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Queering the Curriculum Seminar Series

To celebrate Pride Month, the University of Suffolk hosted a seminar series entitled Queering the Curriculum. You can watch all talks here: https://queeringthecurriculum.wordpress.com/

The virtual event, which ran for three days from Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 June, was hosted by the University’s LGBTQ+ Staff Network and the Gender and Sexuality Research Interest Group — which I lead.

This event brought together a number of academics, educators, students, activists, practitioners, and diversity trainers to discuss what Queering the Curriculum means in 2021.  

I talked to BBC Radio Suffolk about this event. The interview is available on BBC Sounds (Scroll to 33.51)

There is a need to recognise gender and sexual diversity in our educational practices. Many LGBTQ+ students do not feel represented in the teaching material – from pronouns, to the use of man as norm like chairman, policeman, etc., to assumptions about people’s genders and sexualities, – which can make them feel disregarded and excluded. This event aims to illustrate how – and why – the teaching curriculum should adapt to account for our students’ diverse identities and experiences, thus helping us promote a more welcoming and respectful teaching environment for all.

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Personal Reflections on 2020

Finsbury Park – March 2020

Like most people, my year was filled with emotional ups and downs. But oddly, I think I peaked in 2020: I experienced great personal, academic, and professional success – all amid a global pandemic that does not seem to stop. It does feel great to admit it: I am extremely proud of my accomplishments. However, I don’t want this blog post to read as a humblebrag – it is merely a personal reflection of my year, possibly the most eventful of my life.  

I rang in 2020 at a gay club in Budapest, taking a selfie with a local drag queen. I was there to spend new year’s eve with my childhood friend from Colombia who was visiting Europe for the first time. I hadn’t seen him since 2016, and we had never met each other’s boyfriends – so it was delightful. We reminisced about our childhood years, hidden queerness, accomplishments, and personal journeys of completing advanced degrees despite obstacles, like being first generation college students, economic hardship, etc. We also looked forward to my wedding that was planned for August 2020 in Valencia.

Budapest Drag
New Year’s Eve in Budapest – Jan 2020

I was also there to celebrate the fact that I was submitting my PhD dissertation in January. I brought a printed copy of my thesis to Budapest because I optimistically thought I would have enough time to re-read it before submitting. (I didn’t.) I did however manage to review and submit it once I returned to London. The PhD journey was not easy, so I decided to take some time off to relax.

My partner had a business trip to Paris planned for January so I decided to tag along. It was at a hotel room in Paris that I found out about Coronavirus on Twitter. It was also there where I found out that my grandmother had passed away. Upon returning to London, I booked a flight to LAX to attend her funeral. I painted a portrait of her before the flight which was displayed during the ceremony. It was a short and emotional trip, but I did manage to take a short interlude to the Grand Canyon with my mom and brother. Writing about the ease of my travels now seems like a completely different lifetime. I can’t imagine doing this much travel nowadays.

Alba De Novoa – oil on canvas

Returning to London was emotionally draining. Someone in my family became suicidal after my grandmother’s death, I argued with family about politics and religion, I still had to prepare for my thesis defense, and the news about the virus was only getting worse.

I cried a lot in February and March. I was nervous, excited, and sad – all at once. The news about COVID-19 was not getting any better, and it seemed clear that my thesis defense would have to be online. It was also becoming increasingly clear that me and my partner’s wedding would have to be postponed. He was still optimistic – I was definitely not. Despite my pessimism, we bought a lot of fun clothes for our summer wedding (which did not happen, of course) and I managed to get ready for my thesis defense (which happened online, of course).

I became a doctor in psychology at age 30 in mid-March. This was one of the happiest moments of the year – of my life! And while I didn’t get to celebrate in person with my family and friends, I got to see them all via Zoom (my first time using this platform!). It felt great; it was exhilarating! I managed to get a book contract with Routledge to turn my thesis into a monograph for their Gender and Sexualities in Psychology book series – which I am currently working on, albeit slowly.

PhD dissertation

The glory didn’t last that long, unfortunately. I started applying for jobs almost immediately – and to no avail. I spent three months applying to jobs both inside and outside academia. I only got two interviews (both outside academia), but I didn’t get either. The glory turned into doom, and my employment situation became iffy. To top it all off, my partner, who was dependent on my student visa, was promised a visa from his employer that would cover both of us – but they were moving slowly, which made my mental health worse.

I ended up teaching two online courses in New York in June, which was a nice distraction from the pandemic and from the fact that, after three months of unemployment, I still had not landed a full-time job in the UK. I was losing hope, especially as many family members and friends – and a huge percentage of the world population – were losing their jobs, becoming ill, and feeling hopeless as well. The wedding ceremony was officially postponed until November –  and the reception was postponed until summer 2021. My mental health deteriorated significantly.

In a happy turn of events, I got two job interviews (and subsequently offers) the week of my 31st birthday in July! I had the surreal opportunity of declining a job amid a global pandemic, which felt great because the contract on offer was not ideal: maternity cover, precarious wage, distance from London, etc. The job I accepted was as Lecturer in Psychology in a city merely an hour away from London via train. My partner’s visa finally worked out, allowing me to work in the UK. We decided it would be nice to move closer to the train station (for my eventual commute) so we managed to secure a flat with a garden – a nice bonus during the pandemic! This was the moment I peaked.

I started this position in September. I helped start an LGBTQ+ staff network within the university, proposed a course on gender and sexuality, and worked to form a link between this university and the university where I teach in New York. I also became member of the INQYR UK network and am helping on a project called AutonoME, which examines how neurodivergent gender minority youth experience online spaces. Ultimately, 2020 was a great year for my academic and professional development.

University front

Teaching blended face-to-face and online classes was challenging, however. When I taught online, I never saw my students because no one turned on their cameras. I joked with some students and colleagues that we were in a ‘Zoom void’ – where we spoke to no one and our voices went nowhere. When I taught face-to-face, I had to commute to the school, which was never pleasant – there are always one or two people not abiding to the mask rules on the train. And there was always the odd student who also doesn’t abide to the mask requirements for whatever reason; but most did, thankfully. However, not being able to see half of my student’s faces was also a challenge in terms of face/name recognition and engagement. It’s definitely easy to hide behind a face mask. In spite of the commute and potential exposure, I did enjoy teaching face-to-face, as it was definitely more engaging than teaching to a sea of black, voiceless boxes.

Then I got COVID-19. I had been tested at school because it was offered to all staff and students, even if asymptomatic. Testing positive was shocking and nerve-racking, as every single negative thought I experienced in February and March resurfaced. My partner and I thankfully remained asymptomatic. And I didn’t return to face-to-face for the last few weeks of the semester. This was one of the most difficult parts of 2020, but I regained perspective once my partner and I finished our isolation periods.

We were finally married on 19 December 2020, a day before London went into Tier 4 (essentially a regional lockdown). We had a small ceremony with four guests, two acting as witnesses, and the other two acting as photographer and Zoom host. We wore the bright and colorful outfit we had bought back in March, which made us very happy. The ceremony was brief, but cheerful. Despite the December rain, getting married amid this horrible time in history felt like a glimpse of hope. This was another high point of the year, as I got to marry the love of my life.

Wedding – December 2020

I’m feeling somewhat optimistic lately. It might be that I have become comfortable (adapted) with my current circumstances – new job, new flat, new husband, etc. I still worry, of course. But less so than I did in May when the world seemed to be ending and I felt like nothing good would ever happen again. 2020 was not what I expected – and obviously not what I wanted – but it is at least almost over. All things considered, 2020 was a good year for me, even if I may feel a bit guilty saying that.

I am not convinced that 2021 will be better, unfortunately. But in the words of June (a YouTube chef that kept me and my husband entertained in some dark moments): “Lower your expectations to increase your happiness in life.” I think I’ll do just that next year.

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PhD Thesis

Abstract: This thesis explores the multiple ways in which non-binary people negotiate their identities, their authenticity, and their embodied experiences through language. Twenty-two non-binary-identified people living in the UK were interviewed for this project. Those same participants also provided writing samples which were included in the analysis. Additionally, a 2.9 million-word corpus of non-binary language was analysed using corpus linguistic tools. This thesis theorised gender as something one becomes rather than something one is (Linstead and Pullen, 2006), a relational process through affective intensities which move through the body, society, language, and other material and abstract elements. Drawing from assemblage theory (DeLanda, 2006) and Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) materialist ontology, which acknowledges the multiple (linguistic and material) components that merge at particular points to produce (or assemble) a becoming, I identified the most significant affective intensities which aided in the (de/re)territorialisation of non-binary gender becomings, or the non-binary-assemblage. Furthermore, the theory of linguistic becomings, which refers to the discovery, adoption, (re)assessment, and ongoing social negotiation of gender-related language, was developed in this thesis. The linguistic parameters of non-binary identities were found to be constantly reassessed, redefined, and renegotiated. A variety of material embodiments – and their relationship to language – were also identified, including affective fluidity and neutrality, and dysphoria. This thesis also explores the ways in which non-binary people in the present study navigated the world using non-binary language, the distress that originated from social interactions in which their language was not affirmed (i.e., misgendering), and the various ways in which they managed these situations. Overall, this research found that utilising a distinct type of language – a linguistic becoming – not only served as a tool to differentiate their gender and territorialise their identity, but also as a marker of social identity and group membership, thus allowing their identities to be recognised and more widely validated.

DMU Open Research Archive

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CSULB Alumni Award

Each year, the Department of Human Development at CSULB, where I completed my undergraduate studies, recognises an outstanding alumni who has demonstrated success in their chosen profession.

This year, I had the honour and the privilege of receiving this award via Zoom. This event was live-streamed via Facebook Live.

Here’s the short bio they read:

Originally from Colombia, Dr Sebastian Cordoba graduated from CSULB with a BA in Human Development in 2011. After spending two years in South Korea and Japan where he taught English as a second language, he completed an MA in General Psychology at The City College of New York. In 2016, Dr Cordoba moved to the UK to pursue a PhD in Psychology from De Montfort University, which he recently completed (March 2020). Dr Cordoba is an adjunct lecturer at The City College of New York where he has taught Psychology of Gender and Sexuality, Adolescence and Youth, Lifespan Development, and Applied Statistics.

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Disruption and the “New Normal”: A Queer Perspective

Disrupted: Wedding Invitation – Valencia, Spain – Summer 2020 – Drawing by @milomars_

It’s been three weeks since I defended my PhD dissertation (which is insane!), and over five weeks since I started practicing social distancing. It was difficult to figure out these dates, as I have no sense of time or space anymore. Covid-19 has changed my life – our lives – dramatically, disrupting normalcy and creating a “new normal” for us all. Adapting to these changes is difficult, but not impossible. And I believe that queer (LGBTQ+) people are a clear testament of the human capacity to adapt, re-emerge, and re-conceptualise the idea of “normal.”

I first read about coronavirus in January, when multiple stories about it were emerging, and reports (and videos!) of people dying were circulating on Twitter. Admittedly, I became obsessed with it, checking the statistics and the latest reports on the virus multiple times a day. It became clear to me that this coronavirus was dangerous, and I began to have panic attacks about the possibility of it affecting all of us – our families, finances, economies, food security, etc. I was also scared I was going to get sick before one of the most important days of my life (my viva), so I quarantined weeks before it was official in the UK. I didn’t get sick (though I’m still scared). But several of my friends in New York and London did. They’re all okay, luckily, as they’re young and generally very healthy people. But the possibility that one of my family members, close friends, or colleagues will eventually get it is terrifying.

I began to feel frustrated, angry, depressed, and hopeless as I saw governments’ (lack of) response to the imminent pandemic. I was – and still am – grieving. I started posting any type of useful – and verified – information I found on social media, and I called my family almost daily to share information about hand-washing, how to use masks correctly, flattening the curve, easy recipes, “getting ready,” etc. I did all this, I think, to re-gain a sense of control over this situation.

Life has changed for me – and for everyone – in many ways. And I’m learning to let go of control – to go with the flow and to queer this situation. All of my plans and some of my aspirations for this year have been postponed or put on hold. I was meant to get married to my partner this summer in Spain. I not only wanted to marry the love of my life this summer, but I also wanted to see – in person – most of my closest friends and family members at the wedding. We were also planning to go to Korea and Japan for our honeymoon, as we met in Korea and we spent – and lived together for – the first five months of our relationship in Japan. I also aspired to get a job in academia this year but, as of today, I have received three rejection letters stating that they are no longer hiring because of Covid-19. It is now clear to me that this might not happen this year, unless I experience an extraordinary stroke of luck. My 2020 vision is not going according to plan and I’m losing control. But this is not the first time. As a queer person, I have felt this before – the feeling that things are not normal, the sense of isolation and rejection, and the sense of hopelessness that can only be “cured” by reimagining the possibilities of desire, intimacy, disruption, and acceptance – by losing and regaining control.  

Over the last month I have learned many lessons – I think we all have. But I have been thinking about the concept of disruption and how it parallels with queer existence. I learned that humans are delicate. Our mere existence, as we know it, is governed by a multitude of abstract and material elements: money, mobility, intimacy, electricity, desires, satisfaction (psychological and physical), hormones, fluids, consumption, freedom, etc. However, when one of these concepts gets severely disrupted, it has the capacity to create a domino effect which can also severely disrupt some of the other elements. When this occurs, it is normal to feel despair, hopelessness, and confusion. Our mere existence shatters; our sense of purpose extinguishes; and our emotions become intricate and volatile.

Humans are highly adaptable beings, however. We have the capacity to reconceptualise, reimagine, recreate, renew, and reorganise. Brain plasticity is real, but these neurological pathways do not emerge overnight. Societies do not rebuild themselves in a matter of days either. And when they do, they never resemble the old – so the new landscape becomes the “new normal.” We are full of productive capacities, and the way that we have, as a society, coped with the pandemic – while imperfect – is a testament of our ability to reimagine of possibilities. We are reimagining work, exercise, sex, kinship, goals, economies, fluids, air, transport, language, fashion, politics, etc.

Queer people have been doing this for millennia: reimagining these abstract and material elements and creating new spaces where our existence is possible. Due to our various gender and sexual identities, expressions, desires, and practices, many of us have been isolated from our families, churches, occupations, and public spaces for a long time. This has meant that we are more likely to be unemployed, to use drugs, to have anxiety and depression, and to be victims of hate crime. However, home with our chosen families (roommates, partners, pets, queerspawn, etc.) or alone are safe havens for us – they always have been. The streets have rarely been safe for us, and they continue to be unsafe. Despite these disruptions, this sense of alienation and victimisation has allowed us to create new spaces, desires, power dynamics, bodies, communities, systems, linguistic codes, theories, aesthetics, complexities, pride, resistance, action, etc. that we can call our own. Queer people have recreated and reimagined these possibilities, drawing from our anguish, our gayness, our desire to feel. We are accustomed to disruption. Our mere existence has disrupted – and continues to disrupt – normalcy and unmarked normativities. Now, amid a pandemic, it’s our time to continue reimagining these possibilities – to let go of control and to queer our existence.

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I have a PhD in Psychology!

March 27 2020 – Viva Voce Date

I am thrilled to announce that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I have *passed my doctoral thesis defence (or viva voce as it is known in the UK)! My research, which explored the experiences of non-binary people and their language usage, was deemed of high academic standard and I am now Dr Cordoba. I have a PhD in psychology!  

It was an honour to be examined by Dr Meg-John Barker, one of the leading researchers/activists/writers in non-binary issues in the UK, and Dr Iain Williamson, a critical health psychologist at DMU who has researched health inequalities among marginalised communities (including LBGTQ+ populations). The viva was chaired by Professor Julie Fish, chair in Social Work & Health Inequalities and Director of the Centre for LGBTQ+ Research at DMU. My first supervisor Dr Zowie Davy, who is a leading scholar in trans studies, was also present, providing an enormous amount of emotional support by smiling and nodding.

Because of the current pandemic, my viva was held via Google Hangouts. I actually did not mind this, as I had most of my supervision meetings happened via Skype and I wrote most of my dissertation at home using the same desk, laptop, monitor, pens, etc. that I used during my viva. So I figured that this would actually be beneficial for me in terms of recalling my thesis, as state-dependent learning would play to my favor. It did.

The viva experience itself was much better than I expected. The examiners began by providing me with all of their positive feedback, describing in great detail the parts of the thesis they enjoyed: Its quality, its abundant philosophical underpinnings, its readability despite its complexity, and – most importantly – its clear contribution to knowledge. This of course made me very happy and I couldn’t stop smiling! Yet, this last point (the contribution to knowledge) almost made me cry tears of joy, as this is the whole point of a PhD: To say something novel about a subject matter in terms of theory, methods, findings, and/or practical applications. In some ways, that was the most perfect outcome, as I had struggled with impostor syndrome for most of my PhD, even up to submission.

I held back my tears and began accepting questions. Dr Williamson began by asking me about action research, a term I used in the first few chapters of in my dissertation but did not mention in my discussion. I explained the practical applications of my thesis: Its general importance to the LGBTQ+ community, to service providers, and to policy makers. And my intent to involve my research participants in the research process as much as possible.

He followed this question with my use of the term microaggressions, another concept I used sporadically but did not bring back into the discussion. I explained how the term was applicable to my research findings, particularly as some participants described their experiences of being misgendered using metaphors like receiving “a thousand paper cuts.” I discussed the ways in which language can have the capacity to generate distress and how this language-related distress can accumulate over time, as these microaggressions occur, and as demonstrated by my analysis.

Dr Barker then asked me about insider/outsider research and how this concept played out in my research. I explained that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, it was important for me to disclose my identity to my participants before asking them to do the same. For instance, during the interviews, I acknowledged the power imbalances that existed between me (the researcher) and them (the participants) by being upfront about my privileges: My education, cisgenderness, white-passing privilege, and being a psychologist, a field that many trans and non-binary people distrust due to its complicated history (read: pathologising). But also my insider position as a minority: A gay immigrant from Colombia, as well as low-income student trying to make it in London.

Some other questions were asked, but I honestly don’t recall them all. The viva took 2 hours. I left the Google Hangouts room and chatted with Dr Davy via Skype for about 10 minutes. I was then called back into the Google Hangouts room. The decision was reached almost immediately.

*I passed my viva (with minor corrections)! They decided that my answers were satisfactory and delivered clearly and effectively, as if I knew exactly what they were going to ask me. I didn’t – but I did prepare for weeks! I was asked to write a page or two about the practical applications of my thesis, using some of the aforementioned concepts. Also, of course, to fix some typos (which is normal), as well as noting where some participants’ quotes came from (either interviews or short writings). These were the ‘minor correction’ – easily achievable! 🙂

I celebrated with my supervisor and my partner via Skype right after, and then I told my entire family and closest friends. We laughed and cried, and I was very happy to bring some good news to all of them amid this global crisis. My sister actually wrote a lovely story about my success on her LinkedIn blog (rough translation here).

I’m extremely happy with this outcome and I am honestly so impressed with myself for having completed a dissertation that is not only a contribution to knowledge, but that was written in my second language. There was a time (when I started my PhD) when I had no doubt that this would happen – I was hyped after having finished my MA in CCNY! However, a great deal of doubt emerged during my PhD. And there was a time (around year two) when I didn’t think I was going to be be able to finish. Anxiety kicked in and I felt lost and confused.

I found that these intrusive thoughts were not without reason. I encountered people who planted doubt in me about my abilities – and who projected their own insecurities onto me. For instance, a fellow psychologist told me that my project was merely ‘purporting to be psychological,’ that it was ‘unscientific’ (and motivated by interest), and that it was not impactful. According to them, this was because I was intending to use qualitative research methods, focussing on the social and linguistic elements of my participants’ experiences. This same individual also told me that they “didn’t believe in privilege” after I explained to them what I meant by my insider/outsider position as a researcher. Clearly, they were blinded by their own privilege. Nevertheless, these experiences negatively impacted me – more than they should have. They made me feel uncertain about my position as a psychologist, the value of my research, and my abilities as a researcher. An incredible sense of dread loomed over me for about a year as a result. I sought CBT therapy, which was extremely useful in helping me identify the source of my anxieties and how to tackle them – not by blaming or projecting, but by taking proactive steps to improve and relishing accomplishments.

I read a funny tweet recently about the reasons people get PhDs. It read: “there are many reasons students decide to pursue a PhD degree. one under-explored reason is revenge.” (Or as Beyoncé poetically phrased it, “the best revenge is your paper.”) I feel that. But that’s not the reason I did my mine. I accomplished a PhD because I had something to prove to myself: That despite adversity, self-doubt, unequal playing fields, and all the “–isms” that are currently ruling/ruining the world, one can always become something else – something better – if one wishes to do so. And I am determined. I have once again regained my strength, my conviction, and a sense of faith in myself.

I am a PhD in psychology and you may call me Dr Cordoba. I look forward to sharing my research and continuing to generate, teach, and share knowledge. Watch this space.