Tuesday, November 21, 2017

An Exclusive Interview with Feminist Patricia Leavy about Receiving a National Creativity Award

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and novelist (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published sixteen books including the best-sellers Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (Guilford Press, 2009, 2015) and novels American Circumstance (Sense Publishers, 2013) and Low-Fat Love (Sense Publishers, 2011). She is the editor for five book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. The New England Sociological Association named her the 2010 New England Sociologist of the Year. She has recently been announced as the recipient of a 2014 Special Achievement Award given by the American Creativity Association for her work advancing arts-based research and for the ground-breaking Social Fictions book series she created. On the heels of this national recognition, we had an opportunity to interview Patricia about creativity, feminism and being a renegade sociologist.

Congratulations on your Special Achievement Award. The award recognizes your work advancing arts-based research in the public domain and one of the book series you edit. Can you explain this to people who may not be familiar?

Thank you. Arts-based research merges the creative arts and scholarly research across the disciplines. For example, one might use the tenets of visual art with sociological research or play writing with health care research, and so on. Arts-based research practices offer us new ways to ask and answer research questions, they may allow us to tap into issues that are otherwise out of reach, and they allow us to engage broader public audiences with social research. That last point, engaging with audiences beyond the academy, is perhaps what is most important to me and is part of the basis for the ACA recognition. Traditional research reports, whether in medicine, psychology, education or any other field, are typically very dense, difficult to read and circulate in highly specialized journals. In other words, only a handful of people have the necessary education or desire to read them. I’ve often said the average academic journal article is about as interesting and understandable as your car manual. But information should be available to the many, not the few. So I view arts-based research as one way that researchers can make their work more accessible.

 

In terms of the book series you are referring to, it is called Social Fictions. We publish books that are written entirely in literary forms like novels and plays, but the books are authored by researchers and informed by their scholarly research. In other words, the series publishes the products of arts-based research.  I began the series after wrote my first novel, Low-Fat Love. Low-Fat Love explores low self-esteem, the psychology negative relationships, attraction to those who withhold their support and female identity construction. That book was based on nearly a decade of interview research with young women about their relationships, identity and self-esteem issues. The problem was that there was no place to publish it. Although it reads as a novel, I saw it as research, as arts-based research. While some publishers publish books about how to do arts-based research, there was no one publishing the full-length products of ABR. So I came up with the idea for the Social Fictions series and pitched it to a couple of academic publishers. I am very grateful that Sense Publishers, leaders in educational research, agreed to partner with me on the venture. Only a few years later we have 11 books on the market, including my second novel American Circumstance, and we have many others in the pipeline. Professors have adopted the books in their classes as springboards for discussion and reflection. We often hear that students love them and professors adopt them over and over again. And the general public has bought them as every day, beach reads. It’s been an incredible journey seeing the idea take off and we’re all deeply humbled and grateful for the ACA recognition.

The ACA has honored individuals that have invented the microchip, created the first wearable heart pacemaker, walked on the moon, developed international charitable organizations, you name it. You’re the first sociologist to be recognized by them. Do you feel it’s a long time coming?

Well, I think the social sciences have historically gotten sort of a raw deal as compared with the natural sciences, and this may be particularly true for sociology. If you look at how the major funding institutions distribute their funding, and the kinds of criteria they use to judge grant proposals, you see very quickly that some disciplinary perspectives and corresponding methods are privileged over others. That’s a fact. The same goes for some of the major national and international awards that we’re all familiar with. Sociologists and other social scientists are often left out. It’s crazy too because this is a discipline devoted to studying society, including institutions, communities, groups, and individuals. This is stuff that impacts us all. So I do think that it’s a long time coming that social sciences are valued and not seen as “soft” or as lesser.

With that said, my work isn’t traditional sociology. While I am trained as a sociologist and bring that perspective to all of my work, I classify my work as arts-based and transdisciplinary, meaning, I use resources from many disciplines. When I first left graduate school my work was rejected by sociology journals. They thought it was too outside of the box. However, I am thankful that my home discipline continues to expand and is increasingly embracing arts-based and other forms of research. When I accept the ACA award I will do so as a representative of my home discipline and the transdisciplinary arts-based research community and that is really exciting.

What made you stray from your discipline of sociology, or at least a strict interpretation of sociology and what are the challenges and rewards of being a renegade?

My early teaching experiences influenced me enormously. When I was in graduate school I got a job adjuncting at a local college in a combined criminal justice and sociology department. After my first class I was asked to teach in their cop program, which meant teaching sociology classes to Boston police officers. At that time there was a new bill in effect that gave cops financial incentives to get their degree in criminal justice. I don’t know if you can imagine how terrifying this was to me. I was in my early twenties with almost no teaching experience and now I had to teach police officers who I knew would mostly be male and twice my age. The entire thing was absolutely terrifying. The first class I was asked to teach was research methods which is considered a dread class for even traditional sociology majors. On that first day I entered the class of about 35 cops who looked at me and started laughing amongst each other. In my mind I threw out the syllabus I had gone through great pains to create, I sat on the desk in front of the room and I made a joke. I then mentally revised the entire class and began to teach. My approach was to engage them based on their experience, which I acknowledged was far greater than mine. I essentially had them teach me the skills needed to do observational research and then we took it from there. It ended up to be such an extraordinary experience that over the next two years I elected to teach at least a dozen courses to the cops. I decided to teach things I really cared about like feminist courses called Women, Minorities and Social Justice. I challenged them and they challenged me but it all worked because I found ways to relate and to speak with them in a common language. From these experiences I realized that we need to find different ways to communicate, and if we can, then the possibilities are limitless. I mean I taught cops about female genital mutilation, spousal abuse, racial profiling, and more, all from a feminist lens. Given my lifelong commitment to feminism, I realized that to be most effective I would need to get creative and to make my work accessible.

The challenge is that you’re always going upstream. You’re always in a mode of trying to persuade people to take a shot on your work; you’re always explaining it to them. You need to develop a thick skin because the responses are all over the map, especially in the beginning when people feel more able to attack you. But understand, those who attack simply feel threatened so you need to take it with a grain of salt. The rewards are so vast I couldn’t outline them all for you. Suffice it to say that getting up each day and doing work you believe in, and then seeing the positive impact on others, is extraordinary. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

To what extent has your feminist perspective influenced your writing practices?

My feminist perspective is the reason I turned to arts-based research, it’s the reason my two novels and the Social Fictions series exist. So to tease that out a bit, my commitment to public scholarship and my commitment to gender equality are interlinked. I consider making research relevant to and available to girls and women a fundamental aspect of the feminism I practice. So jargon laden articles that circulate in expensive journals don’t accomplish that. On top of that, the work should have the potential to improve the lives of people, particularly girls and women. That was my hope in writing my novels. The hope was that readers would reflect on their own lives, relationships and choices. The hope was that the novels would promote positive personal growth, and at the same time allow me to share the stories of some women with more people, who may in turn develop empathy for others. So from the themes in my books to even my adaptation of the chick-lit genre, but narrated from a very different, feminist perspective, I have used fiction as a means of sharing feminist ideas. Frankly the same can be said of my nonfiction books, most of which are about different kinds of research practices from arts-based to transdisciplinary to feminist and qualitative. The more tools we have available for building knowledge and sharing that knowledge, the greater the chance that feminist and other critical perspectives will get out there.

So would you say that creativity is fostered by goals? You need to be creative in order to reach your objectives?

Yes, absolutely. I wrote my first arts-based novel in order to speak to broader audiences and to engage those audiences on a deeper level, and then I developed the Social Fictions as a means of problems solving. I needed the right place to publish my novel, so I created it. My approach is definitely problem-centered. I don’t try to “be creative” for the sake of doing so. I try to develop strategies that serve my goals.

What advice do you have for scholars, artists or writers that are having a tough time breaking in?

Hang in there. Persistence pays off. You’re not alone. Just about everything I ever published was rejected along the way but I never stopped sending it out. You also have to develop a relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on how others judge it. This is important. Stay true to your voice and vision and try not to let anyone interfere with the relationship you have with your own work. Be your own best advocate. In terms of a little piece of practical advice, think about how you are pitching your work. I have found that the way you present your work, how you in effect market it to editors and the like, can have a profound impact on how they receive it.

To learn more about Patricia Leavy please visit www.patricialeavy.com

In honor of her ACA award, Sense Publishers is offering free shipping on her novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance and all Social Fictions titles here: https://www.sensepublishers.com/catalogs/bookseries/social-fictions-series/

 

Method Meets Art Second Edition is available for pre-order here (at a discounted price): http://www.guilford.com/books/Method-Meets-Art/Patricia-Leavy/9781462513321

MMA2 Cover

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