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It’s lonely being queer in academia

Grad students need to carefully navigate politics

SHOW AND TELL. Do your research on the department before you make a choice to avoid hassles in academia. Universities can be very conservative institutions. Credit: John Crossen Illustration

“Especially in a field like queer studies, it’s easy to feel very lonely,” says Oren Howlett, president of the Carleton University Grad-uate Students’ Association. He’s also in his fourth year of doctoral work, studying a queer topic at Carleton’s Canadian Studies department.

“To have friends and colleagues that you can talk to about your work or what you’re reading–it’s important,” he says.

Queer students from either of Ottawa’s universities working on their Master’s degrees or PhDs can join the Ottawa Grad Group. The group has an online component–a website and listserv–and a biweekly in-person gathering. (Find them every two weeks at the Fox and Feather starting Fri, Sept. 15 at 7pm.)

While queer students of all types are welcome at either university’s pride centre, Tim Jolly, a queer law student and former Master’s student, says that its nice to find people who are in the same place in their lives.

“There is usually a huge age gap. Sometimes that can seem prohibitive,” he says. Finding a circle like the Ottawa Grad Group is important whether you’re a queer grad student, a student studying a queer topic, or both.

Jolly has also been a part of OUTlaw, a group established for queer law students. The group was dormant last year–Jolly took time away from his U of O law school studies to do Master’s work at Carleton–but hopes are high that OUTlaw will be a vital force in the department this September. In past years, OUTlaw has struggled with gender parity (the preponderance of male members making the environment unwelcoming to queer women) and language issues (both the French-language common law and the droit civil programs are underrepresented).

Jolly has found that the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa is queer positive.

“We have been fortunate to have a lot of administrative staff support. We have queer profs in the department in high positions,” he says.

And that can make all the difference. Both Jolly and Howlett spent time in departments that didn’t embrace them as fully.

After one year, Howlett switched departments.

“The last thing you want to do is to arrive and find there’s no one who’s interested in your topic or takes what you’re interested in seriously,” says Stephen Brown, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies.

While that wasn’t the case for Howlett–the prof he intended to study with was hired away by another school–both Howlett and Brown strongly recommend researching a department before starting there.

“You need to find an advisor that understands–or is willing to try to understand–your topic,” says Howlett.

And not just for your mental health. A disengaged advisor can make it hard to navigate a difficult subject.

“Queer theory and gay and lesbian issues can be very complex–complicated in ways that your advisor might help you to draw out,” says Howlett.

And if you get no reply or a curt response, “take a hint,” says Brown. It’s better to find a professor that you’re going to get along with than attempt to force yourself on a professor who would rather be doing something else.

Howlett says that “being interdisciplinary, dealing with the intersection of different identities,” is attractive to people with open minds. Therefore, interdisciplinarity can sometimes be an indicator of whether queer students and queer subjects will be accepted by a department or professor. He cites his own department–Carleton’s Canadian Studies–as an example.

Both Brown and Howlett suggest that women’s studies is also a cue for students looking to research queer topics.

But both say that talking to people that are doing the work you are interested in is the best way to find the right place for yourself.