. These days I do not think of sharing as a courageous act so much as an important mission, something to be done at any cost. What requires more courage, often, is sharing those other parts of myself that vanished into the dark spaces of my dissociation. Not the music itself, perhaps, but the process of creating it. Yet I am that person just as much as the other. I am the singer who can belt out a soul song in front of a room full of strangers without batting an eye. I am the guitarist who cringes when a couple of strings are even a quarter-step off. I paint my eyes at night to sing or dance, and wash them in the morning to study and teach. I am also one person who does all of these things and is loved—by my partner, by my parents, and by many more friends than just that one whom I never completely shut out. I have learned how to be whole, with or without greasepaint and costumes. I have reaped the benefits of making music not only cognitively, but physically as well; guitar is the best therapy I have ever found for my Raynaud’s syndrome as well as the anxiety I often feel. And I am learning, day by day, how to forgive myself those years I spent in dissociation. Life is a process of becoming…and if Alice has taught me one thing, it is that there are always chances to rearrange one’s act a bit before showtime.

“Don’t get me wrong; don’t get me right. I’m not like you are. When I get home from work at night, I’m blacker and bluer. So I escape; I get out when I can. I escape any time I can. It’s all escape; I’m crying in my beer. But where am I running to? There’s no place to go. Just put on my makeup, and get me to the show…yeah, escape. Yeah, what are you waiting for? My doctor said “Just come around, and you’ll be taken care of.” And while he ran my problems down, I stole his mascara. That’s how I escape.”

Xan Nowakowski

What is Me-Search?


When we first started hosting panels at conferences discussing Writing Where It Hurts, more than one person asked me why I thought this was important. While there are many reasons I think exploring the personal elements of teaching, research, and service is important educationally, scientifically, politically, and professionally, in this post I would like to focus on one specific aspect that (from my experience talking with people in varied fields) seems far too common. I’m speaking of the term “me-search.”

In my experience, many scholars refer to work that engages some aspect of personhood as me-search. While this is a cute phrase, it is generally used to bolster claims to objectivity and / or to marginalize scholars who work in areas that have personal significance for them. While others have pointed out problems with believing in “objectivity” and reasons people may engage in personally meaningful scholarship and advocacy, I would like to take a different path here, and ask what exactly is meant by the term me-search. On the surface, the best answers I have been able to find for this question at conferences, online, in departments, and in informal conversations suggests the term refers to any case where someone conducts research in an area or with a population that is personally relevant to them.

Based on this suggestion, me-search could actually just be considered a synonym for science. When, for example, an American demographer studies American population trends, ze is conducting me-search because ze is studying zir own population. In a similar fashion, when a religious person analyzes surveys to see how religious variables correlate to other social aspects, this person would again be engaging in me-search because they are studying an area (i.e., religion) that is part of their own life. Likewise when a scholar explores brain tissue or any other element of human biology, said scholar is engaging in me-search by attempting to explain something they have within them in scientific terms. In fact, even studies of animals could be a form of me-search because every human experiences a world wherein they interact with and may seek to understand animals (as well as plants and other natural phenomena) from a rather early age. One could even go as far as to say that if science is the study of the natural world, all science is me-search because all of us are parts of the natural world, and both influence and are influenced by this phenomena. Unless someone can find some area of study that does not influence human life or somehow become non-human prior to doing any kind of research, all research is ultimately me-search because all research seeks to make sense of the world we (or me) live in to the best of our current abilities.

If, as it appears, me-search is simply a synonym for science based on its most common definition, then we must ask how this became a slur or source of marginalization. One fruitful place to start such an inquiry lies within the examples I gave above. Anyone familiar with the way the term “me-search” is tossed around likely realized early into the above paragraph that I used examples that are never (that I’ve seen) called me-search despite the fact that in each case the researcher is exploring elements of their own self and existence. Considering that these are some of the older (or traditional if you prefer) areas of science, it seems curious that no one ever seems to note them in discussions of me-search. Rather, most of the time when people use the term me-search they are referring to (and generally denigrating) scholarship done by, done about, or done in the service of minority communities or marginalized subject areas.

Examples of this contradiction wherein some personally relevant scholarship is deemed me-search while other personally relevant scholarship is not may be seen throughout current scientific structures and norms. When, for example, a racial minority scholar studies racial minority communities to illuminate systemic racism, people may accuse this scholar of me-search to create a reason to lessen the importance of their findings. However, no one ever seems to make the same claim about a white scholar studying populations (like the GSS or any other large scale data set) full of white people without mentioning race or while making claims about race. In a similar vein, I have yet to hear anyone mention that white scientists working with biological samples and claiming racial findings are doing me-search. Rather than noting that their own racial identities likely play a role in how many or what kinds of races they find in biological samples, such researchers typically offer sweeping claims about race without much critique from the rest of science until after the fact. In all such cases, researchers are studying something deeply salient in anyone’s life (especially in American society), but only when racial minorities do so is the term me-search ever called upon. Other than protecting institutional racism embedded within the history of the academy and science, what purpose does it serve to call one person’s (i.e., a white person who obviously has a socially constructed race and a stake in racial politics consciously or otherwise) racial findings “objective” while we call another person’s (i.e., a racial minority who obviously has a socially constructed race and a stake in racial politics consciously or otherwise) racial findings me-search?

We see similar situations wherein heterosexuals study sexualities or samples full of sexually identified people, men study gender dynamics or samples with multiple genders, cisgender people study gender dynamics or samples of other cisgender people, religious people study religion or samples full of religious people. In all such cases, the scientists are doing me-search (or science), but we only tend to use the term me-search to refer to sexual minorities, women, transgender people, and nonreligious people studying the exact same things. In so doing, we reproduce the subordination (both within and beyond the academy) of sexual, gender, racial, religious, and other minority communities by emphasizing personal connections in minority scholarship while downplaying or denying personal connections in scholarship by people occupying privileged groups.

This observation brings me back to why it is important to discuss and reveal the personal aspects of research, teaching and service. Since I have yet to find a scholar who does not have a personal stake (whether admitted or not, whether conscious or not) in the findings they present in physical, social, and other sciences, terms like me-search appear to be academic methods of social and knowledge control that limit our understanding of the world and marginalize people for no reason other than being honest about the influences that feed into their scholarly endeavors. I thus became involved in this project in hopes of (at the very least) beginning the process of celebrating the bravery of people who openly engage in personally-meaningful scholarship, and challenging those who hide behind academic “traditions” and “control mechanisms” to avoid admitting the personal stake contained within their own findings, arguments, and assertions. If science is to actually provide accurate knowledge of the world and potentially facilitate a better world, I think one of the first steps involves recognizing that all research is a form of me-search, and embracing the personal, subjective, and human elements of academic work emerging from a wide variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences with the natural world.

J. Sumerau

We Write Where It Hurts

Welcome to Write Where It Hurts, a community for scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service!

In this inaugural post, we thought it might be wise to introduce ourselves and explain our expectations for the ongoing development of this blog. Like many scholars (some say all), we initially embarked on academic careers seeking to make sense of our own lives, and find practical solutions to problems we faced along the way. Whether we sought to understand religion and sexualities (J), health access and inequalities (Xan), or gender and sexual fluidity (Lain), each of us sought to make sense of things we experienced that were not very well understood in the world in hopes of creating greater understanding for ourselves and for others facing similar experiences and structural conditions in the future. As a result, we are intimately familiar with the promise and the pitfalls of doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service in the current academic system.

With the launch of this blog, we thus seek to open a space for conversations and debates concerning the personal and emotional elements of research, teaching, and service. While all research, teaching and service is accomplished by human beings with personal lives, experiences, expectations, and assumptions, academia has been slow to embrace the human or subjective component of scientific inquiry, and many people engaging in controversial, emotionally-charged, or otherwise “non-traditional” activities are often stigmatized for doing so. In other cases, people doing deeply personal research, teaching and service find themselves without support that could ease the process as well as the management of negative interactions with others promoting “traditional” activities. Our goal is thus to both begin pulling the subjective elements of academic work out of the shadows, and provide a supportive space for those already engaged in (or considering engaging in) deeply personal research, teaching, and service within and beyond academic settings.

To this end, the blog will host regular features in the coming weeks, months, and (hopefully) years.

  • Reflective essays on experiences managing personal topics as a researcher, teacher, or activist
  • Reflective essays on experiences managing trauma related to research and teaching topics, areas, and endeavors
  • Reflective essays on personal experiences that facilitate academic careers
  • Critical essays on the myth of objectivity, and the ways this ideology is used to stifle creativity and maintain academic norms
  • Critical essays on the marginalization of personal, subjective, and / or emotionally-based research and teaching efforts
  • Anonymous stories wherein people experience personal or emotionally-based negative and positive experiences while working in and beyond academic settings
  • Tips for teaching personal, emotionally-charged, and / or controversial topics in various settings and contexts
  • Tips for doing research in emotionally-charged and / or controversial areas
  • Strategies for managing emotions in relation to conferences, academic jobs, graduate programs, and other tense areas of academic life
  • Strategies for dealing with “objectivity” claims by academic practitioners and structures

In closing, we invite all interested parties to read, comment, and consider contributing to Write Where It Hurts. Together, we can begin to shed light on the ways our personal and professional lives are intimately intertwined as well as the ways this recognition could shape the path of scientific and other academic pursuits over time.

Xan Nowakwoski, J. Sumerau, and Lain Mathers