Behind the scenes: The language of retrenchment—A discourse analysis of budget cutting in higher education.

While the 2016 and 2017 academic year was personally traumatic because of the presidential election, it was also a time of upheaval for many institutions of higher education. As a result, many institutions underwent budget cuts, which is a perpetual condition at many institutions and in the field of higher education in general.

The impetus to do this critical discourse analysis study on budget cutting emails came from the use of a single phrase: “frost.” Used in an email to describe an institution’s approach to halting spending costs, the term “frost” stood out to me as curious. It contrasted with a term I was more used to seeing in communications about cost cutting measures across the business world: “freeze.” Freeze is most often used to describe decisions made to halt hiring, such as in a “hiring freeze.” However, the use of the word “frost” to describe a general directive to halt spending across an institution including a hold on hiring was immediately interesting. Why was frost being used instead of freeze entail? Did the use of frost entail more impermanence than a freeze (as in, the frost will melt soon, and spending can resume)? Or was frost an indicator of more serious freezes to come, as the first frost of a season indicates that the worst, meaning the true cold, is yet to come. Was the use of frost an institutional way to say, “Winter is coming?”

This use of the word frost came from an institutional email communicating information about budget cuts at a urban, public higher education institution. As I explored that email further, I found more discursive and linguistics areas of interest. Overall, the email used language in a way that made it feel like real information was being communicated when the actual nature of the information presented was actually masked or hidden, such as in the use of “frost” to hide what exactly was being cut, who these cuts would affect, and for how long the hold would last. Instead, from that first email, it was clear that the emails were designed to generate support from those reading the emails without actually communicating much about what institutional leadership was asking them to “buy” into. And, thus, a discourse analysis project was born.


Like my prior critical discourse analysis projects, I followed the same steps in this CDA. After identifying the corpus, which consisted of emails from the president to faculty, staff, and stakeholders (publicly available as public communications) at two public institutions (one a large, urban, public institution; the other a small, public, regional institution), I returned to the literature to find out what prior linguistic analyses had been done on retrenchment communications to faculty, staff, and the public. Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), not much existed in the literature about the communications or language used in these processes; much more had been written about the type of cutting done in times of financial stress or the decision-making processes used to make retrenchment decisions. What existed was limited to two studies, one by Slaughter (1993), and a CDA by Ayers (2014). Those studies found that language use was designed to communicate the nature of the crisis and generate support from stakeholders into the plan created to address that budget crisis.

Since limited research existed on the linguistic tools used to communicate these messages, I explored my favorite linguistic analysis of higher education language-in-use, Biber’s (2006) University language: A corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. I checked this book out so many times via ILL, that I finally realized I just needed to buy it. Through review of the text and my own reading of the emails, I identified pronoun use, stance, and nominalization as key linguistic tools through which I could explore how the emails communicated budget cutting behaviors. First, pronoun use was important to analyze because pronouns are often used to create an “us” versus “them” positioning to generate support for an idea or message. Second, pronouns can be used to mask who is actually making decisions (such as in the use of “we” when describing decisions made by one or a small group instead of the whole. Second, stance was important to explore because it provided insight into how the crisis and budget cuts were being communicated (e.g., were they being presented as urgent? Incontrovertible fact?). Finally, I explored nominalization to understand how verbs and adjectives were being turned into nouns which, in the process, obscured their meaning (This is what was happening with the use of “frost.” By calling a halt to spending a frost, all information about what was included in the frost was hidden from the reader.) These three tools would provide the linguistic foundation for the thematic “discourse” analysis that was the last stage of the data analysis process. In this study, we were exploring how discourses persisted across the corpus and how these discourses reinforced both the conclusions drawn in the linguistic analysis and how they perpetuated systems of power in higher education. As with other “Behind the Scenes” posts, we discuss the results in the full manuscript, which you can find here.

Path to Publication

Initially, we (my coauthors and I) were unsure about where this manuscript belonged. Among the three of us, I was the methodology “expert” and conducted the analysis and did most of the writing, while my co-authors were experts in financial decision-making in higher education. I, as quickly as I could, caught up on what I didn’t know about retrenchment decision-making in higher education, but the limited amount of research I could find meant that I also did not have a lot of foundational literature to build on and journals to reference that had published similar work before. As a result, we initially submitted to a linguistic journal that quickly rejected it for reasons I do not quite remember. It seemed clear, however, from the feedback, that we needed to find a higher education specific journal for this work. I set off on a google journey to find a journal where it might fit. Because of my limited knowledge of higher education organization and administration, and I had written the majority of the manuscript including implications, I was hesitant to submit to an org and admin-focused journal. Instead, we settled on the Journal for Post-secondary and Tertiary Research (JSPTE) out of the University of Idaho. JSPTE’s focus on higher education more broadly and in an international setting made it an excellent home for this work. Their review process is delightfully transparent, and we received an R&R in the normal timeframe with clear directions on how to improve and refine our manuscript. After turning around those edits, the manuscript was accepted and, then, published. It was a smooth, well-organized, and clear process.

Final Thoughts

As this post and all of my posts in my CDA projects have made clear, I have a singular approach to critical discourse analysis, one that stands apart from other discourse analysis projects I have read recently in the higher education literature. Many of those projects focus on “discourses” as evidence of Discourses of power, or they have focused on discourses as analysis of a reciprocal communication. In contrast, while I explore what I call “big D” discourses in the final stage of a CDA project, my analysis always begins by understanding the language used to communicate those discourses. For me, beginning with linguistic decisions often provides insight into the Discourses I will identify later and provides evidence of how those Discourses are being communicated. This is often easier to do in the text-based documents I analyze. However, I do not suggest that there is more or less validity in the way I conduct CDA project, just that there is a reason I like to begin and root my conclusions in linguistic choices.

Second, if you are reading this on the day it is published (November 13, 2019) or the following day (November 14) and are attending the ASHE conference in Portland, OR. You can join us for a discussion of the paper on November 14, 2019 at 2:15 PM in Hilton Portland Downtown, 3rd floor, Directors room. In that presentation, we will focus the bulk of our time talking about the results.


Ayers, D. F. (2014). When managerialism meets professional autonomy: The university ‘budget update’ as a genre of governance. Culture and Organization, 20(2), 98-120.

Biber, D. (2006). University language: A corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Slaughter, S. (1993). Retrenchment in the 1980s: The politics of prestige and gender. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(3), 250-282.

Behind the scenes: An Institutional Ethnography of Hungarian Higher Education

One of the ways I have been preparing for the book talks and webinars where I talk about my research has been writing these Behind the Scenes posts. Although much of what I write here is for an audience who might be new to the publication process and working toward their first publications—writing about the parts of the research process rarely or briefly referenced in the final published articles has helped me to remember the intricacies of the research process and put me back in the place of being embedded in the data. This mental and emotional space is the place I’d like to start each discussion of my work. This week, I will present on my structural research on higher education in Hungary through a webinar for AACRAO. I was the first recipient of the Gloria Nathanson grant, which helped to fund this research. The webinar is at noon CST on Wednesday, October 16.

In this Behind the Scenes post, I’ll describe the background of my research on higher education in Hungary including the path to the research, the grant application process, and some of the logistics in planning international research.


The final semester of my doctoral program, coursework completed and dissertation data collected, I decided to move to Budapest, Hungary to write my dissertation. A month earlier, I’d taken a trip to Budapest and fallen in love with the city. I mentioned to my travel partner, who lived in Budapest, that I thought I could live there. I told my family when I returned that I thought I might move there. And while I don’t think that anyone took me seriously, that’s exactly what I did. I moved out of my apartment in North Dakota, found a storage unit for my car, bought a flight, found a flat in Budapest, and a month later I was boarding a flight. When I arrived, I settled into a pattern of Hungarian language lessons in the morning and dissertation writing all afternoon and night. It was a largely solitary time of my life; whenever I needed a break from language learning and writing, I wandered around Budapest and the surrounding region. Every day was a new challenge, a new opportunity, and my time and language study there opened up to me a place hauntingly full of history, tragedy, resilience, and strength. It wasn’t easy. I don’t know that writing a dissertation or moving to a foreign country is supposed to be. But it was wonderfully challenging. There isn’t a day where I don’t miss the streets of Hungary. The people. The language.

I wanted to return, of course. But first, I had to defend my dissertation and start a new job at the University of Louisville. And then I was fortunate enough to find a tenure-track (TT) position at Auburn University, and I’m still there as of the writing of this post. Settling into a TT position was critical to my development as a writer – finally feeling secure in my position, I was better able to write and plan. And as soon as I could, I began to plan my return to Hungary, but this time to conduct research into what had intrigued me since my first trip—the Hungarian higher education system. My timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous and urgent. Then (and, as of this writing) prime minister Orbán was slowly but surely eroding the civil rights of Hungarian citizens, focusing many of his attempts on eroding and then dismantling higher education as an emancipator for all. One of the ways he sought to do that was through new legislation, targeted at Central European University (CEU), that in essence would require CEU to close its doors. Orbán was particularly incensed by CEU because it was founded by George Soros, a Jewish philanthropist who had been vocal about migrant rights. At the time, CEU was accredited in the United States, with only a few programs accredited in Hungary. Orbán’s proposed legislation would require CEU to have a physical location in the United States or close. This legislation was viewed with concern across the European Union as further evidence of the Orbán administration’s attack on institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Protests, criticism from the global community, a threat of censure from the EU, and even the opening of a physical campus at Bard College did not dissuade Orbán, and the law passed and took effect. CEU was, eventually, forced to announce that it would launch a Vienna campus where most new students would begin classes.

It was into this setting that I made my first research trip to Hungary. That trip’s stayed goal was investigatory – I wanted to make contacts at institutions across Hungary who might be willing to connect me to students and faculty for a future institutional ethnography of the higher education system. While I was there, I also continued my Hungarian language lessons so that I could read (or at least find) relevant Hungarian education policy. I had planned to return in a year, perhaps more, to conduct this study. However, I realized that the pace of change in the Hungarian higher education landscape was so quick that if I waited a year to return, I might very well return to a completely different place. So, instead, I began planning for my return trip as soon as I returned in January so that I could return as soon as the semester ended. I had less than four months to plan an international research trip. I had the contacts and institutions who indicated they’d be willing to give me access. Now, I just had to get there.

Planning an International Research Trip

Funding. The department research fund, with the support of my department head had funded the investigatory trip to Hungary, but I felt like I couldn’t ask for more funds to support another trip, so I started searching for grants. Through the magic of google, I stumbled upon the AACRAO grant. I didn’t realize that this was the first iteration of the Gloria Nathanson grant. I’d never been a PI on a grant, and this was my first experience writing for one. The amount of the grant would only cover a portion of the trip, but I thought it would be a good start. I wrote to the proposal, explaining how the research would expand our knowledge of Hungarian higher education in a way that would help admissions representatives and registrars (the group of professionals AACRAO supports), hit submit, and waited.

Honestly, I’d only ever heard about the grant writing process as being difficult and thankless, so I had no expectation that I would be awarded the grant. I also had no formal grant writing experience or training, but I did have experience applying for academic jobs, which I think has some parallels to grant writing: 1) Write for the grant/position call, don’t send the same generic description to each place; 2) Expect failure and/or non-response; 3) Apply often, but only to relevant positions/grants; 4) Seek feedback repeatedly and often for each new document you create; 5) Don’t take rejection personally.

Because of this, I was shocked when I received an email asking to set up a call to discuss my research in more detail. I didn’t want to get my hopes up—perhaps everyone received a call. But I did take it as a positive sign. After a positive phone call, I learned that I would be awarded the $1,000 grant. I also received an Auburn College of Education Alumni grant, which funded the remainder of the trip. I’ve heard people often complain about the amount of work that goes into these “smaller” grant applications, and while the process can be rigorous, I have also found the rewards from receiving these grants to be the most rewarding. In particular, working with AACRAO has led to incredible connections across higher education. First, before beginning the institutional ethnographic study, Auburn doctoral student Ariel Steele and I conducted a historiography of higher education in Hungary to understand the institutional context we were exploring. The manuscript resulting from that historiography will be published in an upcoming issue of C&U.  AACRAO also invited me to present at their annual meeting and, as I mentioned above, I will be featured on a webinar to talk more about the research this week.

Ethical approval. The second, and perhaps most important part of planning the trip, was securing ethical approval. Receiving approval from one’s ethical review board or IRB is the bare minimum when considering ethics in research, but it is a required step. For Auburn University’s IRB, I needed to complete the exempt research form and include a letter from the institution(s) where I would conduct research that granted me permission to do the research there. To obtain that, I asked my institutional contacts to write a letter stating that I had institutional permission to do the research that detailed the research I hoped to do, describe the access I’d have to the setting, and define the population of potential research participants. To help them* write the letter, I provided the format of other example permission letters and specifically outlined what access I was asking for and why. I also had several in-person conversations about the research – I wanted to make sure that they understood exactly what they were giving me permission to do. Of note, I only required a letter because my contacts at the institutions were not participating with me in the research. Had they been involved as co-researchers, we would have gone through the full ethical board at each institution and received approval before beginning the research. At my institution, I also had to complete the CITI international module. Once all was completed, the IRB was approved. From there, I just had to figure out logistics, recruit participants, and get there.

In order to protect to identity of the specific institutions and, therefore, participants, I use pronouns like they/their intentionally. As I mentioned, IRB approval is an institutional requirement and very important, but meeting one’s institution’s IRB requirements does not meet that all ethical considerations have been met. Considering power and privilege is always important, but especially so in international research, where one might not be familiar with norms and customs. This puts an additional weight on the researcher(s) to ensure that participants completely understand the research and are able to give their consent to participate without feeling coerced.  Further, it is important to understand the norms and expectations of the country one is in – some countries have additional requirements for international researchers and/or international research standards that one will want to make sure they meet. Finally, it is very important to understand the sociohistorical context of the place you are visiting and the ways that participants might be disadvantaged or marginalized. Context is important, and it is the responsibility of the researcher to understand the setting as completely and comprehensively as possible. This was one of the reasons Ariel and I began with the historiography project. The historiography helped us to accomplish our goal to understand everything that had been written about Hungarian higher education as well as the current and past policy environment. 

Conducting International Research

My local institutional partners, in addition to writing letters giving permission to do research at their institutions, were also willing to help me find a place to conduct interviews and to connect me with faculty and students who could participate in the research. This was integral to the success of this project. Recruitment can be the hardest part of a research study, and I didn’t want to arrive in Hungary without full schedule of interviews and observations. Thanks to the introductions made by my partners, I was able to schedule 1-2 interviews every day I was there (15 days) and a classroom observation most days.

Since I had lived in Hungary and knew it very well, I didn’t have the stress of navigating a new space. Additionally, I spoke the language enough to get around, so getting to and from the different institutions wasn’t stressful like it might have been in a completely new place where I didn’t know the language. However, I did still have to figure out how long it took to get around the city and ensure that I was allotting enough time to get from place to place. I also found that I had booked myself so full some days that I didn’t make time to eat; hungry and lost in Budapest is not an ideal state. Finally, while those who participated spoke English in their interviews, many of them spoke English as a second or third language. While I could understand them during the interview, it was harder to understand them when we were transcribing the interviews later. I took very detailed notes during the interview, but there were some parts of certain interviews that took hours to translate. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to try to transcribe almost immediately to mitigate any questions.

As this was an institutional ethnography and data collection methods were similar to the research described in Gendered Student Ideals in Higher Education, I won’t go into detail about the methods or plan for analysis. They will also be in the full manuscript, once it is published (it is currently under review).

To hear more about the methods and findings, please join the AACRAO webinar on Wednesday, October 16 at noon EST/1 CST. You’ll be able to tweet questions to me during the webinar @Laura_j_parson, and I will respond to as many of them as I can (or, if you post questions here as comments, I’ll prioritize answering them during the presentation).

Behind the Scenes: Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education

In the last post, I described the process of turning my Master’s thesis research into a successful book proposal.  In this essay, I’ll discuss the process of writing the book, Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education, beginning with the process of reanalyzing the data through a new theoretical lens, revisiting the literature to make recommendations for higher education programs, and the process of writing book.

You have may have noticed that my thesis research focused largely on readiness for adult education, yet the book published is about higher education.  Indeed, my thesis analysis framework was built around a core “theory” of adult education, andragogy. As such, andragogy was an appropriate analysis framework for a MEd in adult education. However, when I’d talked to participants in each life story interview, they and I referenced higher education settings in discussions about readiness (e.g., 4-year colleges), although some participants referenced needing adult basic education before they felt ready to enter college. The distinction between adult education and higher education can be unclear, but as I continued through my doctoral higher education coursework, I found insight in the student development literature that provided more insight into the experiences of the women who had participated in this study.  Further, being exposed to higher education literature and the theoretical frameworks used in that research continued to expand my own understanding of the different structural constraints placed on women in higher education. Part of that exposure helped me to critically evaluate my thesis research and see how I had fed into and reinforced those marginalizing systems and discourses by measuring participants against the biased ideal set by andragogy. Because of that, I felt like it was more appropriate to frame the study within the higher education literature and make recommendations for higher education instead of adult education when I returned to the data.

At first, I had been refining my thesis into a journal-length publication and submitting that for review. Altogether, the feedback I was receiving wasn’t positive (although it was, largely, said kindly). Reviewer feedback ranged from questioning whether this was a grounded theory study (it wasn’t) and if I was treating women as deficient (I was). At a certain point, and after revising and submitting to three journals and receiving similar responses, I set it aside. There was a certain set of findings that I was particularly fond of that I couldn’t let go – but those were the findings that reviewers were finding the most troubling. I wasn’t ready to let those findings go, and I didn’t know how to re-approach the data, so I put the research away. I put it away for five years, and didn’t start reconceptualizing until I starting working on the book proposal for Palgrave. It took that time to be able to return to the data and research with fresh eyes and a fresh lens.

Theoretical Framework

When I started working on the book proposal, I began from scratch. I didn’t reuse any of the text I’d written for my thesis because I knew I needed to re-approach the book through a critical feminist lens. Because the research questions let to the data collected, I could not change the questions I’d asked, the data collection methods, or the data I’d collected. However, I could approach the data collected through a new theoretical lens. I decided to use the same lens I used in my dissertation (and subsequent) research, feminist standpoint theory. Not just was standpoint theory one that I was comfortable with, I felt like it was the more appropriate theoretical lens through which to explore each woman’s experiences as they informed their readiness for higher education. I wanted to avoid any deficiency lens as I approached data collection and analysis, and standpoint theory provided a consistent place to revisit and ensure that I wasn’t adopting my own bias toward higher education as a universal good to explore their experiences and readiness.

Data Analysis

From the standpoint of women who had left Mormon fundamentalist polygamy, I thematically coded the data. Through that lens, I also revisited the literature on higher education and readiness for higher education; my expanded understanding of the literature helped me to have a broader understanding of higher education. As a result, I was able to approach my analysis with a broader understanding of how each woman viewed their lives in terms of how it related to entering higher education. While I did not seek to generalize across the experiences of polygamous women or even the experiences of Emma, Sarah, and Mary (pseudonyms; study participants), clear themes emerged across the data that were both specific to the sociohistorical context of polygamy and were related to their readiness for higher education as it related to each of the four areas that characterized readiness for higher education: experience with academic settings, perceptions of a need for education, non-academic experiences that contributed to readiness for higher education settings, and an independent self-concept. Further details (and vignettes about each woman who participated in the research) are included in the book.

Program Recommendations

After completing the data analysis and before making recommendations for higher education, I revisited student development literature to determine which theories would provide a relevant and useful framework make recommendations for higher education practice. I wanted to ensure that recommendations were framed through standpoint theory and did not reinforce a deficiency perception of women who left polygamy, and I wanted to ensure that the theories in question were also appropriate for the population (e.g., had been validated through empirical research that included women or were framed through a feminist lens). I settled on self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2001) as a frame to explore each women’s story and provide a perspective to support their development of an independent self-concept and Schlossberg’s (Schlossberg, 1984; 1995) transition theory to inform program recommendations. Program recommendations, discussed in full in the book, encompassed adult basic education (ABE), cultural readiness, social roles, and developing an independent self-concept.

Writing the Book

The re-analysis process took much of the Spring 2018 semester.  I reserved the summer to write the book, hoping that three months dedicated to writing would allow me to take a measured approach to finishing a book.  Unfortunately, factors outside of my control meant that I was surprised with a new administrative role at the beginning of the summer, so my available time shrunk exponentially as a result.  With a book submission deadline of July 31, I found myself at end of June with some fragmented notes and a month to write a book. Taking the July 4th holiday as an opportunity, I blocked my calendar for 9 days, locked myself in my apartment, and wrote every day for 12+ hours. The first day was rough as I got in the swing of writing, but after that, the week+ flew by. I love to write, and I especially loved writing about this research. I was embedded in the stories each woman had told about their lives, and I wrote about a chapter a day.  By the end of the week, I had a complete draft of the book. I wasn’t done by any means, because a draft is truly a draft in my writing world. This meant that I had to go back and edit, check citations, and flush out details I’d neglected or missed. But with the draft completed, I had a huge weight off of my chest. The rest of the month was still consumed by the book, but the weight of the book was gone and it was replaced with the fun of editing. The final step was learning how to index.  I’d been told that I would want to hire someone to do it for me, but I found that Microsoft Word has a super easy to use indexing tool, and I did it myself. Book complete, I submitted it by the deadline.

After submission

Of course, the book didn’t go from submission to publication. The first step was a review by my editorial manager.  She read through the book draft and responded with her comments and feedback.  This happened quickly, and her feedback was mostly content-focused and easy to address. After I revised the draft according to her feedback (about a month and a half after the original submission), the next step was to review the proofs. This was actually the hardest part of the publication process for me. The proofs came with little turnaround time to review, and after three months away from the draft, I found myself wanting to make more substantial changes to the book than just verify the editorial changes the proofing team had suggested. In another stressful week, I went through each chapter line by line to assure that the book published truly represented the research, theoretical lens, and was thoughtful and reflective. I spent another 12 hour day making each change in the online system designed for minor editorial changes. These significant changes meant that I received another round of proofs to verify – this second round resulted in fewer changes, although some of those changes were making corrections to the revisions I’d made in the first round of proofs.  Finally, though, it was done, and I sent it back for publication. A few months later, late in December, the book was published.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-Development. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Schlossberg, N. K. (1984). Counseling adults in transition: Linking Theory to Practice. New York: Springer Publishing.

Schlossberg, N. K., Waters, E. B., & Goodman, J. (1995). Counseling Adults in Transition: Linking Theory to Practice. New York: Springer Publishing.

The Book Publication Process, Part 1: From Thesis to Book

The research that resulted in my first book Polygamy, Women, and Higher Education: Life After Mormon Fundamentalism began as my Master’s thesis project in Adult Education. The project was my first experience with research, and I beyond enjoyed the process (thankfully, given that I’d spent my entire life wanting to be a professor without knowing exactly what one did). Data collection for the research that informed the book began in the fall of 2011. My MEd was completed in 2012 with my thesis completed shortly before graduation. This book was published in 2018. Six or so years passed between the completion of the thesis and the publication of the book, and while the slower nature of the publication process was certainly an element in that gap, it was only a minor factor contributing to the delay. The bigger factor was my eventual need to completely reanalyze my entire data set through a new theoretical lens, revisit and learn the higher education literature, and develop a more comprehensive understanding of student development theory.  That process began the first semester of my doctoral program and continued throughout my coursework and my first two years as a faculty member.  In many ways, the book published in 2018 bears very little resemblance to the thesis I wrote in 2012. That is, without question, a very good thing.

To explain why, I’ll start at the beginning and explain the background of the research and describe the book proposal and publication process. In a subsequent post, I’ll the evolution of the theoretical and conceptual framework, the eventual re-analysis of the data, and the not-recommended way that I met my first book submission deadline. Finally, in a third post, I’ll share how I approach each of the commonly required sections of a book proposal and share my full proposal and reviewer response memo.


The original study explored the life stories of three women who had left Mormon fundamentalist polygamy to understand their readiness for adult education. Using the life story (Stuart, Lido, and Morgan, 2011) method of data collection, framed through feminist theory, three women from two major fundamentalist sects, the FLDS and and UAB, told me their life stories, beginning from their earliest memories to the then present day. As the study was for a degree in Adult Education, I defined readiness according to the contested adult learning “theory” andragogy (Knowles, as defined in Merriam & Caffarella, 1999), although I did not treat it as a learning theory but as a prescriptive list of characteristics of what adult learning settings expected from the ideal adult learner.  The five characteristics of the adult learner as defined by andragogy served as a priori codes for data analysis – in my first coding passes through the data, I searched the transcribed life story narratives to identify experiences that might suggest readiness for learning and coded those experiences as one of the five characteristics of an ideal adult learner (yes, this is deeply problematic). Andragogy, aside from being racialized, gendered, and classed, is incomplete-it does not consider the sociocultural context in which adult education takes place in. Because of this, I also coded thematically for what I described as “sociocultural factors,” which included the context of a polygamous life. Analysis followed a grounded theory approach (but, of course, because of the size of the study, the research could not be called a grounded theory study).

In part because of the theoretical and conceptual lens, especially my use of andragogy to create an “ideal” by which I measured the women who participated in this study (the very thing I sought to deconstruct in my future research), my original findings as reported in my thesis reflected a deficiency approach to the women who participated. For example, one participant explained that she was happy as a wife and mother and did not currently have a need for additional education. In my analysis and reporting, I categorized her as “not ready for adult education” because she was lacking one of the characteristics of a successful adult learner as defined by andragogy-an internal need for higher education. Additionally, my approach to the research was prescriptive and restrictive: I approached data collection and analysis assuming that education was a universal good so, therefore, I, in essence, labelled a participant who did not see a need for more education as deficient. I measured participants against an ideal that was biased not just by my own interests and research goals but rooted in a problematic view of what an adult education student should look like. This was intrinsically and deeply flawed.

As I described in the Behind the Scene piece on Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education, an ideal is problematic when it is presented as objective and unbiased when, in reality, it is very biased because the ideal is often only truly achievable by those already in power in society (or, in the case of media portrayals of “successful” women, completely unachievable). This is also true when we think about using the characteristics of andragogy to define someone who is ready for adult education. The expectation that someone will have, say, certain background experiences that contribute to readiness to learn labels some experiences as valuable and others as not valuable simply based on whether they support the pursuit of an education. Further, the education one is being told they should pursue may not be built for them, be useful to them, and/or may even be harmful to them because it causes them to reject their own knowledge(s). This is not to say that the marginalization of women in polygamous societies was an experience that I viewed as positive, but there was knowledge that each women learned that was valid and very valuable to them. Similarly, not having the specific academic or work experiences that might more obviously translate to a specific adult education setting did not signify any sort of deficiency or even a lack of readiness for adult education.

There were other problems with my thesis research too, some as simple as the typos I kept finding in the document after I submitted it, and others that were bigger, like my failure to truly flush out my findings and make meaningful recommendations that were rooted in theory and could lead to actionable change (similarly, I still find editing errors in my dissertation that make me cringe, not just including my conflation of sex and gender). In both cases, neither was ready in the thesis/dissertation form for publication. And since this was was my first research project, it should not have been perfect. I thought, or hoped, that my thesis could be published, so as I started my doctoral program in Higher Education at the University of North Dakota, I started down the publication path. But I quickly learned that a lot of work still needed to be done.

I mentioned in my first Behind the Scenes post that my first publication was not my first article to be submitted for review. That honor belongs to the manuscript I created from my thesis findings.  It took over four years for that manuscript to be published. Don’t get discouraged by rejections, but do revisit the data, read reviewer comments, and maybe, if it is data that you really think is interesting, valuable, and a contribution to the field, be willing to start again. That’s what I had to do with this thesis data. Reviewer feedback in a rejection can be cruel and incorrect, but it is more often insightful and contains valuable feedback that can help you move forward to publication in another outlet.  Sometimes time and space between feedback readings can help me to identify which feedback is valuable and useful and which I don’t need to use in my revisions. 

Path to a Book Contract

In the first course in my doctoral program, I asked my advisor (and, later, dissertation chair), C. Casey Ozaki, if she would work with me toward publishing the results in a journal length article.  Reflecting back, I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to develop as a writer, but Casey was willing to work with me. For the first year of my program, I worked on revising the thesis into a journal article without revisiting the research and foundation the findings were built on. We revised the manuscript into a journal length article, and I submitted it to one adult education journal. After reviews, it was rejected because, among other comments, it wasn’t a grounded theory research project (it wasn’t) and because the findings viewed participants through a deficiency lens (it did).  I revised accordingly, and I submitted to another journal.  It was rejected again.  And then, after revising again and being rejected again, I put the article and the research aside. At the time, I wondered if it was research that shouldn’t be published and, anyway, I was working as on other projects as a graduate research assistant that were moving toward publication in a meaningful way. At one point, my mentor, Cheryl Hunter, mentioned that this might be research that better belonged in a book, but I didn’t know how to approach the book publication process. I put the research away and, I thought, moved on.

The data and my thesis stayed there, put away, throughout the rest of my PhD and through my first year as a faculty member. Then, in my first year at Auburn, I asked my well-published and accomplished colleague Kamden Strunk to lunch to ask about his publication experience and the process of submitting a research project for review. He generously shared his time and book publication knowledge and then introduced me to his editor at Palgrave MacMillan. He also shared some tips on the content of the book proposal itself and one of his proposals.

Within the hour, I’d emailed his editor (now my editor!) at Palgrave to ask if she thought there might be interest in a book based on my thesis research. She responded positively within a few days and sent Palgrave’s book proposal form for me to complete. The Palgrave form lists all of the information they want in a book proposal. For my first proposal, I completed the Palgrave form (although in subsequent proposals, I have used my own format for a book proposal). While I was prepared to provide an overview of the book, chapter outline, and even a writing sample for the book proposal, I wasn’t prepared to talk about competitive volumes, the market, audience, and the structure of chapters. For that, luckily, I had Kamden’s help. I’ll spend an entire post talking about the proposal, and how I approach each section, but suffice it to say that without Kamden, I would not have known how to approach it.

Before sending the proposal back to Palgrave, I had a few of my colleagues review it and provide feedback. After a few more readings, I sent the proposal back to Palgrave and waited. One thing I like, in general, about the review process is the lack of work required when waiting for a decision. Upon submission, I feel a complete sense of relief that something has been removed from my plate and that it is now out of my hands. And so, while I wanted feedback, I also didn’t want feedback to come too soon. The wait for feedback wasn’t long. In less than three weeks, I heard back from my editor with the reviewer “critique.” The feedback was largely positive, so my editor asked me to write a response memo instead of revising my entire book proposal according to the critique. She gave me around two weeks to respond, and I finished my response memo in a week. Two weeks after that, I was sent the most exciting and simultaneously terrifying email I have ever received: “After discussing your project with our editorial board, I am delighted to offer you a contract to publish the work below in all forms throughout the world subject to our standard form of contract and on the following terms.”

And now I had to write it.


Merriam, S.B. and Cafarella, R. (1999). Learning in Adulthood.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Stuart, M., Lido, C., & Morgan, J.  (2011). Personal stories: How students’ social and the cultural life histories interact with the field of higher education.  International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30(4), 489-508.

Behind the scenes: Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education

The first article to be published from my dissertation was Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education (in the Journal of Women and Gender – formerly called the NASPA Journal about Women in Higher Education). While I eventually published three manuscripts from my dissertation research, the findings I reported on in this manuscript were, if one can have favorites in things like this, my favorite conclusions to talk about from my dissertation. This was, in part, because I felt like they were the strongest contributions to the literature, and because I utilized an approach to understanding the impact of gender on women students in STEM that I hoped could be helpful in understanding how “objective” standards were, in reality, subjective to a man norm. I was also particularly excited that a figure I created to represent my approach to the Institutional Ethnographic data analysis process would be published.

Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education reported on a portion of my dissertation research, an Institutional Ethnography, that sought to identify how the definition of an “ideal” STEM student was gendered and created challenges for women students.  This approach was informed by Acker’s (2000) theory of gendered organizations and built on Acker’s (2000, 2012) work that described how the concept of an “ideal” worker is presented as gender-neutral but is actually gendered.  For example, a job description might require that a candidate be “on call” 24/7.  This may seem like an objective requirement, but it assumes that a worker is available 24/7 and, therefore, has no other obligations outside of work. Many folx have obligations outside of work that might prevent them from being available 24/7, but it is still more likely that women take care of the majority of household or childcare duties. In this portion of the study, I sought to understand how STEM faculty and students defined the ideal student to understand if and how that ideal was gendered and if women undergraduate students encountered challenges trying to meet that ideal.

Findings are discussed in detail in the manuscript, but to summarize, analysis of the data suggested that the definition of an ideal student was gendered and created challenges for women participants as they strove to meet that ideal, most notably in taking academic risks, participating in class and asking questions, and the expectation that they put school first. Those challenges were exacerbated for women participants who feared failure and that they would confirm prevalent biases against women in STEM.


Following Smith’s (2005) approach to data collection in an Institutional Ethnography and framed through Feminist Standpoint Theory (Harding, 1987), I began by interviewing eight undergraduate women majoring in math or physics to understand their day-to-day lives. In total, I had three interviews with a majority of the student participants; each interview consisted of questions asking participants to describe the work that they did in being a student. In each interview, I asked student participants to describe a typical day, week, month, and year in their student lives.  From that first interview, I identified the places where the work of being a student was being coordinated and then collected subsequent data to identify the source of where or how that work was being coordinated. For example, a participant might tell me that they woke up at 7 am so that they could be at class at 8 am.  I would then ask how they knew they had to be at class on the first day at 8 am, and they might direct me to their class schedule or to the course syllabus.  My research task, then, was to find the syllabus or schedule and see if there were additional documents referenced or implied that informed or directed the instructions given in that document, like a classroom scheduling policy.

In the portion of research reported on in this manuscript, I was seeking to understand the discourses that were coordinating the work of undergraduate women. To do that, I asked six STEM faculty participants to describe an ideal student; I also asked women undergraduate students the same question. Data analysis followed Carspecken’s (1996) critical ethnographic approach to data analysis.  More specific details about the analysis (and the figure!) are included in the article. While it can often feel like I don’t get enough space to talk about methods given space recommendations, I did not feel like I needed more space in this manuscript.

This can’t be an all-inclusive post on publishing from a dissertation – indeed, others have done that and done it quite well.  Instead, I’ll talk about how I approached publishing from my dissertation research and some of the challenges I encountered in the process.  From the conception of my dissertation research, I knew that I planned to seek publication of the findings it in journal article format. Because of that, I initially proposed to my dissertation committee that I do a three-journal article format instead of a five-chapter traditional dissertation, but they were resistant, so I settled on a seven-chapter dissertation (to my knowledge, the seven-chapter dissertation format isn’t a thing, in case you are doing some frantic googling). Basically, I broke my findings into three chapters organized according to the institutional level I was exploring – classroom, department, and institution – instead of putting them all into one very long Findings chapter. This manuscript focused on what I called the “departmental” level, which explored the discourses that coordinated what it meant to be a STEM student across STEM in higher education, although the participants in this study were at one institution.

To move from my dissertation to the manuscript I eventually submitted for review at JWG, I began by identifying which journal I wanted to submit the manuscript by identifying journals with missions that aligned with my research: women, higher education and/or STEM education.  Second, I checked each journal’s submission guidelines. For this manuscript especially, a big part of submission guideline review involved checking the word limits in the author guidelines.  Because I was publishing from my very long dissertation, I wanted the journal mission to align with my research, but I also wanted an 8,000 word limit. JWG was a clear and easy choice.

From there, I set to work cutting apart my dissertation to then re-cobble it together into a cohesive manuscript.  Since I had already decided how I’d divide the findings for publication prior to writing my dissertation, my task was to identify which parts of the literature review applied to this manuscript and refine and reduce portions of the introduction and methods chapter to inform understanding of the findings I would discuss.  This process was easiest for the first manuscript.  While much of the literature review was easily divided according to the three different manuscripts, in the second and third manuscripts I had to make sure that I wasn’t self-plagiarising when I talked about the study purpose, theoretical framework, and methods.  In this manuscript, because it was the first one, I didn’t encounter this challenge, but I had to carefully read through the second and then the third manuscripts I submitted for publication from my dissertation, comparing sections against each other to make sure that I hadn’t duplicated language.  This was a challenge, and I still wake up in a panic sometimes worrying that I have inadvertently self-plagiarized. I checked and double-checked each manuscript and the final proofs.  As a result, I have reached a point where I’m not sure I know how to describe Institutional Ethnography or Standpoint Theory in a new way.

I had wonderful and comprehensive feedback from my dissertation chair, C. Casey Ozaki, and committee, and I didn’t find it too challenging to create this manuscript from my dissertation. Because of Casey’s involvement as chair, she was a coauthor, and she provided valuable feedback prior to submitting for review.

Publication Process

I submitted the manuscript early-Fall 2016 and the manuscript was accepted in December 2016. The email communicating the acceptance indicated that proofs would be coming soon. However, by summer 2017, I hadn’t heard anything from the journal, so I reached out in the hopes of figuring out what was going on.  By now, I had a tenure-track position, and 2017 was looking like it might be a year without any publications. I thought that was a poor way to start my new role and started feeling some anxiety about if and when the article would be published. I later learned that JWG was working through a backlog of accepted manuscripts (a great problem to have), but at the time, I just didn’t know what was happening.  Luckily, in September 2017, I received an email from the editors about next steps.  While reviewers hadn’t suggested any revisions, the editors did, so I worked with them to make the edits using track changes in word.  The process was smooth and quick, and the suggestions were made thoughtfully and greatly improved the manuscript.  Overall, my experience working with the JWG editors through edits and proofs toward publication was the best publication experience I have had in my career. Full disclosure, I’m now a member of the JWG review board, although I wasn’t at the time this manuscript was published.

One of the key things that the editors pointed out in the proofing process was my use of female/male when referring to gender and gendered concepts. Since this manuscript (and, indeed, all of my research) explored gender as a construct, it was inappropriate to use female, which refers to biological sex when I was referring to gender.  Making the shift to using woman was an easy switch from an editing standpoint, but this transition represented a huge evolution in my understanding of the gendered constructs I explore in my work and clarified the importance of understanding the difference between gender and sex.  Aside from being more accurate (and in accordance with APA guidelines), using woman when referring to the way that power, knowledge, processes, and discourses are gendered allows for a broader discussion of who these gendered constructs impact (and how).  It felt, at first, awkward to use woman as an adjective, but a shift happened naturally as I used it every time I talked about gender (which, as a feminist scholar, is a lot!). Now, I cringe every time I hear female when referring to gender.  I can’t fix my dissertation and prior published work that used “female” throughout when I was referring to gender.  I can’t unpublish them, but it is important to me to acknowledge them here.

After Publication

Like the CDA of STEM syllabi, this manuscript was also featured on the same alt-right website that started the previous furor. This time, however, the same persistent vitriol didn’t occur, I think because this article was not published open-access. The syllabus CDA was published in TQR, an open-access journal, so anyone, with or without a journal subscription, could read it. In contrast, JWG wasn’t open-access, so it was harder for someone without institutional access or NASPA membership to read. As a result, while there were a few follow-up alt-right posts and impassioned emails deriding my career pursuits, those responses were nothing like the syllabus article.  This was a relief, but by this point, I’d also stopped viewing the emails as valid attacks, and I only really worried about ones that threatened or implied violence.

I’ve also continued to explore how “ideals” in STEM are gendered, collecting data from multiple institution types, undergraduate and graduate students, and international institutions.  A manuscript reporting on those findings is in progress now, and we hope to submit it for review by the end of the month.

Because this manuscript is not open-access, if you do not have institutional access to the manuscript and would like to review it, please contact me, and I will help you gain access.


Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139158. doi:10.1177/089124390004002002

Acker, J. (2000). Gendered contradictions in organizational equity projects. Organization, 7(4), 625632. doi:10.1177/135050840074007

Acker, J. (2012). Gendered organizations and intersectionality: Problems and possibilities. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 31(3), 214224. doi:10.1108/02610151211209072

Britton, D. M. (2000). The epistemology of the gendered organization. Gender & Society, 14(3), 418434. doi:10.1177/089124300014003004

Britton, D. M., & Logan, L. (2008). Gendered organizations: Progress and prospects. Sociology Compass, 2(1), 107121. doi:10.1111/j1751-9020.2007.00071.x

Carspecken, F. P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide [Kindle reader version]. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from

Hartsock, N. (1987). The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. In S. Harding (Ed), Feminism and methodology (pp. 157–180). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

Behind the Scenes: Digital Media Responses to a Feminist Scholarly Article

In the first Behind the Scenes essay, I briefly discussed the alt-right response to my first publication, a feminist critical discourse analysis of STEM higher education syllabi. In this essay, I’ll discuss more about those responses, my critical analysis of them, and the resulting publication Digital Media Responses to a Feminist Scholarly Article: A Critical Discourse Analysis published in Feminist Media Studies. Doing the literature review, analysis, and writing of this manuscript was perhaps the most personal work I have ever done – but in saying that, I also hoped that by doing the work and publishing what I learned, my findings could help others also under attack from the alt-right world to understand the nature of the attacks against them, see how those responses were to a recontextualization of their work, not the original publication itself, and that the linguistic tools used in the responses were designed to silence or provoke not to begin an authentic discourse.

While findings are discussed at length in the full manuscript, in sum, in exploring 31 documents (13 twitter conversations, 3 discussion boards, and 15 articles), analysis suggested that the linguistic tools of stance and deixis were used across the corpus to create and reinforce an “us versus them” argument where I was the enemy. Second, analysis revealed how trolling strategies were used to provoke an emotional response and to silence me and those who might defend my article or do similar work. Finally, thematic analysis indicated that the linguistic tools and content reinforced the idea of knowledge as objective, the masculine nature of STEM education, and the appropriateness of a chilly STEM classroom climate.


This research refined what has become my approach to critical discourse analysis (CDA) research. I followed many of the same methodological steps as the Syllabi CDA research, and I approached the entire process systematically. Because I was analyzing digital media responses to my own work, it was especially important to seek external validity.  It was never my intent to theoretically distance myself from the process (or to pretend that I even could) – this was personal, and I was analyzing written attacks that were framed as personal attacks on me or my work. As such, I was not ready to begin that analysis immediately, so even though I recognized that I needed to save the emails I was receiving, I simply moved them upon receipt to an inbox folder I called “trolls.” For the most part, I stopped reading them completely.  I knew that I could return to them when I was ready to begin the analysis. It took almost a year and a half to return to the emails, articles, reddits, discussion boards, blog posts, and tweets I had been saving.  About a year after the original article had been published, I started searching the literature for what research was out there on similar attacks.

Seeking understanding of how others had analyzed and interpreted digital media responses to their work led me to Schmidt (2017) and Kamenetz (2018) and the theory of recontextualization.  As Attenborough (2014) explained, recontextualization, or when an event is described by another, leads to content that is responding to the recontextualization of the event even when it is being framed as a response to the original event. Understanding recontextualization was critical in understanding how so much vitriol and misunderstanding was being directed toward me when it was clear that most responses either hadn’t read or had just skimmed the original article. Those messages were in response to the recontextualizations of the article in the conservative media outlets, not the original article itself. At that time, the body of literature was still growing (although there is much being written about it now), so I expanded my search to include the research being done on trolls and trolling (trolls are the comments themselves, not the troller, a person, or the act of leaving trolls, referred to as trolling). This, in addition to the linguistic tools of stance and deixis, provided the additional linguistic tools I would code for in my analysis (See Hardaker, 2013 and Cole, 2015). Before I started analyzing data, I built a plan for analysis that built on prior research and utilized relevant linguistic tools, as discussed by Gee (2014). The CDA methodology process I follow for each study follows these steps:

  1. Develop the research questions
  2. Explore prior linguistic research on similar corpuses and genres
  3. Explore prior research on the research question and identify gaps or areas that need future research
  4. Create a plan for data analysis that builds on the body of research on this topic, both from a linguistic and thematic perspective.  Thematic analysis is always the final step in my CDA data analysis process.
  5. Identify the corpus (documents that will be analyzed) and seek ethical approval if required (most of my CDA work has been publicly available documents, but our IRB still requires a Request for Determination of Human Subjects submitted and a determination that it is not human subjects research before I can proceed with analysis and publication)
  6. Analyze data systematically, one analysis pass through the entire corpus for each linguistic tool, concluding with thematic analysis which will take as many analysis passes as necessary for saturation

In addition to building a strong theoretical and methodological framework for my analysis before I began the data analysis process, I also sought validity through the analysis and writing process, most importantly through critical friends. One particularly important friend provided critical feedback throughout the process, calling my attention to areas I had missed and also prompting me to consider which critiques might be valid. She read and re-read several drafts of the manuscript, helping me think critically about how my own bias and emotional responses to the comments might blind me to themes and implications resulting from the analysis.

Although the emails I received were often the most terrible – threatening harm and calling me terrible names, they were not public, and so I chose not to include them in the analysis. Ethically, I felt like that was the right choice, and the emails were simply more aggressive versions of the same tactics used by the more public digital media responses.  It is lucky, perhaps, that the original manuscript had contact information for me from an institution that was quick to shut down my email address after I graduated.  After 2016, for the most part, I stopped receiving the emails except for the ones from those especially upset individuals who hunted my University of Louisville email address.

Publication Process

One way to identify a journal for publication is to look at the journals where the work I am citing have been published.  One that recurred in my literature review was Feminist Media Studies, so while it is not a higher education journal, as I read about the mission of the journal, it seemed like the best option and had published similar work in the past. One time-consuming part of the publication process was transitioning to Chicago Style. While Chicago isn’t a difficult publication style on its own, it did take some time to transition the manuscript that I’d written in APA to a new format.  I also had to learn endnotes, and instead of doing them the right way (e.g., letting Word organize them for me), I painstakingly did them by hand. That meant that any time I needed to add a reference to, say, the methods section, I had to revise the entire reference list and each superscript throughout the entire manuscript. That was a poor choice. I was being lazy, and it ended up adding way more work to what should have been a simple process. Luckily, the manuscript was accepted without revisions (aside from the editorial edits and proofs), so I was saved from more reviewer-suggested additions to my literature review. Otherwise, working with Feminist Media Studies was delightful, and the publication process was fast.

After Publication

I felt like this work was important, so I submitted it to the 2019 NASPA Ruth Strang Research Award which, “recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to the body of literature concerning women in higher education.” Despite feeling like the article was an important contribution, I didn’t expect it to win, so it was a wonderful surprise when I received the notification that I had won!

Finally, I have never responded to a single trolling email, troll, or article aside from this manuscript. I’m not suggesting that this should be your approach, but once I understood that despite any messaging to the contrary, the trolls, tweets, and emails were not an attempt to open up the discourse but to provoke a reaction, I felt like it was not worth my emotional energy and time to respond.  That being said, I also acknowledge that there is value is others seeing a response to trollers and trolls – indeed, it literally makes my day every time I see Roxane Gay clap back.  Responding to them individually is not the path I have chosen for now – and it is your choice whether or not you respond.  Either way, if you choose to respond, know what you are responding to with the knowledge that enlightenment or even an apology are unlikely to occur.


Attenborough, Frederick. 2014. “Jokes, Pranks, Blondes and Banter: Recontextualising Sexism in the British Print Press.” Journal of Gender Studies 23 (2): 137154. doi:10.1080/09589236.2013.774269.

Cole, Kirsti K. 2015. “‘It’s like She’s Eager to Be Verbally Abused’: Twitter, Trolls, and (En)Gendering Disciplinary Rhetoric.” Feminist Media Studies 15 (2): 356358. doi:10.1080/14680777.2015.1008750.

Gee, John P. 2014. An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. New York: Routledge.

Hardaker, Claire. 2013. ““Uh…Not to Be Nitpicky, but…the past Tense of Drag is Dragged, Not Drug’.: an Overview of Trolling Strategies.” Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 1 (1): 5886.10.1075/jlac

Kamenetz, Anya. 2018. “Professors Are Targets in Online Culture Wars; Some Right Back. nprED, April.

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.