Your tissues have issues

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I went to my first Yin yoga class last week. Rather alarmingly I was the only person who showed up, which meant I got a lot of personal attention. The instructor, Lisa, gave me the run down – Yin is meant to go deep, to the level of the fascia, and poses are held longer than traditional yoga. There is lots of time to reflect, Lisa told me, and sometimes emotions will rise up. “Your tissues,” she said, “have issues”. The hips hold anger, our shoulders are stiff and sore because they often hold the weight of the world.

I loved this, as I lay with my face on a bolster in child’s pose, I thought about the reading I had been doing about embodiment, how feelings can become carried in the body. In my “real life” as a radiation therapist and researcher, I have pretty much stripped the emotion from my academic work. Although as clinicians we need to be empathetic, compassionate and connect with the people we meet in the treatment room, this caring and warmth is discouraged in a publication. We can get angry at the system, the restrictions, the endless edicts to measure more, work harder – but that is tamped down when we’re at the podium talking about the latest lean initiative and how it makes our work lives better. I’ve said before that starting this doctorate has reintroduced me to finding other ways to speak and share, ways that involve hearts as well as minds.

Scientific dispassion emerges from the old idea that research should be value neutral, conducted by a dispassionate observer. This (male, White, Christian etc) constant observer is mainly unquestioned. It was a revelation to begin to read some feminist researchers who pointed out that this doesn’t always serve us well (at least the non-White, non-male portion of the population). My chosen lens is critical theory, where people feel pretty passionate about stuff! It is meant to be emancipatory, to make a difference in the world – emotions are part of the work, not a distraction to be written out. Feelings including pain, old hurts, injustices can be triggers to make things right, to change (at least part of) the world. Shame and rage can become the motivation for striving for recognition and political resistance, sometimes it is only by “regaining the possibility of active conduct that individuals can dispel the state of emotional tension into which they are forced” (Honneth, p. 138).

Feminist research eschews the emotion vs reason binary and admits us, whole, into the messy business of finding out. Emotions are triggers that something is up, can flag a wrongdoing, transgression or injustice. Our prof this week told us “you are allowed to be passionate”  – and I agree, without that why would we be doing this often difficult and frustrating work?


Honneth A. The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. 1995.


Taking a different (re)view


One of the oft cited benefits of higher education is the shift in perception that comes with taking a wider view. I remember it from my Master’s degree – it was harder to take things at face value, issues were approached with a more critical lens and research projects were developed left right and centre! We all agree… there is just something that happens when you take comfortable, preconceived ways of doing things and give them a good shake with a whole load of new stuff. Change happens.

Change – it is generally understood in health care (and in life) – to be inevitable. It is also seen as difficult, sometimes resisted, and often hard to implement. In the last blog I talked about how reflexivity can lead to a literally changed mind.  What I have been feeling, these last few weeks, is the result of that changed mind in an environment that hasn’t changed.

The paper I’ve been co-authoring on discrimination in LGBTQ health care (and how to make things better) has made it to the peer review stage. As an associate editor, I know the value and the limitations of the process. I’ve wrangled some terrible reviews – some that are so short they are of no practical use, some that are (to be honest) really, really rude and some that list 56 typos and grammatical errors but tell me nothing about the actual publishability of the paper.  Of course this is #notallreviewers! Most are hardworking, experts in their fields who generously give up their limited spare time to help advance their profession. The trouble is, we’re not an especially academic profession (yet) and most of us (me included) are making this up/learning as we go.  Anyway, you can see where this is going! One review was respectful, polite, well considered and had some great suggestions for change that were very helpful. Reviewer 2 (it’s always Reviewer 2!) questioned the need for the paper because there are anti-discrimination policies in workplaces – so surely I am exaggerating? Gay people don’t experience this – at least not to the degree that we are claiming! Despite using references from many studies and position papers, the paper was really more of a “political manifesto” than anything else.  Woah!

Reading reviews is always an emotional experience! The first response is often “they just don’t get it”. I tend to skim the comments, leave it for a few days, read again, leave a day or so and then start to work on the changes. That takes some of the emotion out of it, allowing you to see where the reviewers have valid points, and (sometimes) where you still feel the original should stand. I did this last week – and still have a hard time with Reviewer 2. It comes down to (I think) the fact that I am standing in the same spot, dealing with the same issues at work but with a different set of eyes. I can see that – yes, there are policies, but oppression is institutionalised. I think, what this boils down to, is a general blindness about types of oppression and how they work. To a (I am taking a wild guess here) straight person, the fact that some people do have problems and are treated differently because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is antithetical to how the system is supposed to work.  Yes, of course HCPs are usually kind, compassionate people but they work within a system that professes patient centred care but does a poor job of treating patients as individuals.

And – I get it! It took a concentrated 8 months at UBC for me to even begin to see outside my ordered, comfortable, health care-centric box. As a white woman, I am highly privileged – and had the privilege to be able to ignore the not-so-privileged experiences of other groups. As a queer woman, I thought not being able to marry who I wanted, having multiple barriers in place for parenthood and doing the exhausting dance of being both in and out of the closet was just my thing to deal with. Turns out it really wasn’t. So Reviewer 2, I understand you! But just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.


Finding a research voice


There are a few things that seem inescapable in our grad work. I have previously mentioned Foucault (or “Mikey” as one of our Profs refers to him) – that bad boy will pop up in every reference list of every paper we read. Another is the idea of the “middle ground” – aka “binaries are bad” (I may be oversimplifying this a bit). As human beings, we love binaries, good and bad, black and white, qualitative and quantitative. Sadly, life is more complex – we really know this but “tidy binaries” are just so comforting and easy to argue about. That’s why poor old bisexuals get a bad rap – come on (our imaginary exemplar yells) – pick a side already! This weekend we were all about the bricoleur, and its accompanying verb – bricolage.  This word is ubiquitous in many of the papers we are reading – it implies someone (the bricoleur) who uses a variety of methods and approaches to construct an argument, a research framework, from what already exists. It implies a pragmatic spirit, flexibility and an ability to weigh what is useful and what can be discarded.  I had seen this term before- and imagined it to be some rarified French philosophical definition, perhaps even by Foucault himself (praise be his name). Turns out it is basically French for DIY – and there are stores in France that are called “Mr. Bricolage”.  Yes, like Home Depot. Bit of a letdown.

Class this weekend was a bit of a bricolage. There was guitar playing, some Pogues, poetry writing, interviewing, free writing, a lesson in drawing owls and an attempt to discuss a paper via Twitter (#itsreallyhard).  We are trusting that this will lead us gently to the point where we can point to a research method/critical theory and say “yes, that is the one I want to take home” but in the meantime we EdD bricoleurs are like magpies – sifting through the piles of shiny, useful and not-so-useful things to construct our nests (which will really be our dissertations, in case you got lost back there.)

The free writing and the poetry writing made me consider issues of voice and style. There is a ton of advice out there about “finding your voice” as a writer, and then there’s the counter argument that voice is seriously overrated.  There is also style, the way in which something is written and why. Style depends on the purpose and the reader/audience. I realised my usual style has become (by default) the writing I do at work. The 3,500 word max, third person, hope-this-will-pass-peer-review journal article and the reports I write have become comfortable and easy for me. What I remembered (as I did the free writing) were the times in the past I wrote for fun, or felt compelled to write – when I needed just to get things out there. I wrote compulsively after my father died of lung cancer, I wrote over and over again about what it had felt like to hold his hand, to feel it go cold, My writing was full of emotion, full of my voice – I couldn’t pull apart the story and how it had made me feel.

The challenge I’m facing (and one of the reasons I started this blog) is to rediscover that voice, that passion. I want to do research – and write about research – with both my head (which I am good at) AND my heart (not my comfort zone). Unlearning the reliance on neutrality and other voices (the references, the multiple supporting quotations) is tough. However, when I remember that the reason I chose my topic (aside from “the current situation sucks”) is because the LGBTQ patients that are “unseen” in our system are also me. I am increasingly feeling that “as I write and theorize the lives of my participants, I theorize my own” (St.Pierre, 1997)- and progressively aware that it’s not only allowed, it’s mandatory.