Interdisciplinary Studies & You

In part 2, “The school paper and other extracurricular (mis)adventures,” I wrote about my first college student organization, taking my first gender studies classes, and my continued relationship with journalism.

Gender studies wins a heart and mind

But if I was riding a wave of energy in Fall 2014/Spring 2015, some of it started to fray at the edges, and some of it started to shift by Fall 2015. Before getting to Fall 2015 however, it’s important to at least pause on one of the Supreme Court decisions handed down in the summer of 2015. It’s no surprise that Supreme Court decisions can have ripple effects. And if you’re a transgender person in the United States one such decision has influenced the culture you’ve lived in since it was handed down: Obergefell V. Hodges. The Supreme Court case that gave same-sex couples the right to marry shifted cultural conversations in the United States. And almost immediately. While some couples may have still been enjoying their hard-earned honeymoons, conservatives were shifting their focus toward transgender people and those who might seek to make a market out of transgender people. One such incident of this was a series of tweets by former US Representative and Libertarian presidential nominee Bob Barr. Even though Barr did represent Georgia in Congress, was the story of his transphobic tweets really newsworthy? My argument to my editor at the time was that since Barr was teaching at KSU, it was a worthwhile story. In the end, the story wasn’t allowed to go to press.

There have been some who said I should get better at choosing my battles. When I wasn’t allowed to run that story, I decided to quit the paper. Probably it was a rash decision, but I don’t regret it. The journalism world going forward from my quitting the paper wouldn’t show to me its gentleness, or its eagerness to be understanding or inclusive of transgender people. This of course doesn’t negate the fact that other transgender people have had different, and sometimes better, experiences in journalism. I’m speaking here only for myself and of my experiences. The truth about any topic, including the state of journalism, is that it’s complicated. To try to boil it all down in any direction would be a disservice to myself and to journalism. I was stumbling toward a different path.

We’ve arrived now firmly in Fall 2015. That semester I took two gender classes and met two of the most influential people in my academic career to date. In Gender and Social Justice, I was able to do two projects that were really meaningful to me at the time. One of them I think I’ve written and spoken about a bit more, but it’s worth repeating briefly here. For an assignment that only needed to be 15 minutes, if memory serves, I was given the entire class in an opportunity to give a presentation on Critical Femininity Studies and to lead a class discussion. Gender and Social Justice was probably my first true opportunity to glimpse what an interdisciplinary syllabus might look like. I don’t have that syllabus readily available, but I know that we read bell hooks, Eli Clare, Josephine Baird, Richard A. Friedman, among others (including, I would have to guess, at least one reading on masculinity studies). The other presentation I had the chance to give was the final project, which was titled, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues & The Transgender Tipping Point.” This seems to be the oldest piece I can find of my centering media artifacts in my academic pursuits. Something that made sense to me as a communication major, but something that I didn’t do in my major since I wasn’t a media studies concentration.

The other gender studies class I took that semester was transnational feminisms, which I’m pretty sure was crosslisted as Anthropology of Gender. It was my first formal study of gender outside of Western and US contexts. I often wish I hadn’t waited so long and that I had gone deeper sooner. Still, this class was a fantastic introduction, and I think that feminist anthropology is a great place for one to begin to understand gender outside of western contexts. Feminist philosophy, I would find out later, is another great area for this. A few years later I would take transnational feminisms again at the graduate level with a different professor. That is part of this story, but we are not there yet.

Maybe 6 classes was 5 too many?

For Spring 2016, I ended up taking six classes because I thought that I could finish earlier if I did. For better or worse, I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree for two more semesters after that semester. I took five communications classes that semester and only one gender studies class: Research Methods in Gender Studies. That class was one part proseminar and one part research methods. While I honed my skills in that class to do secondary research and put together an annotated bibliography, I also had to put together a resume, something that I continually get begrudgingly better at (usually just in time to apply for jobs when I absolutely have to). For this class we mostly read Interdisciplinary Research Process and Theory by Allen F. Repko and They Say, I Say: With Readings by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, though I can’t attest to how much I read for this particular class that particular semester.

And this is a part of this story where we get a chance to come full circle, as it is. It turns out that my project in this class, which was an annotated bibliography, for which I prepared 10 “research topic sheets,” was on gender neutral parenting!

The research map below gives an example of how I was being taught to think about interdisciplinary research when I took this class. I determined that the areas I was pulling from to talk about gendered parenting were Gender and Women’s Studies, Psychology, Biology, and Chemistry. The wonderful thing about interdisciplinary studies, and what this research map illustrates, is the way it puts the different positions of different fields into tension. Some might think of interdisciplinary studies and think of cohesion, and of course there is a certain amount of massaging together. Each independent field, particularly in US academics, hates to imagine out loud that their work could compliment or be complimented by the work of other fields. As we have in the US narratives of individual independence, so to do we have narratives that academic fields should be independent. I cannot imagine studying gender from any one field: not communication, not gender studies, not American studies, not sociology. Don’t let any of these fields mislead you, none of them have the definitive leg up on studying gender. It wasn’t until I was writing my masters thesis that I fully came to realize that appeals to science when it comes to transgender realities was chasing a moving goalpost. Transgender people and those doing (trans)gender scholarship can cite Kessler, Fausto-Sterling, Roughgarden and others all they want to evidence that sex and gender are more of a rainbow, to borrow from Roughgarden, then a line with two poles, this won’t satisfy those who refuse to believe that sex or gender are anything but binary, because it is not about evidence, it is about politics.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I constructed this annotated bibliography, I looked at gender studies, psychology, biology, and chemistry. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand gender and sex from chemical, biological, and psychological levels. This started in earnest with that persuasive speech I gave at Georgia Highlands, and now I was back at it again. What this project showed was that psychology and chemistry share some ideas, namely that brain chemicals while a fetus is in utero can affect the gender of an eventual infant. Psychology goes on to argue that social environments also effect gender. In this way different subfields of psychology argue different sides of the nature vs. nurture debate. In my study of gender one thing that I’ve learned is that binaries aren’t usually useful, and this includes thinking about gender as nature vs. nurture. Almost any literature I would cite would at least allow for the possibility that both play into eventual gender identity formation.

I ended up citing the following sources: Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Developmental Psychology, The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender, the Handbook of Socialization, the Journal of Research in Personality, Feminist Theory, Gender & Society, and Sex Roles. By my count then, I pulled from obstetrics & gynecology, two subfields of Psychology, the field of socialization, the field of personality, feminist theory, sociology, and from at least one multidisciplinary journal. I pulled from eight different fields to try to build an argument for gender-neutral parenting. I wrote as an abstract of sorts for my annotated bibliography for this class:

“Gendered parenting starts with a first-trimester ultrasound and continues through gestation and has the most influence in the first two or three years of child-rearing. I will examine the history of the gendering of children based on ultrasounds, challenge the notion that these genderings are additionally based on a testing of chromosomes, hormones and brain chemistry and ultimately look at the benefits of gender-neutral parenting. I have chosen articles that will explain to me the science of gendering fetuses, the psychology of gender identity development and the reasons for, if not the benefits of, gender neutral parenting.”

Already from this brief abstract we can see one area that I could’ve pulled in that arguable I didn’t: History! What can history, the history of parenting, the history of gender, the history of any of the eight fields mentioned above tell us about gender socialization, gender parenting, and gender-neutral parenting?! I think we also see in this annotated bibliography that, similar to the persuasive speech I had given two years prior, I didn’t have or make room for that last piece: what are the benefits of and reasons for gender neutral parenting?

And there it was! With this class, I was prepared to do interdisciplinary research! In the class I had practice doing an annotated bibliography, a literature review, and a research proposal. What could be missing? As it turns out, quite a bit! But, as always, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In the final part — out October 26 — I write about interdisciplinarity and being readable in the academy.

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Jessica Rae Fisher

Jessica Rae Fisher

Trans woman writer | @MetalRiot | @Medium | @GAHighlands alumna | @KennesawState alumna | @GSUSociology PhD Student | #Metalhead