An Interview with Dr. Alex Ketchum on Intersectionality within Course Content

Communications assistant Chantay Alexander shares the value of intersectionality teaching in the Arts and asks recent Principal's Prize winner Dr. Alex Ketchum about her own experience in teaching intersectional perspectives in academia.

Why is teaching intersectional perspectives within Arts important? McGill’s Faculty of Arts does its best to expand the breadth of content it spotlights, incorporating a variety of perspectives when discussing certain topics – but a lot of the content we, as students, are exposed to largely depends on the professor. I was curious about how McGill’s teaching and academic community actively works towards facilitating a future of inclusion – and what that looks like on an individual scale.

As a student in Arts, I’ve found it incredibly refreshing and stimulating whenever a professor incorporates intersectional points of view into a topic of discourse that has not traditionally been so diverse. And that’s the thing – academia has only recently become more inclusive; women, queer people, and BIPOC were historically left out of institutions of power, which includes higher education.

Within my personal studies in English Literature, Political Science, and Environmental Studies, I’ve become familiar with the existing literary and political theory canons. More often than not, examining prominent theories in my disciplines usually focuses on the well-known works of notable white men throughout history. These works are undoubtedly valuable, but limiting the authors studied to such a narrow demographic and areas of thought can feel alienating or even disappointing at times for young women and people of colour trying to enter similar fields. There are so many academics and intellectuals recently making groundbreaking strides towards creating spaces for historically marginalized voices within academia, and whose work is worth spotlighting in class content. Currently, McGill’s academics are working towards highlighting these equally valuable perspectives in their respective disciplines. Wanting to know more, I spoke with Dr. Alex Ketchum on how she actively works towards implementing intersectional and equitable rhetoric within her work on campus.

Faculty of Arts lecturer Dr. Alex Ketchum recently won the Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through Media in the Emerging Researchers category, and she seemed like a perfect fit for all my questions. Her work adopts a feminist stance in its approach to equity delves into how academia and scholarship can be made more accessible for historically marginalized people. She won the Principal’s Prize for her multimedia work on IGSF (ranging from podcasts to interactive workshops). Dr. Ketchum is also loved by students for her thought-provoking courses. First, I was hoping to gain greater understanding into personal decisions made by professors at McGill to incorporate intersectional feminist rhetoric into their teaching. In light of Dr. Alex Ketchum’s recent Principal’s Prize win, she could certainly provide some insight as to why a variety of perspectives is actually integral to her teaching approach and students’ holistic learning experience.

Dr. Alex Ketchum, acclaimed author and Faculty Lecturer for the Institute of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, spoke on her own individual experience shifting traditional perspectives towards inclusivity.

“Teaching in a gender, sexuality, feminist, and social justice studies program necessitates thinking about the ways that sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination impact individuals and society,” Ketchum stated. “However, treating these phenomena as discrete would fail to account for the way that oppression and power operate. A person’s experience with racism will also be impacted by her gender, class, and sexual orientation; this is what is meant by racism is gendered, sexism is classed, and so forth.”

Her comments on intersectionality hinted at another area of concern: accessibility. With each of us students approaching topics of study with such varied experiences, how do you ensure that every perspective is afforded a voice and that the discourse around these topics is as accessible as possible? Dr. Ketchum agreed that accessibility is a goal requiring consistent work and attention.

“Regarding accessibility… this is a big topic,” she began. “When I teach my courses, I believe it is important to explain terms and concepts in order to invite students to engage deeper with the course material. I’ll assign challenging theoretical pieces, but my role is to help the students understand the material.”

People live layered lives, and therefore even within one identity group or community, experiences will vary from person to person. Knowing why we study the intersections of identity-centered experiences is important – and students should feel welcomed and encouraged when engaging in this type of research.

“I don’t want students to feel discouraged from engaging with feminist scholarship and part of that process requires explaining jargon, taking the time to explain the historical development of these different concepts, and to work on creating a classroom environment in which students feel safe to ask questions,” explained Dr. Ketchum. Within her classrooms, she welcomes student engagement and hopes to facilitate a learning environment wherein exploring complex, multifaceted topics seems more approachable.

In her own personal life, Dr. Ketchum also advocates for breaking down barriers in academia – which affects not only women, but Indigenous scholars, POC, queer, and disabled people as well.

Dr. Ketchum spoke to the tendency of scholars with these identities having difficult working conditions, facing even more structural barriers to completing the same goal as non-marginalized scholars: engaging in research.

“Feminist theories such as standpoint theory, insider-outsider perspective, and situated knowledges all demonstrate that the identity of the researcher impacts the kinds of research questions asked, the relationships with the research subjects, and the kind of analysis that is possible,” she explained.

“We need the work of marginalized scholars and a diversity of perspectives. Doing this work requires stable working conditions, livable wages, and institutional support.”

It can often be challenging for people who embody one or more of these identities to enter and flourish within scholarship. I was curious as to how she manages to keep pushing the envelope within her own research and field, despite knowing that not all colleagues will be rooting for her – which is true for any marginalized person.

“I talk about the impacts of cyberbullying, trolling, and doxxing on marginalized scholars in my book Engage in Public Scholarship. Despite these challenges, I love the research that I do,” Ketchum told me. It’s encouraging to know that scholars now are actively working to further the body of research on these barriers, to ameliorate the status quo.

She continued, “even when I am exhausted, I continue to be excited about my research topics. My inbox is filled with emails I’ve sent myself with ideas for the articles and books I’m writing and the exhibits I’m curating.”

Of course, the reason why so many scholars with intersecting identities go into academia is to actively work towards fostering a community of thinkers who can bring so many different experiences together. With the freedom to explore what interests and is relevant to us as students and academics, we can grow not only in our professional development, but also in our personal lives as we constantly learn new information that shapes our worldviews. It’s heartwarming to know that these intellectual communities exist and are facilitated by professors who care – like Dr. Alex Ketchum.

“I find so much joy in organizing my speaker series and bringing scholars, students, activists, and artists together at conferences. I love being able to train and supervise students in research methods so that they also can explore their research interests. And don’t even get me started about how excited archives make me! However, continuing this level of work and research output requires institutional support or else it is not sustainable.”

Interested in discovering more of Alex Ketchum's work? We profiled both of her recent books in our Faculty Publication Spotlight series. Read about Ingredients for Revolution here and Engage in Public Scholarship here

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