Behind the scenes: Are STEM syllabi gendered? A feminist critical discourse analysis

In the “Behind the Scenes” essay series, I dive into the background of my own published scholarly works to provide more insight into the background of the piece, the publication process, and, most importantly, an in-depth discussion about the methods of data collection and analysis that led to the findings described in the publication. Through this series, my goal is to provide insight into the unseen work that goes into the publication of higher education research. 

Are STEM Syllabi Gendered? A Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis was my first peer-reviewed publication. As a research project, it was formative in the development of my approach to Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) as a research method.  As an open-access publication with a title that had words like “gendered” and “feminist,” it inspired vitriol from the alt-right interwebs that was unexpected, shocking, and largely unrelated to the actual content of the manuscript itself. Yet, because of those responses, the manuscript is still one of TQR’s most popular papers in terms of number of downloads, the paper won the 2015 Sandra Donaldson Award in Women and Gender Studies, and a subsequent CDA of responding articles, discussion boards, and tweets led to another publication. In retrospect, almost four years later, the negative attention had an important, formative impact on my development as a scholar, and reinforced my motivation to do critical work. But at the time, it was isolating, shocking, and it almost succeeded in silencing me.

The research reported on in the manuscript began in my discourse analysis class, taught by Marcus Weaver-Hightower, PhD in the final semester of my doctoral coursework at the University of North Dakota. When I was applying to doctoral programs, I attended an information session about the doctoral program at the University of Utah; in that information session, a graduate student panel recommended that doctoral students try to leave every methods course with research and a manuscript that could lead to publication, and I took that advice to heart (not recognizing, at the time, the pressure that would put on me, but also, more importantly, the pressure and added work this puts on instructors of introductory research methods courses).  I approached every methods course I took in my doctoral program with that intention, and left all but one with research that (much much later in some cases) was published.

In this study, I explored publicly available STEM syllabi for language use that perpetuated a chilly climate, specifically seeking to understand if and how STEM syllabi were gendered. This feminist CDA was my first experience with discourse analysis, I completed the study before I started working on my dissertation proposal.  However, this was not my first research project; my master’s degree required a thesis, and I’d worked as a research graduate assistant for two other research projects.  Altogether, I was still a young scholar and new researcher with so much to learn – I was just starting to problemmatize the connections between discourse, knowledge, and power. Through this work, I observed how institutional language replicated and reinforced power and oppression without using language that was overtly or obviously gendered. These findings informed my dissertation research and introduced me to Acker’s (1990; 2000; 2012) theory of gendered organizations and Biber’s (2006) book exploring the linguistics of Higher Education language, University Language.


Perhaps because this began as a project for an introduction to discourse analysis course, I started my critical discourse analysis as a traditional discourse analysis. I began with a focus on language-in-use and conducted a linguistic analysis of the language used in the syllabi. I started with a coding process similar to the sentence diagramming I did in elementary school, focusing on identifying parts of speech like pronouns and modal verbs. Informed by Gee’s (2014) approach to discourse analysis and Biber’s (2006) exploration of institutional language, I identified pronouns and modal verbs as important indicators of how power was negotiated and communicated in the STEM classroom. To make this methodological decision, I explored the literature to identify what parts of speech and linguistic tools might be evidence of power in written academic documents; that search suggested that pronouns, modal verbs, and interdiscursivity would be key linguistic tools to inform understanding of how gender and power were reified in language. While I didn’t expect to find this, I also planned to look for and highlight any obviously gendered language, such as referring to scientists as men or using he/she/ze.

The second component of my analysis sought to identify the discourses that were evidence of gendered power at the STEM institutional level. Discourses can be hard to identify, especially because discourses seem, by their very nature, natural and “logical.”  Strauss & Feiz (2014) defined discourse as, “the social and cognitive process that reflects, creates, shapes, re-creates, and reifies meaning in the lifeworld” (p. 1). My favorite definition of discourse, particularly relevant in CDA work is from Johnstone (2008; as quoted in Strauss & Feiz, 2014): “‘Discourses are ideas as well as ways of talking that influence and are influenced by the ideas'” (p. 2). Dominant discourses are, in my experience teaching discourse analysis, especially hard to identify by members of privileged groups because they are thought of as natural, normal, and “logical.” Dominant discourses convey a natural order and define what is right/wrong, good/bad, and true/untrue for everyone, selectively choosing what knowledge is acknowledged as valid, how knowledge is evaluated, and who is viewed as a holder of knowledge (or authority). It is, perhaps, easier to identify those discourses from a position of oppression because one is able to identify the processes, procedures, systems, structures, and discourses that create challenges for them – this is why I frequently use standpoint theory as a theoretical framework for my work. In this discourse, since I was exploring gendered discourses, I sought to identify what ideas about teaching (e.g., good students learn on their own), ideas about science/math (e.g., every question will have one right answer), and what knowledge (e.g., the egg and the sperm are, respectively, passive and active) was presented as correct, obvious, and logical that was, in fact, gendered or based on a gendered ideal scientist or student (read more about the findings in the full manuscript).

This approach to critical discourse analysis has informed all subsequent CDA projects. After developing research questions, I revisit linguistic tools to identify which tools might inform understanding of my research questions. Second, I explore existing CDA and DAs within the genre (or in genres that are similar) to see what linguistic tools have been used to explore this genre. Finally, I explore what discourses have been identified in this genre or field of study to inform my thematic analysis for discourses.  Data analysis, then, proceeds in iterative passes where I only look for one linguistic tool at a time – trying to look for all of them at once is overwhelming, and I’ve found that miss things if I try to look for everything at once.  If each linguistic tool I look for is a separate complete pass through the data, then by the time I start coding for discourses, I’ve already been through the entire corpus at least three times.  I have found this familiarity with the corpus (and the memos I take on the initial passes where discourses jump out) means that I’m better able to identify discourses having been subconsciously thinking about them throughout the analysis process. Further, analysis of linguistic choices is also an important part of understanding how power is reified in language.  Simply choosing to say “we” when “I” is meant is a choice that communicates shared responsibility or decision-making when the reality is quite different, and often those choices are often made in ways that are evidence of a discourse.

Publication Process

Having heard about the perils and challenges of the publication process, I was shocked when this manuscript was accepted without revisions. This has only happened a few times since, and it felt like it couldn’t be real when it happened for this manuscript.  I had expected rounds and rounds of revisions. I knew this was unique, but because I am plagued by imposter syndrome, I felt sure that the journal had made a mistake. Perhaps they’d confused my manuscript with another? Maybe I misunderstand the acceptance email and revisions were still coming?  Nevertheless, it was all real, and from my flat in Budapest, I celebrated my first peer-reviewed publication.

Note: Although this was my first peer-reviewed publication, this was not my first time submitting a manuscript for publication.  Another manuscript that didn’t end up being accepted for another year had already been through three rounds of revisions for a journal that later rejected it at this time this manuscript was accepted.

After Publication

Soon after publication, however, I would wake up to an email inbox full of hateful messages from strangers. Some were simple – they called me gendered and racist names and threatened violence and future harassment. Other emails were long, and critiqued the manuscript, saying my findings were wrong, saying I was clearly not a scientist, not a research, and stating that I wasn’t smart enough to get a PhD.  The first set of emails were scary but easy to ignore, especially living in Budapest, far from the English-speaking alt-right world that was criticizing me.  The second set, however, were harder to ignore.  I found myself wondering if the research was bad science, a poorly conceived manuscript, deeply flawed. Not knowing who to talk to and feeling isolated because I was so far away, at first, I didn’t tell anyone about it.  I think I was afraid that someone would read these emails (and tweets, reddits, discussion boards, and articles) and tell me that the writer was correct.  Eventually, however, I did tell my father, and I remember his response clearly – “well, if you are going to do this kind of work, this is the response you are going to get from this part of the world. It means you hit a nerve and are on the right track.”

I realized, in that discussion, that I had a choice to make – if this was going to be a response I received to my work, then I either 1) accepted this and continued with the knowledge that this would likely happen again – or 2) I could choose a different path and research something else, something safer, perhaps, with less vocal opponents. From there, it was an easy choice.  I wanted to do critical work, research that informed understanding of how marginalization was institutionalized into our discourses, structures, practices, and procedures – I wanted to, hopefully, help to make a difference.  I also realized, around this time, that I needed to treat these written responses as data, shifting my lens from viewing them as personal attacks to viewing them as data.  The latter, especially, helped me to shift my focus, and each new email or article published meant I had more data to analyze. Viewing it as a researcher also began to help me to really read the content of the attacks instead of internalizing the inherent messages in them. Much later, one of my students told me that I needed to be the “GI Jane of feminist Higher Education Research.”  He was, I think, being quite generous, as there are many more qualified individuals who better embody that title, but thinking of myself in that way has become a part of my academic identity.

Questions? What else would you like to know about the research and publication process of this manuscript? What is the story of your first publication?


Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139-158. doi:10.1177/089124390004002002

Acker, J. (2000). Gendered contradictions in organizational equity projects. Organization, 7(4), 625-632.

Acker, J. (2012). Gendered organizations and intersectionality: Problems and possibilities. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 31(3), 214-224. doi:10.1108/02610151211209072

Biber, D. (2006). University Language: A corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamin Publishing Company.

Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. New York, NY: Routledge.

Strauss, S., & Feiz, P. (2014). Discourse analysis: Putting our worlds into words. New York,

NY: Routledge.

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