PostNormal Times: Superpowers and Allies
PostNormal Times is a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world—a world where the stakes are high and innovation is crucial. Andrew Vosko, PhD, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at CGU, and his guests explore ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. Get ready to challenge your assumptions.
In episode 5 of PostNormal Times, Andrew Vosko talks with guest Dionne Bensonsmith, adjunct assistant professor of applied gender studies at Claremont Graduate University and visiting professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, on academic “superpowers,” the lifecycle of a discipline, and her work navigating academic and nonprofit worlds. Listen to the full episode below and subscribe via Spotify, iTunes, or RSS.
ANDREW: Welcome to PostNormal Times, a podcast for our complex reality and unpredictable world, where stakes are high, and innovation is crucial. In this series, I get to sit down with some of my favorite minds to explore new ideas that transcend traditional academic boundaries and address our most pressing needs. I’m Andrew Vosko, associate provost and director of transdisciplinary studies at Claremont Graduate University. Welcome to the show.
We’d like to welcome our listeners to our podcast today, where we don’t discuss business as usual, we discuss business in the transdisciplinary world. I am very, very happy to be here with our guest, Professor Dionne Bensonsmith, who is an adjunct assistant professor of applied gender studies at Claremont Graduate University and a visiting professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. So she is a good citizen of Claremont, active everywhere, and also one of those people who is active outside of the campuses.
OK, let me get this right: You’re the co-founder of Mothers on the Frontline?
ANDREW: OK, and you’re also the chair of the Reproductive Justice (RJ) Community Institutional Review Board (IRB). Can you explain what both of those things are before I move forward?
DIONNE: Happily. So, Mothers on the Frontline is a children’s mental health justice organization. We coined the term children’s mental health justice and we focus on children’s mental health justice and caregiver justice, and we do that through supplying—and I’ll talk a lot more about this later—what we call (to be fancy) epistemic resources. We have a webpage. We do community engagements and workshops.
It’s an organization founded and run by parents (mostly mothers, three of us) of children who have mental health conditions. It’s meant to elevate, destigmatize, and talk about how children’s mental health and children’s mental health justice and caregiver justice are intertwined (they’re mutually dependent) and how we can engage and function within not only institutional contexts but also start to disrupt, engage, and redefine those relationships.
And the RJ Community IRB is an IRB that’s under the auspices of another organization I’m on the board of and co-founder of, which is Interfaith Voices for Reproductive Justice (IVRJ). The RJ Community IRB exists within the community. We’re the nation’s only Institutional Review Board situated within the community. There are the Indian tribes situated within Indian tribes and then there’s us.
Our function is threefold: It’s to help researchers who want to do community-based and community-engaged research with reproductive justice organizations (many of whom have relationships with us). It’s also to help our community researchers produce their own research within the community, research that will maintain and stay within the community. And it’s to build the capacity to do things because a lot of the research—particularly research done by community organizations within community groups that requires or would be good for grants—requires some sort of peer review. So, this is how we can help facilitate peer review in a way that reflects community values and helps our community groups and academics work with one another.
ANDREW: OK, you’ve got a lot going on! I like that. I like finding people who don’t separate work from life in this way, because it’s all part of the same thing. It’s not like you stop being a researcher, or you stop being an academic, or intellectual, or a teacher, or an activist, or a change-maker when you get out of your car into your office. Those things permeate life.
DIONNE: Yes, it’s fulfilling and it’s challenging, as you recognize. To me, it’s much more reflective of who I am, and of what I’m trying to do with my PhD. That was always a weird space for me in graduate school: this kind of demarcated, really siloed space. As a Black woman, it was just impossible for me to disconnect a lot of what was happening in the classroom—what I was actually either pushing up against, or actually learning—from my personal experiences, from my family’s experiences, and they all started to kind of mesh and blend. It took a while for me to really figure out how they could mesh and blend.
It’s a much more enjoyable existence. It’s not necessarily the most lucrative, but it’s rewarding in a way to be able to embody and to learn and to think of having a PhD as this kind of lifelong arc and not just something that’s institutionally dependent.
ANDREW: I have some difficulty in my mind when there are conversations around retirement, of like, “I’m doing this until retirement.” … Maybe I’m in a small camp here, but I never want to retire. I might change the way I’m working. I might change the institution or the venue, or I might create my own institution, or however this works. I might go freelance … but it’s all integrated because the kinds of things that I am, and the “me” that goes into what I’m doing, are also a part of the knowledge. It’s also a part of the professionalization that was given to me to get my PhD and I think that that’s becoming more normal in the economies that we’re working in.
We’re becoming gig workers in some ways, right? And we have two different versions of a model. We’re still getting into graduate school and we’re like, “Here’s how you get your job afterward.” And that’s true. But now we’re going into this, “Here’s how you get your next 20 jobs,” and “Here’s how you’ll make this work when there’s a pandemic,” for instance.
There’s so much agility that we’re having to work with. A lot of what we do and a lot of what’s great about a PhD is that it’s a capacity-build, more than anything else.
DIONNE: I like that. One of the things I always tell my graduate students, especially the very new ones, a lot of times I have them in applied gender studies, and it’s their very first semester of graduate school, so they’re wide-eyed, and like, “What is this about?” And one of the things I tell them is to recognize what their superpower is and recognize how it’s going to be amped up.
And for me personally, I’ve always been a polymath. You talk to my mother, I’ve always absorbed and read a lot. And when I got my PhD, it was like my brain just expanded and my capacity to absorb information and make connections with what I was absorbing seemed like it went into overdrive—much to the consternation of my family for some time! But that’s like my superpower. I recognize it. I recognize that I can read a lot of stuff and I can make connections and see the connections.
So, I’m always telling them that what will happen in this rare and very brief moment, when you’re in classes in graduate school, is that you’re going to expand in ways you never thought that you could expand. And then you start to be attuned to how you’re expanding and how that expansion can help you make connections that aren’t just institutionally dependent.
Because you didn’t come here as part of an institution. You didn’t come here locked into a program. When you started graduate school, you came here because you had questions that we wanted to ask. We had things that we were passionate about, and we wanted a way to apply and do them. And so, I’m constantly trying to encourage them to stay connected with that wonder, and then you’ll start to see how you can make connections in different places.
ANDREW: OK, so you’ve got sage advice. It must have come from somewhere. You’ve been through the graduate school experience; you talked about that a little bit yourself. So can you give some context to us about how your academic and life journey made you this person who understands not just looking at these things as superpowers—it’s funny I like to think of these things as superpowers, too. It’s totally like comic books when you’re a kid! I think that should be a class, comic book reading 101—but also embracing your polymath background and this idea that you’re not going to retire either, that you’re in this because this is all part of you.
DIONNE: My first big transformation had nothing to do with the strict academic pathway. I was an All-American. I played basketball. I was pretty good at it. I always read a lot. I did a lot. So, I always thought, “OK so I’m going to get this basketball scholarship, and this is a way for me to get to a top-notch university.” And then I fell in love with basketball.
I went to Notre Dame. And I blew my knee out. It was a life-changing, career-changing injury. I was never able to become the basketball player I thought I was going to become. I thought I was going to play professionally, and some people laughed because the WNBA didn’t exist when I graduated from high school in 1989, but other people knew that there would be a professional women’s basketball league that would be started up. So, that cohort that you saw in the early WNBA was … all top-notch college basketball players, and the talk there was “Yeah, I’m going to do that, that would be so cool, and it would be cool to do that, maybe travel to Europe…”
So, I had this whole idea about what I would do. Then it all came to a crash. I was at Notre Dame, and it’s like, “OK, so you’re here, what can you do?,” and, “How can you take this opportunity to explore the things that you love?” So, I started taking classes that I could never take as an athlete. I started interacting with professors and that kind of kicked in this kind of making connections and making transitions that would really help me later in what I consider to be one of the more painful periods of my professional career. That was when I stepped away from my tenure track job at Grinnell College and came here. For a lot of reasons, it wasn’t working for my family.
I came here as a postdoc to Scripps College, and it was right about that time when the economy crashed for the first time. I was in political science. I thought, I’m going to do political science and it’s out of this necessity again, out of this kind of crash, of having to pivot. I’ve always, always as a political scientist secretly read Black feminism, and my dissertation infused Black feminism—but that’s not political science.
ANDREW: I was going to say, can you explain that? I am outside of political science. I’d imagine that there’s got to be some kind of political philosophy that would go on and Black feminism should fit into political philosophy and political science, should it not?
DIONNE: It should. It doesn’t. … One of the reasons I chose the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in the first place is because it pegged itself as an interdisciplinary space. That only meant, really, that I took some classes in economics and then had to take two classes outside the Maxwell School. I chose the only department that would house me, which was philosophy. I took my two classes with Linda Alcoff. And that was probably—if you think about where I am now—the sea change for me.
So, I’m in the philosophy department taking a class on race and philosophy, reading Stuart Hall—reading people I’d never been exposed to in political science. It would be difficult in a lot of departments for people to be exposed to that in political science. Political science is a discipline very much focused on a quantitative positivist way of analyzing and engaging with the world. There’s not a whole lot of philosophy in it. And the philosophy that is there, I would say that there’s not a lot of this sort of engaged, reflexive character to it, right?
It’s this assumption that we have to learn, of course, we have to learn about political philosophy, we have to learn about Hobbes, we have to learn about Rousseau. But really, why and how that actually is engaged with, how we ask questions, and what and how the discipline is structured—sometimes it happens, but it must be a deliberate and intentional conversation on the part of the professor. It’s not in this overarching way of the discipline.
So, for me, after taking Alcoff’s class, I started working with Alcoff secretly. I’m doing all this reading and this work with her. I was writing a really good dissertation on Congress and the filibuster—I could tell you a lot about the filibuster, and the filibuster and race—and I was literally crying the entire time. I turned the pages into my chair, it was like, “These are good pages, I know, but I don’t want to do this!”
And so, between Linda and my chair, Grant Reeher, they were like, “You don’t want to do this—then what do you want to do? Because, whatever you want to do and however you’re going to do it, this is who you’re going to be for the next 5 to 10 years.” I was like, “I want to write something about Black women. I want to write something that reflects my experience. Because I’m in public policy, we’re coming off the 1996 welfare reform at that time, and there are a lot of assumptions even within my own discipline that we were making about Black women and Black women’s motivations, and women who are on welfare and their motivations.”
I didn’t see, at that time, our discipline—if you think about some of the theories that we have in political science—as an institution that could really answer this and really do it in a systemic way. We couldn’t. But I was like, “I really want to do that.” And so, much to the credit of my chair, he said, “Go ahead and do it.” That’s what saved me.
When I got here, everything had dried up with respect to political science for me. There weren’t a lot of openings in political science departments. But California worked very well. Talking about transdisciplinarity, I have a transnational, biracial family. There aren’t a lot of places where an African-American and Russian family, blended in all these ways, could exist, where my kids could actually grow up and feel slightly normal. So, we knew we were not going to leave. The question was: How can I stay here and do the work that I really love doing, which is research and teaching and everything, and do it in a sustainable way?
And it turned out that it was not political science. I could not find a position in many political science or government departments. It was gender studies and that dissertation—that little nugget of a dissertation—that allowed me to start having this conversation around gender and feminism, which I think is just an inherently interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary space.
ANDREW: A lot of evolutions of disciplines come out in this interesting way, where you see people like you who understand that there are bounds that have taken on some kind of tradition that is ossified: Things are stuck this way, for better or worse. That doesn’t mean that a field is bad, and there isn’t some kind of movement in the field. But when the ossification happens, that movement is slow. Most movement that ends up happening doesn’t come from something like theory. It usually comes from technology. It usually comes from our preoccupation with how to do the newest kind of data analysis.
So, we’re asking similar kinds of questions with different means. I wouldn’t even say methodological, because sometimes there’s no logic, and sometimes there’s just method. But it’s like getting a faster car when what you needed was a boat. It’s like, “No, it’s not a road issue!’ It’s, “We flooded, and we need boats, now!”
And I think that “theory thing” is what births new disciplines. But that disciplinary birth space is interesting. When it first starts with a field like gender studies, or when education became a field, because it wasn’t always a field unto itself … when a lot of these areas become fields, they start in this completely Star Trek-y space (to go nerdy). It’s this new frontier. It is, itself, at this leading tip of a transdisciplinary edge, and it’s exciting because it’s creating knowledge and unchartered space. …
We’re still in a disciplinary world, and it has become interdisciplinary. It has its own journal, which is great. It has its own customs. It has its own degree programs. It has its own outcomes. It has its own culture. It has the people you should talk to and the people you shouldn’t talk to anymore. And it starts getting the artifacts and it starts ossifying. …
So, you see an evolution of disciplines that … take a while to get to something very, very established. You can see, if you look across an entire catalog of disciplines, where they might be in their process: “OK you’re established, you’re very ossified, fine…” There’s never a shortage of knowledge there. And one of the things we do in those ossified spaces … is that we forget the classic stuff and pretend that it didn’t matter, and yet so much knowledge is still to be rediscovered from that.
So, I’m not against that. But then—because we’re going through our own evolutionary process in this academic institutional way—you can see that, yeah, gender studies is more on that tip. It’s still burgeoning and that’s the fun of working in that space. But you get a lot of conversations with people who will say, like, “Oh well, what I’m doing is already at the tip, why do I need to collaborate with anyone? Why do I need to learn new perspectives?” And my counterargument is like, “No, because you’re at the tip, that’s the definition: You’re still establishing these things, so you never stop collaborating. You never stop looking outward. You’re trying to balance the institutionalization of your field with the need to bring in all these diverse spaces, to make it even better before the ossification happens. That’s going to happen. …It’s never bad that something ossifies, it’s just the reality.”
I’m a neuroscience person by background, and there’s nothing that’s not fascinating with neuroscience, it’s totally fascinating—but there are things that I learned when I got into this field like, “Wait, this is how it works when you publish? This is who I have to be nice to at a conference? This is the kind of postdoc I need to get?” And those kinds of things are what become more cultural norms in the disciplinary acculturation. And when I did that and then I thought, “Deep down, I’m kind of a humanist, that doesn’t go well together!” So, how did I evolve from this hardcore molecular neuroscience into teaching about medical ethics as the other side of it, and then fitting into a transdisciplinary space?
I tell people who are talking to me one-on-one: You can’t not be who you are. It’s going to come out one way or another. So, if you’re deeply a humanist and you’re in a scientific field, then you’ve got this amazing opportunity to contribute to one of these new burgeoning things, or you can make it yourself and I think that that’s part of the fun. Part of the fun about being in Claremont, part of the fun about being at CGU, is that you have all of these programs that have come up like this and so you’re in these spaces in which not a lot of people have ever been, and you get to dictate what happens.
DIONNE: It’s funny, because you say, “You can’t not be who you are.” One of my co-founders at Mothers on the Frontline who’s also my collaborator, I call her my “partner in crime,” is Tammy Nyden. She’s a graduate of the CGU philosophy department. We graduated around the same time, and we were on faculty together at Grinnell College. So, we were both young faculty members, and one of the things that we always laugh about is that I sort of mentioned feminism to her—and, I thought, “Oh philosophy…” All I knew about philosophy, by the way, was feminism and critical race theory. I didn’t realize—well, I thought everybody was doing that because that was what I was doing with Alcoff. It was like, “Everybody’s doing this, all around the country!”
So, “You’re a philosopher, let me hit you up. What do you think about Stuart Hall and blah, blah, blah…” And she’s like, “That’s totally not what I’m doing.” … Also I said I went to an interdisciplinary program and explained what “interdisciplinary” meant, and she’s like, “No, that’s not really what we mean.” She described what transdisciplinarity is. And we struck up this friendship. She always describes me as a philosopher. She’s like, “At heart, you realize you’re a philosopher, right?” I’m not a philosopher, I flunked philosophy at Notre Dame. It was required. The professor was a priest and he said that women can’t think. If you’re a woman, you’re not getting above a C. I got a C+ or something like that, which was actually good for a woman, I guess!
I never thought of myself as a philosopher. I never thought of myself as a person who’s really thinking about theory all of the time and in the spaces. But who I am, and what I’m always thinking about, is theory and frameworks. At Mothers on the Frontline, we have this framework, it’s a children’s mental justice framework that we developed. It is a development that came about from our reflexivity and reflecting on our own experiences as mothers: me, and Angela Riccio, who is the only non-academic. We’re really thinking about how our personal experiences as parents of children who have mental health conditions, how interacting with the various institutions that we have to interact with—with medicine, and … culturally with our family, with our church—how that … has an effect, not only on our own mental health and well-being as caregivers but also the agency that we have as parents and the agency that our children have and what that means for mental health overall.
It’s inherently transdisciplinary, but at the end of the day, this framework is a philosophy. And still, who I am—I think I am, I’m going to say this for the first time publicly—yeah, I think I am, and I always have been attracted to the philosophic frameworks: the things that are the “why” of why we do what we do, and how we understand that. And then political science gave me some of the best training in methods with that focus on positivism, but also focus on quantitative methodology.
ANDREW: It’s hard and important to do good methodology.
DIONNE: It is. It really prepared me in a way, I think, to start to have these kinds of conversations within the community and conversations even within my own organizations—and how I teach—that really start to look at the “how” and the “why.” Political science is really about the questions “Why are you doing it? How is it being done? How are you proving it? How are you describing it?”
I still ask these questions. I might ask them about theory. I might ask them of a particular politician. A lot of times I’m asking about policy and what we’re trying to do with particular policies. … Is there a position called “methodologist?” In philosophy? I don’t know what the job description would be for that!
ANDREW: There was a movement in philosophy for experimental philosophy for a while. But that’s more my kind of training: It’s like laboratory setups. I looked at it as a form of neuroscience, to be honest. It was more like a cognitive neuroscience kind of thing.
But I do think that those things are coming up all the time and I think that when you make a change in the framework, it’s like you change which railroad track you’re on now. So, you can continue moving, but you’re now chartering new territories. And that’s such an important thing to do. I’m full of metaphors as you can tell and that’s one of the ways in which I like to speak.
In science, I think you know the term, Standing on the shoulders of giants.” That’s probably the tradition I came from, and that’s kind of the way that we perform humility in the sciences: “No, it’s not me, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants!”
DIONNE: That’s also in Black feminism.
ANDREW: But “standing on the shoulders of giants” also feeds into the notion that what you’re here to do … is fill a gap in the literature. … But that gap in the literature could be 360 degrees. Imagine, if you’re standing on the shoulders of a giant, and you’ve got a very tall Jenga stack that’s going very high, but that giant is oriented 180 degrees the wrong way from where all the action is on the other side. So, you might be ‘Standing on the shoulders of a giant,” and you might know exactly what’s going on on the horizon in that direction, but what about behind you? What about these other directions?
I think that’s the thing that the transdisciplinary space allows for us to do: To say, “You don’t have to stop standing on those shoulders—they’re very important—but what if we changed the paradigm and … decided to go back to the ground level and look around the under the other degrees in that circle to understand what we are missing? What’s the foundation that giant is standing on?” Maybe it’s not the foundation of the land that the rest of us are standing on anymore.
DIONNE: I never thought about it that way. I always thought about the transdisciplinary space, and I guess that goes back to your earlier question about how I got into this space. It’s always been an inherently intersectional space. Again, Mothers on the Frontline, the work that I do with reproductive justice, the whole reproductive justice framework, which, no, I did not coin. I did not frame. … Speaking of standing on the shoulders of giants: I’m lucky enough to have engaged with Toni Bond, who was at Claremont School of Theology when it was still across the street. I had just wonderful luck—more than luck, it’s kismet, it’s a lot of things—because she’s the co-founder of IVRJ, and she’s also one of the founding mothers of the reproductive justice movement and one of the early coiners of RJ, and the reproductive justice framework. And she happened to take my class across the street, because she’s like, “We could take a class on method, or we can like learn a new language, and you’re teaching this feminist methods class.” And we became friends.
So, in thinking about the work that she does, the work that I was doing, it was always in sort of this intersectional space where, if I could draw it out for you, my work … is Black feminism and being a Black woman, so the embodiment of all the things people pour into and say about Black women, Black women’s bodies, Black women’s minds, Black women’s positionality, and then how that spokes out into economics. When I teach my social policy class, I can look at economic theory, about utilitarianism: What are the assumptions we make about utilitarianism? How does that play out in the assumptions we make about the behavior of a person who is on public assistance, and where does that break down?
I like that, so now I’m going to think about giants. I always thought of it as a flattened space of networks and the networking that’s going through.
ANDREW: That’s also part of it. That’s the fun of it. You realize that knowledge exists when you transcend the discipline. … Imagine if you are going to be Superman or Superwoman, that’s your superpower: Now you can twirl around and do a 360-degree view. But you’re also seeing it as a bird would see it. And you’ll see the connections, but you also see the foundation you’ve been standing on.
And that’s maybe one of the differences between an interdisciplinary way of looking at things and a transdisciplinary one, is that you look at the discipline itself as the product of a sociological or anthropological exercise, as you do with political science. You say, “It comes from a positivist tradition.” When you start to do that, you’re adding, I call it disciplinary awareness. When you’re doing some kind of reflexivity, you start with an individual and that’s why positionality is so important and also those intersectional identities.
But what if you grow that bubble around you and realize that one of the identities you’re now deeply entrenched in, is the disciplinary one? And that disciplinary identity comes from another tradition, comes from another set of norms. So, you need to become disciplinarily aware of what’s going on at the same time.
This is one of the problems that I think so many people have when trying to work with people from other disciplines: We don’t pay attention to these disciplinary awarenesses. So, when you want the economist trying to talk to the psychologist, there’s so much that overlaps, and yet there’s like, “No, this is how we do things. This is our definition.” … At its very best, those who understand how to navigate those spaces have this inclination to bridge-build and that’s what the transitionary version of that looks like.
So, your foundation might be economics, it might be psychology. And if you’ve got this transdisciplinary inclination, you can take that, you can be your superhero, you can fly up above it and you can build a bridge. If you’re deeply disciplinary, then you burrow. And burrowing is OK, if you don’t ostrich yourself and pretend that the rest of this doesn’t exist, or say, “This is wrong, this is stupid.”…
I’m being, probably, a little on the critical side of this, because you really do need to balance all these things. I’m just saying that where we need to kind of create the balance is by adding more to the transdisciplinary side.
DIONNE: I think you’re right. … I want to reach back to reflexivity in one minute because this comes up. I do a lot of work where people are still entrenched in disciplines, which leads me to the second point about this bridge-building. … This is the thing that’s comical to me: Disciplines pretend like their disciplines are not inherently the things that we hold on to—and we hold very tight—that they’re not also coming from other disciplines, right?
And we’ve just sort of forgotten the origin of it. We’ve forgotten the origins of what we do in political science that comes from philosophy. If you talk to a philosopher and they’re like, “Oh no no, no, no, no, no, no! Plato and Hobbes? And political theory, it happens like this…”
One of the funniest things that happened to me that kind of exploded this for me was when I first started teaching. I was at Grinnell College, and I had the Introduction to Political Science class. I’m like, “Rational choice theory!” … OK, so here we’re going to get into rational choice theory. The second week, this person raised his hand, and he said—and he was really serious—like, “Professor, you keep saying ‘rational choice theory.’” “Yeah, it’s rational choice theory.” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m an econ major.” And he had waited until his junior year, or he may have been a senior, to come back and fill in the rest of his requirements, or the rest of what he needed to graduate. He said, “I’m an econ major, I went to my macro book and went to my micro book, and I keep looking for rational choice theory. I keep looking and looking and looking, and nowhere does it say ‘rational choice theory.’ Why?” Because we talk about rational actors all the time—oh because it’s not a theory in your discipline! It’s like the basis or the break-off from us. And now I’m going to get in trouble because I’m sure some economics people will say, “That’s not true!” It’s like the break-off from what was theoretical for us.
And that’s sort of how I see, sometimes, disciplines evolving. It’s sort of like a branch: We’re going to lop this part off, and then I’m going to run with it. And this is now like the seed that we’re growing from and transdisciplinary work, if you come from a discipline, sometimes what you can do is you can do that bridge-building work, because you can recognize where this comes from, and now I also recognize what you’re talking about, and so now we can kind of talk to one another. And we can kind of build from there and start to look at what the comparisons are like, you know, apples to apples. “We both have apples! Oh my gosh! We both like apples! Your apple might be green, mine it’s red but they’re both apples What else do we have?” And start to kind of build from there into something else.
And I think that that is what builds, you were saying, these new theories, the things that burgeon out of that. Once we know that there are different types of apples and not all different apples are just different fruits, they’re actually different apples. …
ANDREW: And when you start making these new hybrids or when you start making these kinds of integrated versions of an apple, then the degree of freedom becomes much greater. So, it doesn’t just have to feed people who like red apples. It doesn’t just have to feed people who like green apples. Now, you can feed everybody. And that’s the kind of thing that we think about, What is this knowledge that we’re creating, or this node we’re discovering, or this knowledge that we’re integrating, or however we’re translating that knowledge, or uncovering that knowledge, and for what?
That’s the other question with the transdisciplinary side of things: OK, now knowledge for its own sake is good, but this program you’re very involved with, applied gender studies, the applied knowledge, that’s becoming more of a common theme. People who go to school want their knowledge to be applied in a way that betters society, that has got some functionality to it. Researchers are starting to do more of this…
I came from the world of NIH grants. When you look at NIH grants, we call it translation: What is this going to go into? How is this going to affect people immediately? And I’m seeing more and more of this. When I started, it wasn’t as much, I was instead like, “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” and this kind of idealized, romantic idea of—I wasn’t going to say it, but I’m going to say it—the ivory tower. I love ivory towers. It’s so nice to imagine that I can go to a sanctuary and all I can do is think.
DIONNE: A library!
ANDREW: A library is gorgeous. I love getting lost in a library. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Libraries are magical, but at the same time, there’s always that point where—I don’t know if you had the existential crisis—you think, “Does anybody care about what I’m doing? Why does this matter?” And understanding how to turn what we’re doing into things that matter is also a skill that you can cultivate. That’s something that an applied program really emphasizes, and it’s so important.
What has it been like for you teaching applied gender studies?
DIONNE: It’s truly been one of the more liberating experiences. I cannot say enough wonderful things and give enough thanks to Linda Perkins for even offering me the opportunity. For a long time—and this is going to sound bad, so I have to figure out a way to say it—in gender studies and feminist studies, if you come from a discipline like political science, you really have to get the stink of the discipline off of you. That’s because people associate political science—particularly in feminism and gender studies—as a discipline that is like, ‘Yeah, so you’re in political science, so you’re a quantitative person.” They associate it with hostility. There was a barrier for me even working with Alcoff, in getting my foot in the door to even teach in gender studies.
This will tell you this sort of 180 when I came here and I had the fellowship at Scripps College, I was in the government department. Within three years of working over here at CGU, when I went back to teach at Scripps, I was teaching feminist gender and sexuality studies (FGSS). When I had originally applied to teach in FGSS after moving from the government department, when a visiting position opened up, they wouldn’t even look at me, because there’s so much of an idea of what political science is, and what that means for anybody coming out of political science.
So, what is meant by being in applied gender studies is two things: It has allowed me, given me this space pedagogically to explore, and to open up those connections that we were talking about between the disciplines. But that applied part of it was the first place that I could say when I was going out… I had already been doing activist work and I’d already been doing community work, but it’s really weird when you name something, like, “Oh, I’m part of applied gender studies.” Like, “OK, sit down, talk to me a little bit more. Tell me a little bit more about the type of work that you do.” This is definitely one of those instances of really learning what it means and how to articulate who I am as I was doing it.
So, right about the time that I started teaching, I think it may have been the second or third year I was teaching here in applied gender studies, I started doing work with Black Women for Wellness, which is a reproductive justice organization in Los Angeles. They’re in Leimert Park, and I was doing some fibroids research. Being in applied gender studies and looking at this from an applied way, even in my own mind, turned this key to realizing that, OK, this relationship needs to be much more than the transactional relationship and extractive relationship. Black Women for Wellness gets approached a lot by researchers because they have one of the largest reproductive justice organizations, but they have one of the largest organizations of Black women, so their membership is a treasure trove to any researcher who wants to do research with Black women. So, if you think about maternal child health, think about anything that affects Black women from the NIH standpoint, all the way through to what we do, Mellon work, you really want to have this kind of relationship…
And Jan Robinson Flint had become very skeptical of relationships with academics because they’re extractive. So, “What are you going to give us? What are you going to do with us?” And I was like, well, “I’m with the Applied Gender Studies program.” She’s like, “What does that mean?” And so, when you’re in the community, it’s really humbling when you do community work, because they don’t care. They don’t care that “Oh, I have a PhD in neuroscience,” or “I have a PhD in political science.” And they don’t care. They’re like, “What does that mean for us? What does that mean, you have a PhD?” And Jan Robinson Flint said, “You have a PhD and you’re working on applied gender studies, what are you doing for us? And what do you do and how is that going to work with us?”
And so, having that space, here, to actually ask that question and some of my early experiences in teaching, I was just asking our students, “You’re in applied gender studies, why were you attracted to applied gender studies? What do you think applied gender studies means? What do you think that means for the type of work that you want to do with the MA? What do you think that means for the work that you want to do with the certificate? You’re getting the certificate, why?”
This kind of very basic real conversation with students is what really helped me to start to articulate what this means, what it means to apply something so esoteric if you think about it. It really does have this kind of patina of theory and that even is in the community space. Most people think anybody coming out of academia who’s doing anything that has to do with feminism must be doing only theory. And so, I started asking our students and we started talking about like, “How do we articulate this space, and then how are we going to apply the theories that we’re learning here to actual policies, actual programs, and actual interests? How do we do this translation?”
And a lot of those early classes—and even now—my classes are really about this translational space. That’s what I think we do well. We, as in me and Linda in AGS, are really pushing students to do this kind of translational work and then giving them the space.
ANDREW: In the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary worlds, I say transdisciplinary and I love transdisciplinary, I also love interdisciplinarity, I don’t think it’s any less… It’s got a very important space to hold as well. I was at an interdisciplinary conference and a presentation was made talking about what NSF calls convergence science (everyone’s got a different name for these kinds of things). Convergence science is a great name, but what kind of worker is going to be needed most in the future—what’s one of the skill sets that’s missing that most people aren’t talking about—is the translator.
This is coming out of the transdisciplinary work. Because in transdisciplinary work, like you said, you want to work with community organizations. You want to work with people outside of the discipline because you’re working on problems that affect society. And people who might not have a lot of access to those researchers or people who always have access to those researchers, but the point is you’re kind of coming down off your typical position of hierarchy as a researcher, and you’re integrating the knowledge from the different groups you’re working with, as well as the academic knowledge that you’re bringing to the table.
So, when you’re trying to get stuff done and make it a sustainable solution or a sustainable answer, that’s the way to do it. It works better than someone telling you what to do, because you missed the context, right, completely, if you’re working in a local space, and you have no idea of what that context is. So, what ends up being the most important … skill set is translation, because if you don’t have it, that’s the bottleneck.
When you’re watching some show of people who might be working with a pre-industrial tribe, the translator is the person who controls everything. If you’re in a foreign country and you’ve got a tour guide, we understand it that way, too. But when you think about it in terms of academia, where we’re kind of like, “Oh, hold on, I’ll speak slower and louder, and then you’ll understand it.” The skill of translation is such a big deal.
And that’s part of this applied thing that you’re talking about that I love: You learn that for research and the knowledge that comes from it to be integrated into other knowledge requires you to become bilingual, to get these other skills of saying, like, “What matters?” What reality is, epistemologically, if we’re going to go there? What is the truth that we need to share the same space around so that we can make things happen? And when you start to add we need to make things happen, it allows you to think creatively. It allows you to play with each other in this new space, while if you don’t say, “What is this truth? Or what is a shared space?” Then you take on the burden of having to be the truth and that’s not a good position for any of us to be in as human beings. I think all of our guts secretly know inside that we’re not going to do that very well. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to keep faking it till we make it.
DIONNE: We’re never going to make it!
ANDREW: It’s impossible to be the holder of truth … We understand evidence. We understand standards of evidence, but even that, as you said, is based on a rational actor theory, which was a branch taken from somewhere else that didn’t represent all the truth. So, you’re really getting a picture of a picture of a picture. So, when you start to have to retranslate, and it makes you zoom out more when you’re doing that, then you start to see that disciplinary space then you start to see how other knowledge can sit outside of academics, so you get a situated knowledge or you get a localized knowledge, you get indigenous knowledge, you get positional knowledge. These things all come back—different types of disciplinary knowledge. It’s like loving pinball and then suddenly walking into an arcade. You see this whole thing is just so fun, you’ll never stop being involved with asking questions and having impact. And that applied piece is so important and it’s so cool and the world needs it, so I’m glad you’re doing that kind of work and having that experience.
DIONNE: What the class has turned into because of applied gender studies is we spent a good amount of time on “How do we create this space? How do we create the space in our head?” Reflexivity. Reflexivity: being very reflexive about your practice, being reflexive about your positionality. Why are you here? Why are you asking the questions that you’re asking? By being reflexive and intentional with these questions, we create this kind of space to have this kind of conversation. And then, how do we open up that space?
So, we have this conversation, a transdisciplinary conversation a trans-institutional conversation. Because that’s what you’re doing when you’re doing community-engaged work. There are all these institutional practices, institutional policies, all these things … If you are a graduate student and you get a PhD, you think about how long we spent in institutions of higher education mastering the institutional knowledge, and just how to navigate the institution. And some of it is great, but a lot of it is not going to be applicable if we’re doing community work, or if we’re doing work in Congress.
And so then, how do we create this space? And what are the methods that we need to actually create a space to open up so that people can start telling you about their positionality? Like we do storytelling work. People start to tell you their story. People start to tell you and really talk about their institution and what they’ve observed. And then, how can we share that? So that’s the method to me. And then the added part, because of the IRB work, is now, “What are the ethics involved in doing this type of work?”
One of my students this semester who took the class, the feminist methods class, they’re in the humanities. And honestly, a lot of what I think about with ethics, almost all of the ethics for IRB is … either focused on people in the social sciences, or people in the physical sciences, biological science, the bioethics, or research ethics. It never occurred to me until she was sitting in class, and she … did this, like, “Oh my gosh, this really applies to humanists!” And I said, “How so?” And so, she started talking, and another one of my students started talking about research ethics and these sorts of ethics of asking questions, consent, and engagement. We don’t really ask these questions when we are talking to people for documentaries. It’s not really something that people really engage with even when you’re doing research for your fiction, it’s not engaged with. This was a historian, she’s like, “But we don’t talk about the ethics of reading somebody’s oral histories or reading somebody. And then I write. And I’m telling this person’s story. They’re not around. And I’m interpreting who they are. And we don’t talk about the ethics behind that, particularly when we’re talking about groups and people whose stories have been marginalized, their positionality. Their situatedness is not part of the theories and the practices of the discipline that I come from. So now I’m going to take that and I’m going to read the story…”
We went to an opera a month ago, and there was this story about Omar ibn Said, who was an enslaved person from Benin. They read his story and created an opera from it. And there are so many problems and issues. This person is not alive, these are antebellum days. And so, my students are like “I’ve never thought about that.” What would be the ethics? And what do I have to consider with respect to my own positionality? What do I have to consider with respect to my disciplinary constraints, when I go to read somebody else’s life and reinterpret it in the context of this discipline?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh!”
ANDREW: That’s a cool breakthrough. Something you mentioned when you were doing community-based research reminded me of teaching and trying to evolve this concept and how it fits into the transdisciplinary world of working with communities or working with non-academic actors as part of your research team. I would start out doing a kind of wobbly job—and I’ve gotten a lot better at this—and it’d become clear that I should teach a unit on allyship.
I was teaching a course in the summer of 2020 when people wanted to talk about what was going on in the world and specifically in the United States in 2020. I definitely remember when there was a call to action, “Tell people how to be allies.” Then there are these top-ten lists, the listicles of how to be an ally. I’d read them and I’d be, like, “This isn’t very critically thinking anything out. This is just like, I don’t want to say it’s lazy allyship, but it’s just limiting to what allyship is.”
I started doing some reading on it, quite a bit, and it fits so well with what this transdisciplinary idea is, because they come from the same space, that when you’re an ally, you have to take into account histories and positions of power. You have to take in this positionality question. What you have to do is understand that your job is to create some kind of relational collaboration with the group, which means you have to become trustable. You have to become, ontologically, in the same living space, so that you understand what reality is, epistemically or epistemologically. You have to understand what truth feels like in this space. You have to understand axiologically the values that exist in this space. You don’t do this from a top-ten list. You do this because you’re in this for the long haul. And that’s how we establish that you are an ally of me now because you understand my reality, you understand my truth, and you understand my values in a way that I can trust you. Because I don’t want to be watching your back all the time to do these kinds of things.
But it’s also what an academic researcher needs to do when they’re working with the community. These concepts that we put, like a method of feminism, actually is a very valid method. Those kinds of methods are really important for us to understand how we work with people in these other spaces that don’t have the same artificial construction of the ivory tower or whatever we like to believe this is.
I think that there is a really clear line between the translatability of these things in lots of different paradigms. And they can exist within one that might be called Black feminism, or gender studies. But it could also be in a paradigm of community-based research, or it can be in any kind of research collaborative environment because it makes us expand our frameworks for understanding how we live together as people. And if we don’t acknowledge that, then we think what we’re doing is working in rational actor space.
DIONNE: There are two things when you’re talking about epistemologies. I love the fact that you said “epistemologies.” There are different ways of knowing, and there are different ways of accessing knowledge, and there are also different ways of communicating knowledge. And so, through Mothers on the Frontline, we have a whole workshop, and we call it “What’s in your refrigerator?” It’s a workshop designed for parents of children, largely mothers of children who have mental health challenges, on how you talk to doctors. How are you going to interact? The tagline is “How you interact, how to tell your story in a way that preserves your agency, and your dignity, and the agency and dignity of your child so that it’s heard.”
Because a lot of times what we found is particularly for parents of children with mental health conditions, you go into the doctor’s office—and this gets to this point of what you’re talking about I think in terms of the different spaces in which transdisciplinary work is important—and when the doctor goes, “So, what brings you here?” And for many of us, this is the first time we’ve had a chance … to see a psychiatrist for our child, we are probably seeing the psychiatrist at the height of a crisis. And when you’re in the middle of a crisis, what we’ll start telling them is this and then this happened, and this happened. What we found is that doctors are trained to hear a certain narrative. And they’re trained and they’re pulling and plucking out your story to fit in with a medicalized narrative. And they’re medical listeners. And they’re trained to speak that way. They’re trained to speak that way as residents.
But how we speak—and if we’re only trained in that way—then we tend to only listen in that way. And a lot gets left on the floor. A lot gets unheard. It’s not that it’s not said—it’s unheard because we’re not listening in this broader, more expansive way. We’re listening for the knowledge, and we’re listening for the little epistemological nuggets that then the doctor can pull out and go, “OK, so that means this…” And then we add meaning to it.
And for people who interact with our organization, and even myself for Black women a lot of the meaning that’s extracted from my words is not what I mean, and it’s not even my truth, and it becomes kind of repackaged in this way. So, learning how to kind of be in this transdisciplinary space, in this transcultural space and I love that. I want to learn more about your work in this section of your syllabus on allyship because I think I need to do more of that. Learning how to do that is not just like you’re saying, just for social science, it’s not just for humanists, but it’s also it’s really important—it can be life or death if you are a medical professional, and you don’t have that capability. You can only hear in the way in which your discipline and your training allow you to hear. You miss so much, particularly when you’re working with people who have … different epistemologies through which they are communicating.
ANDREW: Your example is fantastic, there. And it reminded me very recently, I was speaking with a physician, and a number of his patients are trans women and trans men. They come into his office, and they’re so used to this narrative being narrowly heard. What they end up doing is consulting with another organization to learn how to say their narrative, similar to what you’re doing—I think it would be really interesting for your organization because I think there’s so much overlap. But he said it’s easy talking to trans patients now because they come and they’ll literally hand him an index card of all the things that he’s going to need to know because they’ve been taught how to speak his language of, you know, what’s going to matter.
I think it speaks to a bigger issue, it’s a big issue. We don’t teach physicians allyship. We don’t teach physicians how to get into someone else’s world and talk about a power dynamic. The medicalized world is one of power dynamics because that’s when you’re most vulnerable when you’re seeing somebody who’s going to help you with healthcare.
I’m seeing projects in the future! I think that that glass of wine is quite appropriate. We should talk about lots of different things. Dionne Bensonsmith, this was an absolute pleasure. Thank you for being on our show today. I’m so glad that we got to talk about everything under the sun and the transdisciplinary world, and I hope you have many more of these conversations.
DIONNE: Thank you, thank you for having me.
VOSKO: Thanks for listening to this episode of PostNormal Times. Thanks to our guests and thanks to our support from Claremont Graduate University. If you enjoyed boundary crossing with us and want to hear more, make sure you follow us spread the word, and tune into our next episode.
This podcast transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.