Oops, I’ve changed my mind!

I defended my dissertation proposal in the fall of 2019 and was certain that it would provide me with a nice and tidy road-map of the next 1-2 years. I planned to frame my dissertation using Michael Saward’s “representative claim-making” approach and felt (overly) confident that I could translate this theory into a process for empirical analysis. There were other scholars in Europe working to develop a clear method for claims-making and I felt good knowing I’d be contributing to this discussion.

In the spring of 2021, however, I signed up to take a graduate seminar course with a new professor on Feminist Theory. As a fifth year graduate student, I had previously read many of the texts on the syllabus. I approached the class as a fun time to chat about some of my favorite topics, rather than a space where I had to memorize everything each author said. This was my first time taking a course with a trained political theorist and I was excited for the challenge. At the start of the semester I only saw myself as a comparativist who liked to dabble in feminist theory.

By the end of the course I considered myself a budding theorist and had found a new direction for my dissertation. It became apparent that the questions I had and the research I planned to conduct needed firmer theoretical foundations, and that my research would speak to both theorists and empiricists.

I first read portions of Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology in the spring of 2019 while I was teaching my first class. Her arguments about queerness being relational, and about our orientations towards objects and experience, immediately hit home. Over the next two years I would reference the book in conversation and return to its ideas on my own, but I didn’t feel confident or capable enough to apply the theory to my work. This book helped me to understand my own non-binary identity but I struggled to articulate its use as a research framework. This changed after the graduate theory seminar.

Advisors and professors will tell you that your proposal will change as you work on the dissertation but they don’t always provide guidance or support when it happens. For me, research is an extremely personal and emotional process. If I am drawn to a concept or have an affective response to an argument, it is usually going to show up in my own work at some point. I often begin my discussion of an article or book by describing how it made me feel. After spending two years developing a slow-burn love for Queer Phenomenology, I decided to take a dive into the deep end and re-write my theoretical framework using Ahmed’s argument.

The joy and inspiration came instantly. I re-wrote the chapter for my seminar final paper and presented it at a paper workshop where I received excellent feedback and support. I am now working on an article version of that paper, as well as writing my dissertation, and I find myself struggling to hold onto all of the ideas I have about my project. Changing your mind, or going in a different direction (even if it is just changing data sets) can feel daunting. As graduate students we are made to feel like our expertise is conditional and that we don’t have the skill-set to push our own intellectual boundaries and grow.

This is part of the myth of exceptionalism that permeates academic programs. The reality is, most of us hold enough knowledge after our comprehensive exams to be able to say a lot about our research interests, current events, and political science pedagogy. If I hadn’t been invited to submit this revised framework to a journal then I would probably have given up on it and returned to what I perceived as the ‘easier’ path. To my knowledge, there aren’t any others working on political representation using phenomenology and despite being published in 2006, Ahmed’s book has not been picked up by the feminist political science community.

These so-called ‘gaps’ are the motivation for finishing my work because they show that the discipline needs to experience an entirely new conversation about political representation. In a time when there are few academic jobs for qualitative scholars, I’ve gone as qualitative as can be; using discourse analysis and insisting that politics is shaped by things like the heterosexual matrix (Butler) and chromonormativity (Freeman). I was trained in a somewhat interdisciplinary program where we were required to take classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies department. I have participated in a year-long interdisciplinary research seminar with historians, sociologists, literary scholars, legal scholars, and even museum curators. These experiences have certainly made me into a different kind of political scientist, even if I don’t have a specific name for it yet.

Changing my mind, and pursuing a different theory from the one I originally started with, is a reflection of my own queer academic desires to remain fluid, open, and spread across a range of disciplines. As an LGBTQ politics scholar I encounter legal analyses, international relations, social movements, American political development, quantitative and survey work, etc. all within the discipline of political science. My subject area requires that I be well-versed and literate in a range of ways to conduct research and my own epistemological and ontological commitments push me beyond political science’s borders.

I share all of this in the hopes that another graduate student or junior scholar out there decides to take the leap with me. Changing your mind or going in a more creative direction can be extremely fulfilling and in a time when our academic futures remain so uncertain it seems pointless to waste these years on projects we aren’t excited and passionate about.

Lou Sullivan

I did not know who Lou Sullivan was two days ago. A friend recommended the recently published volume of his diaries, We Both Laughed In Pleasure, and it has been sitting patiently on my windowsill for about a month. It was meant to be personal reading but as a trans person who studies trans and queer politics, it has become increasingly “work-related”.

I also did not know that the anniversary of Lou’s death was this week. Just as I’m learning of his life, I am confronted with his death. The collection has caused so much introspection and to see other people sharing their thoughts publicly has been jarring. I’m still not used to people seeing me or knowing me this deeply! Now we’re all reading the same thing! And, to know that Lou himself started collecting his diaries for publication towards the end of his life is hard for me to grapple with; Why would someone share their internal self so brazenly with the world? There are several answer that I’ve come up with…he had nothing to ‘hide’, he wanted to remain an elder after his death, he had worked hard on building his life and living fully which deserves to be shared. I’m sure there is an explicit answer somewhere, from him, perhaps an interview or a diary entry. When I find it, I’ll let ya’ll know. For now, those three reasons are floating front-and-center in my mind all day. I am thinking about how they relate to myself but also my research: the idea that trans people have nothing to hide, that we don’t want to be ignored or erased, that our lives are worth knowing deeply.

I’ve only read about 100 pages of the collection, roughly his first 23 years of life, and I am too fascinated with these early memories to move on into the later years when he begins to transition, when he moves to San Francisco, when he “becomes” a gay trans activist, when he dies after contracting HIV/AIDS.

I see many people sharing his quote, from an early teenage entry, about wanting to be seen by people as someone who “interprets their own happiness”. In the introduction to the collection, Susan Stryker says that this phrase has stuck with her as the definition of trans experiences. I have to say that I agree. I nearly cried when I read those words. They are powerful and earnest and so honest. But, I also found tears welling when Lou complains about people “up the mountain” digging in to build a new house. There are two entries, back to back in the collection about the house. He’s disgusted by it! Annoyed! A child recording the things around him, the changes in his home. I could not help but wonder what my childhood self would have written. I was annoyed by the bus being late for school, by the new neighbors and their kid who used to peek in our front door…

I think we call this type of introspection “reflexivity” in research methodologies. We must be in tune with ourselves and our research subjects and must remember to treat them as complex people, not objects we can classify and extract from to move on to the next ‘big thing’. Even as a trans queer lesbian…I have slipped into a non-reflexive mode of research. My discipline almost demands it–the emphasis is on analytical clarity and causal stories. Reading Lou’s diaries reminded me that as a trans person I am complex and hold many stories, histories, versions of self. I remembered that my transness is about seeking joy and presenting my interpretation of happiness. The people that I’m writing and thinking about are doing the same thing.

We cannot give our research subjects the space to be full, complex, contradictory, and important if we do not give that space to ourselves as well. I want to thank Lou for reminding me of this and for sharing his life so that I can remember my own.