Note: This interview in the Scholarship to Practice Series originally aired on August 19, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, appearing live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The transcript of this podcast episode is intended to serve as a guide to the entire conversation, and we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode. You can also access our summary, along with helpful links and audio from this episode.
To your point, it’s important to know, like, CRT was created approximately like 40 years ago or something like that, right, by legal scholars, and it’s sort of a framework that allowed us to initially think about inequities that exist in law and legal structures, right? And so it’s concerned with outcomes, and I think that that’s an important starting place. And so many of those ideas, however, are rooted in things that philosophers and thinkers, of people that have been around for over 100 years or more, right, so one, it’s not new and it’s also not uniquely or suddenly a threat.
Welcome to Innovating Together, podcast produced by the University Innovation Alliance. This is the podcast for busy people in higher education who are looking for the best ideas, inspiration, and leaders to help you improve student success. I am your host, Bridget Burns.
And so, today we are joined by Dr. TJ Stewart of Iowa State University. Dr. Stewart’s research interests include college students with stigmatized identities, anti-Black racism and non-Black communities of color, identity-based student activism, creative and critical qualitative methodologies, and so much more. Dr. Stewart, welcome to Scholarship to Practice.
Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm glad to be here and to have an opportunity to chat with you all.
We’re excited, too, and so we might as well jump right in, right? So, thinking about who you are and the work that you do, it’s clear that you intentionally focus on centering students at the margins of the margins, but what exactly does that mean, and can you share an example with the folks watching?
Yeah, so thank you for that question. I define my work in that way because my offering to practitioners, scholars, specifically those that are interested in equity and justice and sort of claim that value, is that once we think we’ve got our arms sort of around all of the major issues, right – not that we’re great at all of them – but issues around race, around gender, around class, my work is sort of asking the question, "Who is still missing and why?" Why are they missing, right?
And so the answer to that question or those questions has sort of led me to some interesting places, and so an example would be – one of my areas of interests are looking at fat phobia and sizeism in higher education, and so how are fat students on campus experiencing fat phobia and sizeism in the classroom, in social life, etc.? I also do work around college students engaged in various forms of sex work as their labor choice, and so, as you can see, these are topics where we know these students exist but are not necessarily kind of centered in our everyday equity and justice conversations or work.
For folks who are trying to make sure that they are really thinking about, you know, who are the students at the margins for their – at their community, how can they actually identify? You know, you mentioned a couple of different groups that definitely are marginalized, I think generally, but how do I – if I'm just at any institution, how do I know like actually who the students at my margins are?
Yeah, so that’s a really great question also, and I think – I don’t have the clearest answer, but I do have an answer, but before that, I want to offer a brief caveat. I think it’s important to remember that these students, like the ones that I’ve mentioned but others because there are many, are sometimes not visible because they choose not to be. Some would like to be visible but are not sure that they can trust their institution or institutional leaders, and they’re right to be wary, right, because trust is earned. We have to show that we don’t mean them harm and that we want to support them. And so, in some ways, sort of being in the margins operates as a protective feature, and so I always caution folks that we don’t want to sort of recklessly pull folks in unwillingly, but I do think it’s important to focus on that question in terms of who’s missing.
Now, in terms of how do you do it on your respective campus. I think about my sort of practitioner life. I was having conversations with students as a practitioner where some of them were revealing to me that they were engaged in, for example sex work, and so I was just you know a program assistant, or up until the time I finished my practitioner work as an assistant director, but I was not someone who was in a high place or space maybe to make broad, sweeping policy decisions or to be able to sort of effect systems and structures that would sort of find ways that they could be sort of supportive.
And so, I think first, the people that can do that should be having conversations with the practitioners that are on the ground and dealing with these students every day, who may know of these stories and know of these students, but that may not necessarily know a way through the systemic and structural challenges, because then it allows us to start brainstorming without those students revealing to us right away who they are, because they’ve revealed themselves to the folks that they trust, and that’s important, and I think we need to hold onto that, but then sort of being able to move that to the next step.
But I think there are two questions, Bridget, that I think we can think about that helps us get closer to that answer. What are experiences the students could be having that might be pathologized, or that there may be some sort of corresponding stigma? Because that is what I found has been a connective feature. Is part of the reason why they either choose to be hidden or because they’ve been invisibilized, is because there is some form of stigma or pathology associated with their experience and so it’s not necessarily rendered as a justice issue?
A real brief example – fat students, right, in society specifically, but we know also on campus, the prevalent thought frame might be, well, that’s something you can and probably should change, so why should I sort of think about that as a justice issue? That’s the absolutely wrong thought to have. But then that would be a reason why maybe a student doesn’t vocalize their experiences with – you know fat phobia or sizeism because it’s stigmatized, and so that would be a way to start to think about it. What’s stigmatized, what’s pathologized, but that we can think about as actual justice issues instead.
That’s super helpful.
Yeah, that’s great. And hearing you talk, it’s clear that your scholarship and approach to be decidedly justice focused. So who would you say is missing in justice work in higher ed?
Yeah, so I mean, I think beyond the folks that I have already mentioned, which sort of animates my own work, there are a few different populations, and some of them are more visible than others, right? So when I say margins of the margins, right, that’s a spectrum, there is a scale. In the last several years, we’ve seen a lot of work around unhoused students, homeless students, students who are food insecure; always students we want to be thinking about.
Students transitioning from foster care and the processes and barriers that they may face in trying to matriculate through our institutions. I think about work of Dr. Adrian Huerta, one of my good colleagues in France who does work with gang-affiliated youth or formerly gang-affiliated youth coming to higher education. Students who have criminal records or who have been criminalized, and their experiences with barriers on campus.
Disabled students broadly; I think we could do a lot more nuanced work, and I use disabled students intentionally because I ascribe to the social model of disability, which sort of believe that people are more disabled by society and structures than they are by their bodies and diagnoses, and so therefore they’re actively being disabled.
And so I think we could do work with all of these groups and others, right? Who knows, right? That’s the sort of point of my work; is who is still missing and why, and what are the ways that we can start to think about who is not present, to figure out how we can bring them center, if and how it makes sense to do so.
So I am curious – so there has been a lot conversation obviously in the mainstream about critical race theory and what a gift for an area of scholarship to all of a sudden become so immensely popular. But there have been a lot of myths I think that have been surfaced, and it seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding and attempted rewriting of what it actually is, so I want you to try and help us understand what’s a myth that people need to understand about critical race theory, and also how might that understanding influence the work of higher ed leaders?
Yeah, that’s a good question, and I think – I'm so glad you asked it as someone who is obviously interested and uses that theory and that work in my own research. I mean, I think, to your point, it’s important to know, like, CRT was created approximately like 40 years ago or something like that, right, by legal scholars and it’s sort of a framework that allowed us to initially think about inequities that exist in law and legal structures, right? And so it’s concerned with outcomes, and I think that that’s an important starting place. And so many of those ideas, however, are rooted in things that philosophers and thinkers, of people that have been around for over 100 years or more, right, so one, it’s not new and it’s also not uniquely or suddenly a threat.
You know, there are two sorts of questions that I think in sort of this short conversation that I think animate the theory and that they are sort of "Why does racial inequality persist?" And initially that question was, again, in laws and legal structures, but we know it extends now to social and political life, education, right, for our context, and how do we create racial equity, right? So the first myth is that, one, CRT is not a catchall for all things diversity, inclusion or even history, for that matter, and so a lot of the attacks we have seen have been rooted on any sort of language or thinking that has a value or ethic around diversity, inclusion, equity, or justice.
I mean, I think I saw an infographic where someone was saying that if you see the words like multicultural competence they’re teaching CRT, right, and so that’s sort of kind of how absurd some of these attacks and conflations have become. But that should be alarming to all us, because it really sort of underscores this trend of trying to sort of peel back what little progress we’ve made, particularly around racial justice, but diversity broadly. But more pointedly, I think the other myth is that CRT is somehow dangerous, divisive, right, or inconsequential to the work that we do as higher ed folks.
And so one of the things, I think, as a clear way I kind of explain it, is I think we are often in education obsessed with equal opportunity. I kind of cringe every time I hear that phrase, and I think it’s sort of connected to sort of the neoliberal nature of the academy. I think it’s connected to capitalism; pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If people just have the opportunity, then they can be successful.
But let’s say, for instance, we were okay with equal opportunity for a second. As educators, as thinkers, and as evaluators, I think we have to ask ourselves, then why aren’t the outcomes proportional to the opportunities, right? So even if we had equal opportunity, we still don’t have equal outcomes, and so what CRT does is it allows us to have sort of a language and a framework to understand why is it that these outcomes are not equal, and particularly around race? And so that there are systemic and structural things in place that limit some students based on who they are and sort of their racial experience.
So I think because a lot of our sort of policies and our governance is informed by laws, right – remember, CRT was a legal framework – it would be absurd for us not to believe that the inequities that legal scholars have pointed out in that system do not trickle into our systems because that is how we organize ourselves, right? And so I think if we take a moment to take a step back and say, "What would it mean if we all agreed that racism was normal, right?" That’s a tenet of CRT, that it’s not exceptional. That it’s just sort of a normal part of everyday society, and then sort of working through sort of the different thoughts that animate our work. I think it would lead us to some interesting places, because it is critical in nature, and critical theory is concerned with systems and structures and trying to transform them. And so if we are onboard with trying to do that, it actually is a tool that would be incredibly useful for us.
Just a quick follow-up. When we had a background conversation, you shared an example around bootstrapping that I thought was really interesting. Can you share where that came from?
Bootstrapping, I'm trying to think. Can you jog my memory briefly?
So I thought that you shared that it was – that the idea of pull yourself up by your bootstraps was based on – the phrase came because it was impossible. That it was actually not possible for people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and that was actually like a farcical statement, but we use it now as like a common phrase, but it actually means the opposite, which is it’s actually not possible.
Correct, right. And so it just sort of underscores sort of how language has changed, right, throughout history and across time. But I think it goes back to that piece about, again, bootstraps, the American dream, and it really becomes a misnomer, because what it does is that it allows us to then blame people for the success that they don’t have, in education or otherwise.
And so this idea that, you know, the system or the fight is fixed, right, or the fight is rigged is really just allowing us – and I think bell hooks' work. I love bell hooks. bell hooks said that she went to theory broadly because she was hurting, and theory gave her a language to understand what was happening to her, because we would have to believe that when we experience violence, when we experience subjugation, when our students experience this, it’s not because they deserve it. It’s not because that there is something inherently wrong with who they are, but that there has to be something that answers for this particularly challenging experience I'm having.
And so if someone like bell hooks says that she went to theory because she was hurting, then certainly a theory, like critical race theory, gives us language and a framework to make meaning of what is clearly an unjust and unfair sort of system and experience, so yeah, all of that.
That’s super helpful. And so TJ, I'm wondering if we can take a quick step back and think about some of the populations of students you’ve focused your work on. So we know that they are numerous, in part because there are so many students not visible to the institution without additional effort, so I'm wondering if we can talk about a few of them. So when you think about students or people who engage in sex work, what’s something that higher ed administrators need to know, understand, or challenge their thinking on?
Yeah, so I think the first thing out the gate is that there are lots of different types of sex workers, so people hear that word and often it invokes one particular type. Perhaps it invokes illegal forms. That’s a conversation for another day, right, so we can challenge legality not being ethics, or morals for that matter, because it was once legal to do lots of awful things that we know are now illegal.
But that aside, I think to think about it in – sex workers, like all of us, are engaging in labor under capitalism, right, and so what that means is that there is a wide spectrum of experiences within and pathways to the work. And so given this, I think being careful that we don’t have uncritical conflations with sex work and sex trafficking, and that can be harmful. Those are not one and the same. Sex work is not inherently exploitative or degrading, but it’s also not inherently empowering, right? There is nuance there, like a lot of the work that we do and a lot of experience that we have, and so to complicate those understandings because I think they deserve our respect and our attention and support, if they so desire it.
That’s super helpful. I imagine that there are some folks watching and thinking, "There are people on our campuses who are engaged in sex work and, well – "
Yeah, I mean, I remember I did a talk. It was somewhere in the Midwest, and I had a similar response. Of course, so I think the question was, well, in New York, sure, perhaps in Atlanta or Atlanta area, OK, but what about some middle-of-the-road, like Midwest small college town? And what I would offer is that these students are everywhere. They’re on every campus and engaging in various forms of sex work, particularly because technology affords these students some opportunities to engage in it in different ways.
So they are everywhere, because we know capitalism is everywhere, labor is everywhere, and so they’re not a group to be afraid of. They’re not a group that is sort of causing trouble or harm, but they certainly can experience it. I think I am of the belief that all students deserve support, inclusive of their labor choices, right? And if you believe that, too, then I think that we can work together on what does it mean to support this group of students?
I am just curious if there are – in particular with sex work – but I also know, when we were talking about fat phobia or we were talking about identity-based activism, like, some tactical things that administrators need to know, or what would it look like to actually be supporting those students? I think that’s a place of misunderstanding.
Yeah, I appreciate that. So I think for fat students on campus, there’s two ways to think about sort of how fat phobia and sizeism actually materialized, because that will help us determine what does it mean to have some approaches to supporting. One, it’s sort of social and cultural, so it can manifest as someone’s individual ideas and beliefs about fat people. And so sometimes that means that do these students have violent experiences based on how people treat or talk to them socially or academically, right? That’s one area.
Now, we know that that’s a challenge for lots of different issues, right, so not just, you know, when people say mean things or have terrible attitudes. I was sharing with colleagues – there was this post that Yik Yak is back, and as a practitioner, a former practitioner, I kind of cringed because we know people say terrible things when they have an opportunity to be anonymous, so there’s that part. So we may think about what our campaigns – education campaigns, what are ways to reach out? Do we think about that as a form of bias, as an identity right under conduct code? I don’t know. I think that the possibilities are endless.
But the other piece is the physical, right, so I think about Strange and Banning’s work about the physical aggregate. So we know that physical environments impact students, buildings, how much green space they have. What type of furniture do we buy? Well, I would also like to suggest that that impacts fat students as well. So, you know, if we are on campuses where we’re in old buildings, where we have old classrooms where chairs are bolted to the floor and were built for a student that was in college in the ’50s, we know how students are built today, how we are built as students today, is not the same as it was when we were in the ’50s, and so what does it mean to make choices?
I remember at a previous institution, I worked with our director, and after reading a piece I wrote and about campus, changed the strategy and approach to ordering furniture. She came into my office one day and was like, “So we decided we’re only going to buy this many chairs with arms on them and this many chairs with no arms on them, because that’s a way sort of to be inclusive of body size.” So if someone comes into our office, they can find a chair that fits them, right, as an example. But we would not expect, for example, an average student – if we want to use that language – to go into a classroom and sit on some rickety chair that has a piece of iron sticking out of it digging into their side. We would say that’s unacceptable. That’s a safety issue.
Well, what I would like to offer to you is that there are a lot of fat-bodied students who experience that in the classroom, in the residence hall. There are places where they are not able to be comfortable, where they don’t fit, so I think there are two approaches. There is this social piece, this academic social life. There’s this physical sort of component and it requires some investment of resources, I think, investment in having conversations with these students, but either one of those are great places to start.
That’s really helpful and profound, because if you think about it, for folks at home, this is an usual topic to be thinking about? No, it’s not, because how could a student possibly learn? If the message that you receive by walking – just having the audacity to walk into a space that you are not worthy, that you do not belong, we know that belonging is connected to a student’s ability to learn. So there are these students at the margins who we are expressly sending messages that they don’t belong, therefore they cannot learn, and therefore we can’t actually uphold the promise of higher education for them.
Absolutely, and it makes me think, too – and you know, so for example, we can use airlines as an example. Now, these policies are holistically sort of imperfect, but they have these sort of passenger of size policies, because what it shows is there’s a recognition that not everybody fits in our airplane seats the same, right. And so what would it mean for us to have student of size policies or practices that allows us when we’re assigning – whether it be residence hall spaces.
We know campuses – some have newer buildings than others. We know sometimes students – let’s say athletes for example, because of their training schedule – might get preference in certain buildings or spaces to be assigned. How radical would it be if we thought about that for these students? So if we know we’re not going to tear down all of our halls and classrooms and build new ones that are more recent enough to cope, what can we do with the resources that we do have for students who might require them? And so, I don’t know; I'm excited at imagining those types of possibilities, but we have to first recognize that it’s an issue, so I appreciate that point you made, Bridget.
That’s super helpful, and it inspires all types of questions. But one that it also inspires is sometimes I think we find that, as staff supporting students, faculty members supporting students, that we recognize that the institutional process or policy at hand is the problem. So can you talk to us about what it looks like when institutional processes require staff to, say, use subversion as a means to support students?
Yeah, so I think you know there is quote that comes to mind, and I don’t know who said it, but I remember it clearly. It’s like seared in my brain, is that if injustice is the issue, then agitation is what’s required. And I would, you know, add that to say then subversion is what’s required and undermining is what’s required, and that was my personal ethic as a practitioner, and I know that that can be a scary space for us, right, because we need our jobs, and in many cases maybe we love our jobs. But I just could not bear to see students hurt or harmed with no formal redress, reprieve, or recognition of that problem.
And so I think, you know, each of us will sort of have to search our consciences, our hearts, our minds around what that looks like for us, but I do think that if and when we can provide informal relief – that’s how I think about it, informal relief – then I think we should while we figure out – because we know that changing policy in higher education is like turning a cruise ship, right, and it takes time, the inertia to get it done is overwhelming.
But what I’d like to suggest is that students cannot always wait for those processes sort of to materialize, and so thinking through what is it that I can do within my locus of control. To the earlier point, some of those students are revealing to these folks that are sort of on the ground, high-touch-point student service areas, their experiences and who they are and what they’re going through first that they may not say to maybe the university president or an AVP or a provost.
So I think what that also then does though is it helps sort of underscore a pathway through, because I think sometimes our senior administrators in our institutions, we lack collectively, and all of us, an imagination of what does it look like, because we’re so used to how things are. We’re so used to systems and structures and the way that they oppress that it’s hard to imagine a way through them.
And so when we’re able to sort of undermine or be subversive to support a student, right – and it’s not because, again, we’re trying to be a troublemaker. I think about Congressman John Lewis, but it’s good trouble, and it’s something that I think students come to appreciate, and it’s needed, and then sort of propels us then into a conversation to say, "Nuh-uh, there are things that we can do and I'm going to tell why because I did this thing for students, and that was something that was helpful to them."
And so what does that mean for us, right, on the grander scale, on the more broader scale? And so I think the time is always now to figure out how to engage in those sorts of acts, but I do think that it’s an individual choice, but I have never regretted a time when I was able to support a student in that way, and it often led to the more systemic and structural changes in those contexts where I was working.
OK, so I feel like this has just got to be like the beginning of a several-episode arc series, because there is so much richness here, and we heard great comments from folks at home. I just want to identify and share with folks how they can connect with you, how they can support your work. What is the actual – the best way for them to get in contact?
Yeah, so I am on most social media platforms at the username Terah Jay, which is just my first name and then J A Y spelled out. And happy to connect with folks on the backchannel about my work, but lots of these issues as well. I can be reached on my website at the same name, which is just terahjay.com. In those places, I post updates about the scholarship that I'm publishing, the research that I am conducting, and various different social, political sort of things I'm working on that folks can either get involved with or invite me into sort of conversation or dialogue with.
And I'm always happy to do that, because so much of this work is emerging, and so what I can tell folks who have taken some time to spend with us this morning/afternoon is that we are just scratching the surface. Even for the students that I study, but let alone so many of these other experiences, but I feel like it’s exciting work, and it’s, for me, why I decided to come into higher education: to make a difference, to be able to support students. And so that is why I got here, because my question is like, you know, there is always someone whose story we’re not knowing or learning or missing. And if that matters to us, right, if we believe that all students should be supported, right – we hear that language – well, I am here to actually hold us accountable to that, so then let’s make sure all students are supported, and help us imagine what that might look like. So online, social media, Twitter, I’m at those usernames; I'm happy to connect with folks.
Well, TJ, Dr. Stewart, thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks to all who have been watching. We thank you for being here, and we can’t wait to bring you more conversations that intentionally bridge the gap between scholarship and practice so we can all do our best to support our students in our sector, recognizing that all of those students need to be visible to be fully supported, so we thank you again for joining us.
And for those of you at home, we can’t wait to bring you our next episode, which will be with Dr. Bryan Brayboy, and we’ll be focused on how to serve and support indigenous students on our campuses. But if you would like to nominate a scholar or identify a topic that you think is a place where there is common misconception or there is scholarship but clearly it’s not being used by administrators or in the practice as much as it should be, we would love to hear about it. So Derrick and I, our DMs are open on Twitter, otherwise you can also reach us on theuia.org, so thanks again for everyone, for sharing this wonderful episode and deep conversation in Scholarship to Practice. Have a great day.
Bios of Guest Luminary and Co-Hosts
Guest Luminary: TJ Stewart, Assistant Professor of Student Affairs & Higher Education, Iowa State University
Dr. Terah "TJ" Stewart has focused his education and career on higher education and human resources, specifically diversity, equity, and justice work. He is interested in promoting the ways that equity and diversity provide brave, bold, critical, and power-conscious approaches to serve as a catalyst for advancement in organizations. Dr. Stewart earned a B.A. in psychology, an M.A. in higher education and human affairs, and an M.L.H.R. from the Ohio State University. He went on to earn a Ph.D. from University of Georgia's College of Education, where he researched populations within the margins of the margins. His work at Ohio State included Program Manager at the Office of the Vice President for Student Life, and Assistant Director of the Multicultural Center. He is especially proud of his rewarding internship with the H.R. production team at PDI/DreamWorks Animation. Dr. Stewart specializes in qualitative research, critical theory, Black experiences in higher education, fat-body politics, sex work, and anti-Black racism.
Co-Host: Bridget Burns, Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance
Dr. Bridget Burns is the founding Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). For the past decade, she has advised university presidents, system chancellors, and state and federal policy leaders on strategies to expand access to higher education, address costs, and promote completion for students of all backgrounds. The UIA was developed during Bridget’s tenure as an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship at Arizona State University. She held multiple roles within the Oregon University System, including serving as Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor, where she won the national award for innovation in higher education government relations. She was a National Associate for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and has served on several statewide governing boards including ones governing higher education institutions, financial aid policy, and policy areas impacting children and families.
Co-Host: Derrick Tillman-Kelly, Director, University Innovation Alliance Fellows Program and Network Engagement
Dr. Derrick L. Tillman-Kelly serves as the Director of the UIA Fellows Program and Network Engagement for the University Innovation Alliance. He previously served in multiple roles at The Ohio State University, including as the inaugural UIA Fellow and special assistant to the director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise. Dr. Tillman-Kelly earned his Ph.D. in educational policy and leadership with a specialization in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State; a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University; and a bachelor’s degree from Illinois Wesleyan University.
About Scholarship to Practice
Scholarship to Practice is an event series that happens live on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It also becomes a podcast episode. We interview higher education scholars, researchers, and academics as we surface relevant research on topics that administrators often wonder about, and examine how a practitioner or administrator could apply this learning in real-time to improve student success. At the UIA, we know that we need to bridge that gap between scholarship and practice if we’re going to stand a chance of improving student success. We all need to work together leveraging research in the field and identifying where we need more research to support greater innovation in higher ed. With its short and conversational format, this show is designed to help bridge that gap by elevating the relevant research we all could be using in our daily lives.
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