HALE grad wins national award for trans* academics study

April 20, 2017

Erich N. Pitcher broke new ground by completing the first systematic study of trans* academics while a doctoral student in the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) program at Michigan State University.

Now Pitcher’s research is being recognized as the field’s most outstanding dissertation for 2017 by Division J of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Pitcher, a faculty member at Oregon State University, will receive the honor on April 29 during the AERA Annual Meeting in San Antonio.

It’s “a study that everyone in our field should read and learn from,” said award committee chairperson Katalin Szelényi.

Although research on trans* individuals is growing, previous work has focused primarily on the experiences of trans* students in higher education and on identity development. Going beyond a single narrative, Pitcher studied 39 academics across the country who identify their gender in a way different from what society expects based on their sex assigned at birth. (The asterisk is used with the word trans to represent a wide variation of identities.)

Pitcher interviewed each of the academics—professors, post-docs, librarians and graduate students who teach in various institution types—two times and collected a written narrative from most of them. The dissertation examines the ways in which small, and not so small, processes ultimately come to shape the experiences of trans* academics, from where they are allowed to use the bathroom and health insurance coverage to how they are treated by colleagues on a daily basis.

“Dr. Pitcher’s dissertation stands out for its ability to connect the reader with the humanity of trans* academics and the frequent inhumanity—and dehumanizing power—of the academy,” said MSU Professor Kristen Renn, Pitcher’s advisor. “It calls on the research community to recognize and make a home for trans* academics, to be sure, but it also calls on us to move away from binary constructions of sex and gender in our work as researchers, teachers and colleagues.”

Pitcher, who uses they and he pronouns, serves as associate director for research and communications in the Oregon State Office of Diversity & Cultural Engagement. They said it was important to build relationships with their research participants over the course of the project. The interviews were all conducted via phone, Skype or Google Hangouts.

“Instead of me swooping in to collect data and then leave, I wanted to have some sustained connection,” they said. “There’s something about bringing together all those experiences that is just powerful.”

Pitcher plans to publish additional findings based on the dissertation, “Being and Becoming Professionally Other: Understanding How Organizations Shape Trans* Academics’ Experiences.” The first year of a longitudinal study focused on 30 trans* academics is nearly finished.

“I am immensely proud of the work,” said Pitcher, a first-generation college student. “It was through the mentorship of people I met as an undergraduate student that made it seem like earning a doctorate was possible, and not only that, but I could write about groups that I am a part of.”