A Review: On Intersectionality and Academic Drag
Lukka (Sevilay) Akarçay
The abstract for Elizabeth Coleman’s presentation, “On Intersectionality and Academic Drag,” stood out from the SL Pathways that Inspire Us conference program. It was not your everyday conference presentation title in ELT, and a topic, rarely, if ever, explored in EFL teaching contexts in Turkey. I had the opportunity to both attend the presentation and later interview Ms. Coleman as part of our SL conference May 4-5, 2018. I offer a review here of her presentation for those who were not in attendance, recognizing a need and an urgency to be part of creating opportunities for the discussions started in Ms. Coleman’s presentation to continue.
Coleman based her presentation on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of “Intersectionality” and shared a brief introduction to the concept. She pointed out that although this is a theory unfamiliar to most educators, an intersectional approach could really help us unpack and understand the tensions that arise between groups. By understanding how multiple identities interact and/or combine within one individual and how our needs to assert those identities come into play in group politics, educators are better equipped to address the sociocultural needs of our learners. While Crenshaw’s theory of Intersectionality was feminist critique of legal theory and the inadequacy of anti-discrimination laws to address the particular and complex ways that women of color were discriminated against (both as women and as black women); Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality has been adopted in various academic disciplines and movements to explore a range of intersecting and overlapping identities, and how our identifications create a set of unique experiences and inform our individual needs and perspectives on the world.
Coleman defined the term “academic drag” as a constructed image of professionalism teachers don and perform. As employees of institutions that value an image of teacher devoid from individuality and/or uniqueness, we must convincingly perform the role of teacher in ways that fit the rules of appropriate identities as determined by the academy. Putting on this academic drag, we deny the multifaceted nature of our identity, and learn to silence and/or subdue those dimensions deemed unacceptable to the academy. Drawing a connection between Intersectionality and academic drag, Coleman pointed to how an intersectional approach can provide ways to help us bring our whole selves, or full identity, as Coleman put it, into our professional contexts.
To stress the importance of the expression of a full identity, Coleman mentioned researchers Cynthia Nelson — who examined queer students’ experiences, and the effects that hiding parts of their identities had on them, and Gust Yep — who looked at the harm caused by heteronormativity and used the term “soul murder” to describe the suppression and denial of the many parts of ourselves. Coleman pointed out that adhering to academic drag might mean that teachers choose not to deal with or address problematic gendered social attitudes and situations when they arise in our classrooms, but continue teaching instead, effectively forcing compliance with heteronormative hegemony.
Taking the present sociopolitical climate in Turkey into consideration, Coleman reflected on her own experience of teaching in a post-Gezi, pre-coup Turkey and how much she enjoyed giving students the task to write stories for imaginary couples that included more homosexual than heterosexual couples. From the positive reactions and the tone in which students wrote their stories, Coleman’s conclusion was that we can trust our learners to investigate norms they are told to comply with, and we can also trust ourselves to subvert those narratives. While I am in agreement that it has become more difficult and uncomfortable to challenge hegemonic/oppressive narratives, there is no time like the present. It is important to persist in raising consciousness in ways that call into question the academic drag we simply assume that we have to wear in order to be professionals.
To help her presentation attendees reflect, Coleman posed the question “Who are you?” to the audience. She then asked us to make a list of our identities, and to find points of both intersections and diversions in an effort to guide us into noticing the ones we hide as part of our academic drag. She talked about some of the identities she herself hides, and how all of her identities and experiences affect her interactions with students. As a minor point of critique, I think Coleman might perhaps have facilitated this list-making process differently in order to make it more accessible to all the participants in the audience (some people may not be accustomed to categorizing themselves with identity labels). For instance, asking participants to consider the various roles they play in life, and then perhaps facilitating the rest of her steps in ways that were experiential. I am stressing this not because I do not believe in asserting our identities, but because of the need to consider the existence of a broad spectrum of knowing and knowledge on the subject that the audience may bring.
Coleman ended her presentation with the suggestion to us educators to find ways to blend our identities with our academic drag, and challenged us to make our everyday academic drag more representative of us.
My take away? Hiding parts of our identities as teachers results in a denial of the pieces of our human existence not only to ourselves but to our students and colleagues. As long-time educator and writer Parker J. Palmer has passionately pointed out, if teachers are not supported to explore their own inner life, they cannot bring their full selves to the learning environment (2007, p.6). This creates what Palmer (p.65) calls a “culture of disconnection,” if we look at it from the perspective of a culture that places a higher value on analyzing by ‘thinking the world apart’ instead of ‘thinking the world together.’ Palmer explains that the latter would mean to “develop a more capacious habit of mind that supports the capacity for connectedness on which good teaching depends.”
It is exciting that SL was willing to open up space for discussion on queer topics in the Turkish EFL context. Acceptance and a ground for inclusiveness of all of the parts of our intersecting identities — in both ourselves as teachers and administrators, as well as our students — creates smarter, funnier, kinder, more human institutions that we can all thrive in. Having these conversations is integral to learning and teaching.
Many thanks to SL for acknowledging and recognizing the importance of discussing these issues, and to Elizabeth Coleman for starting the conversation. Here is to the hope that the ripple effect of inclusivity will continue to widen, wave, and ripple out some more.
Palmer, J. P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.