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Postcards from the underworld: Doctoral program, semester 2

Harry Potter's Marauder's Map

Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map

I was told this, my second semester, would be the hardest, and by gum, they delivered. For a lot of reasons, this was a heck of a time, an overload of schoolwork in the midst of a crisis at work that left me sleepless and scrambling for weeks on end.

But I’m done. When I received my grade on one overwhelming project I expressed relief to one cohort colleague, who replied, “Welcome to the Fraternal Order of Slackers.” Yes, it was not a grade commensurate of my other academic achievements. But I advanced to the next semester and this is my last degree and I’m too old to be grounded, so I just don’t care.

The big lesson I was reminded of for this semester came from a recent grad in our program with a gift for summarizing our experience: “Perseverance through high drama.”  I can dig it! The second big lesson: during this break I am lowering the flame under the kettle, but I’m not turning off the stove. It was wonderful to “have a life” after the first semester, but it’s a doctoral program, not elementary school. I need to keep my brain, and my projects, at a steady simmer, percolating away at various activities, and  ready to kick it up a notch when the third semester begins.  So along with resting and celebrating and whatnot, I’ll do some research and thinking and reading.

The three really big plusses for me for the second semester semester were first, getting into the groove on topics that excited me, second, having a Hail-Mary save on an assignment I had no background for (thank you Kara, amazing stats tutor at Holy Names), and third, having yet another Hail-Mary save just five days before my big assignment was due when I realized — in a flash of insight while driving on the Redwood Highway near Guerneville, an epiphanal moment so deep and striking I had to pull over — that this 45-page article proposal  had major structural flaws and needed to be reorganized from soup to nuts. I could even see how it needed to be reorganized: my brain, in this moment, was my own private Marauder’s Map.

I also traveled deep, deep into the heart of grounded theory, as well as into theories of social influence. Though maybe the most delicious moment came when my research converged with the writings of Rensis Likert, who deserves a better Wikipedia page than the one I linked to.

Once upon a time I learned about Likert scales when I met a consultant, Dr. Alison Head (before her Project Information Literacy days), who helped me develop surveys for the project I managed. She knows far more than I ever will, but I learned a little. It never occurred to me that “Likert” was a real person, and one who on paper, at least, seems like a mensch.

Studying Likert in the context of his era is interesting. I have been delving into the literature of leadership in the context of the LGBT experience, which is a very small body of literature indeed, though that has its advantages.

I became interested in grounded theory when I realized that far too many leadership “theories” felt specious, particularly when viewed by anything other than a “majority” perspective.  These theories either have an innate emptiness — q.v. “resonant leadership,” in which leaders benefit by practicing “mindfulness, hope, and compassion,” a cheerful thought, but one that cannot be reliably traced along an evidentiary path explaining the origins of these three emotional behaviors  — or fluffily prescribe practices such as “Bring more of yourself to work,” which rests on assumptions that are almost laughable when viewed through the lens of race, gender, sexual identity, or other “otherness.”

LGBT status is a “concealable difference” (at least in theory), and a fascinating area to study. (I am fighting the urge to add a footnote or two here.) People who elect to conceal their differences do so for many reasons, but one reason is to present one’s self as the de facto standard, that is, the norm — which proves the power and privilege issues raised by Cecily Walker in an elegant blog post.

Cecily was responding to a blog post written in what I think of as “Should-Speak,” in which someone from the “default” tells others what they “should” do (if a pointing finger is not actually present, I see one in my mind). In this case, the blogger had warned librarians that “if you step outside of the people’s expectations as to how [insert your kind of librarian] should look it’s going to take work to show them that you are a competent professional.”

Andy Woodworth was probably referring to things like unusual hair color or dress choices, but the twist on that statement, however casually or facetiously made,  is what it looks like from other sides of the power struggle. As Cecily argues, in the case of immutable distinctions such as race, “When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.”

LGBT leadership research is interesting to me for more than just the most obvious reason (I love to research myself, just as I love watching myself on those TV cameras in store lobbies–after a while, Sandy shouts, “Stop watching yourself!”).  It’s also an area of research that inevitably overlaps with many other conversations, such as the one Cecily launched. When you research “otherness,” you open doors into entirely new ways of looking at the world.

One of my favorite discoveries during the research process this fall was a dissertation about openly LGBT university presidents. The investigator, Eric Bullard, had intended to use the lens of Queer Theory for his research, a theoretical approach that is too complex to describe here but includes the idea that sexual identity is constructed. I’ll resist the temptation to comment on the dangerous allure of the poststructuralist sirens to junior researchers, and focus instead on Bullard’s conclusion that “Queer Theory may not have been the best theoretical lens through which to view the experiences of out gay and lesbian higher education presidents.”

Bullard noted that the presidents were heavily invested in being perceived as “just like their heterosexual counterparts.”  I chuckle every time I re-read this, because it makes perfect sense that these smart, striving higher-ed types were invested in being LGBT equivalents of Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver (I recently viewed the first episode of Leave it to Beaver, so I speak with great authority on this matter). It takes a lot of emotional, intellectual, and physical labor to demonstrate that you’re university president material, and it’s even harder to do that when your innate self is not congruent with “people’s expectations.”

That said, major props to the author for even taking on this topic, and for being attuned to the intersectionalities that surfaced in the research process, particularly gender and sexual orientation. It was very moving to hear the stories of university presidents, such as the gay male president who was mocked for “redecorating” after implementing a physical plant improvement early in his administration, and the female president’s conclusion that “sexual orientation is really about gender. It’s misogyny. The problem for [lesbian] women is how can you get along without a man? And for [gay] men the problem is someone is perceived as acting like a woman.”  I know there were many criticisms of Denise Denton, the UC Santa Cruz president who was young, inexperienced, and openly lesbian, but however flawed her leadership may have been — and I have no real insight into the matter — whether or not she outwardly acknowledged it, she was shouldering quite a burden during her tenure.

Twenty years ago, in our field, library science, James Carmichael was soldiering on with research and findings similar to Bullard’s; in a random sampling of male members of ALA, Carmichael found that nearly two-thirds of the 482 respondents agreed that they “recognized a male librarian stereotype which corresponded to the negative female stereotype” and was “effeminate, probably gay.” There’s a whole lot of confirmatory research on the extent to which people confound gender and sexual identity, but it’s impressive that a researcher in my field was working on this problem two decades ago. (Whoops, had that footnote urge again.)

Anyway, my last thought I’ll share via this potluck blog post has more to do on the meta level. It’s so wonderful we have self-publishing avenues such as blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. There’s  a constant slipstream of thinking and discussion that just wasn’t available prior to the Internet. I’ve been blogging for over a decade, and though my blogging is something I now squeeze between semesters, I appreciate the ability to write and be read outside of the “scholarly” canon, and I appreciate the discourse.

Posted on this day, other years:

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