Queer Theory and Physics Education: Dr. Pablo Schyfter speaks with Prof. Ramón Barthelemy

Multicolor image of soap bubble under a miscroscope.

Soap bubble. Credit- Adolfo Ruiz de Segovia. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Pablo Schyfter (University of Edinburgh) and Ramón Barthelemy (University of Utah) discuss the challenges of queering physics education research, bringing ideas of queerness, race and class to the study of science, and highlighting experiences of institutional pushback. Shared as part of LGBT+ History Month.

Pablo Schyfter Camacho (PSC): If somebody were trying to describe you and your work, they might say something like, “Oh, he is a queer theory physicist.” Does that description work?

Ramón Barthelemy (RB): I would probably say I’m a queer theorist of physics education research (PER). I’ve spent my entire career taking gender theory and social frameworks from science and technology studies and applying them to PER. And I think one of the interesting things about PER is that it truly is a social study of science endeavour. But physics education researchers primarily have approached studying education and physics and the experience of students in physics from purely a physics perspective. How can we collect broad swaths of data? How can we do statistical analyses on it? There hasn’t been much focus yet on what these analyses mean. What are the frameworks that are guiding our conclusions? How do our standpoints affect things as researchers? I’ve tasked myself with trying to ask these questions.

PSC: What are the trajectories that you think led you to where you are today?

RB: I started out doing a PhD in nuclear physics, but I quickly switched to PER. I happened to be assigned to a professor, Charles Henderson, as his teaching assistant. I had a conversation with him about doing PER and he said, “Well what would you like to study?” I always had a personal interest in equity and social justice. So I said, “Is it possible to study gender in physics?” And he said, “Yes. I’ve never done that, but you know we can figure it out together.”

That led me to meeting with one of the professors of gender studies at Western Michigan University, Catherine Bailey. She told me about some of the work that she had done in science studies, feminist science studies and mentioned Sandra Harding. That led me to reading The Science Question in Feminism. Then I read Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?. Those were the first books that I read in science studies that took a feminist lens, and led me to reading Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, which completely troubled my ideas of gender. That was really what cemented my interest in gender and queer theory. Now I’m trying to think about how we apply these to PER.

PSC: What about bringing PER to fields like gender studies, feminist studies?

RB: I think that that is something that absolutely can be done. Really what this comes down to are these imaginary disciplinary boundaries that we create. Because what is the difference between someone in gender studies that’s focusing on science, versus someone in science studies that’s focusing on gender or queerness? We’re all probably doing similar work that we should learn from each other.

PSC: Do you think that your personal trajectory and your professional and intellectual trajectory worked together?

RB: Yeah. I really wanted to do history and philosophy of science as my undergraduate major. But I was a first-generation college student, going deep into debt to get my degree. I had no idea what you did with a history and philosophy of science degree, so I ended up doing astrophysics. Once I got to graduate school, I had the opportunity to do stuff more focused on my interest. By that time though, I was embedded in the physics world. It made sense to do this work in physics. But it hasn’t been without challenge. PER was already controversial in physics. People thought we should be in schools of education. Schools of education thought we didn’t belong there. PER has lived in a liminal space where no one wants to own them. And then I was a physics education researcher that was bringing in Sandra Harding and Judith Butler and things that didn’t look very understandable to physics or education.

I feel incredibly privileged for the work that I do and also lucky. When I took this position I figured that I was going to have to do very positivist work on issues of men versus women, or people of colour versus non people of colour, and do these big statistical surveys. I applied to grants doing this kind of work and they weren’t getting funded. So I told myself, “You’re writing grants for stuff you don’t even want to do.” So, I wrote a grant on feminist standpoint theory using Patricia Hill Collins’ ideas about embedding race and Crenshaw’s ideas of intersectionality. I wrote the grant partially thinking this will never get funded, and it got funded. I got another grant with Adrienne Traxler and Charles Henderson to look at LGBT stuff in physics.

PSC: How welcoming has the community been to this work?

RB: When I was on the job market, I was told by multiple institutions that either I wasn’t a physicist or my work was antithetical to what they did. So it’s not like I got this position without any pushback. In fact, in my interviews I would get hecklers. At one, I had a men’s rights activist come and shout me down during the entirety of my talk. And the department chair and department did absolutely nothing.

PSC: What was he shouting?

RB: That my research on women in physics astronomy was all wrong and that women were the problem and were the ones that caused all their hardships. Not a really a fantastic experience, but it was a learning experience and there’s value in that. Every interview that I had in physics departments something crazy happened. I had dinner with Sandra Harding years ago and she would talk about how when she would give talks, physics departments would sit in the back and then ceremoniously leave together, in protest of what she was talking about. People were throwing old fruit at her when she was first giving her talks on standpoint theory with regards to the ‘hard sciences.’ My experiences were not as harsh as that, but the resistance is still there. You know, if you have this kind of negative reaction it makes it clear that you need to continue doing this work.

PSC: Let’s talk a bit about the work that you’re involved in.

RB: My first study is a longitudinal study on women in graduate physics and astronomy. I interviewed this subset of women in 2012. I talked to them about their career goals, aspirations and ideas of success. Now I get to speak to them and see what happened. The University of Edinburgh’s Jarita Holbrook also does this kind of work with the ASTROMOVES project. And you see a lot of issues coming up. The majority of participants are white, but race has actually come up as an important factor. We had one participant who came out in the last 10 years, so her experience being openly queer has also been incredibly impactful. We started a new longitudinal study on people of colour in graduate STEM programs. Many are international. We see issues of nativism and issues of immigration and assimilation that are very different than domestic people of colour. One of the postdocs in my group, Dr Miguel Rodriguez, has really been a champion looking at microaggressions. Another postdoc, Dr Brian Zamarripa Roman, is taking Anzaldúa’s theory of conocimientos and trying to understand how students come to their identity in STEM. So we’re really bringing in these feminist and proto-queer theories to look at students’ experiences. Then we cap it off with something we may be able to address with policy: how this impacts their career choices and identity.

PSC: In terms of the people that you’re re-interviewing, what has changed in 10 years?

RB: I think one of the challenges is we still see issues of class. Women who managed to get to the last stages of their PhD had a lot of resources that a lot of us do not have. And you see the continuation of this. You see support from peer mentors, from family members, that really plays into them getting positions. You see the critical importance of having these mentors who have power and are able to share that power. If you can get access to these resources your career can blossom. But even when people have access to these resources and opportunities they’re still facing gender discrimination and harassment throughout their careers. I think that that is disheartening, but it also reveals that we can’t stop pushing on these issues.

PSC: Where do you want to go next? 

RB: I’m really interested in taking queer theory and applying it to the study of science education, and I’m really looking forward to bringing ideas of queerness and race to science studies. I really want to be a scholar in PER, but also reach out to other communities. 

PSC: What does it mean to queer physics education?

RB: The most important thing is that identity is not a checkbox. Identity is complicated, it is diffuse, and it is temporal as much as it is contextual. Queering in general is about looking at power dynamics, how institutions control and punish, how power is disaggregated amongst communities. It’s about not normalizing systems and thinking about the different approaches to the system, the diversity in the system, and resisting our human inclination to create boxes. Queering our work is all about unboxing things and not allowing ourselves to make those quick judgments.

PSC: How do you make this a part of physics training?

RB: For physics itself, think beyond traditional research methodologies, approach problems differently. Think about ways that you can collect data that are different than how we traditionally look at things. But physics is already kind of queer. When you look at quantum mechanics and you look at a particle, you can only define position or momentum once you take a measurement, and identity is actually a lot like that. We are forced to take an identity, we are forced to be measured. The forcing function of choosing that identity impacts our behaviours and how we relate with the world.

PSC: One last question. If people wanted to join your work, what do they have to do?

RB: Reach out. I’m always looking for collaborators, so if you have an interesting research idea and you want to put together something, reach out. Hopefully, there will be even more opportunities for people to collaborate.

Pablo Schyfter is a Senior Lecturer at Science, Technology and Innovation Studies, The University of Edinburgh. See his University profile here.

Ramón Barthelemy is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, The University of Utah. Tweet him at @RamonBarthelemy, and visit his personal website here.