A Word of Advice from … Associate Professor of History Dana Simmons

Associate Professor of History Dana Simmons describes the socioeconomic conditions that impair some students' academic experience and presses the importance of getting them recognized

Professor Dana Simmons
Thomas Holguin/HIGHLANDER

Professor Dana Simmons has been teaching at UCR for 12 years and has certainly made her mark. Simmons first began researching how modern minimum architecture relates to minimum measures of life. This resulted in her first book, “Vital Minimum: Need, Science and Politics in Modern France.” Throughout her time as a professor, she has devoted her time to studying the history of science, feminist theory, architecture, modern Europe, food insecurity, poverty and welfare. Through her work as the faculty co-organizer for the UCR Science Studies group, an organization that is dedicated to advancing minority students in the field of science and technology studies, she continues to advance her students and the UCR community in its pursuit of knowledge.

The discussion has been lightly edited for clarity.

Evan Ismail: What first got you interested in the history of science and technology?

Prof.  Simmons: So, I have a bit of a winding path. I started off studying architecture; I wanted to be an architect, with a minor in visual arts. I was a printmaker, designer, architect, and then I went on from there and I got an M.A. in art history but I decided that field was not as exciting to me as the one I saw friends studying next door, who were in the history department, so I transferred and ended up in history. I work on history of science also through architecture.

Ismail: How does history of science and architecture correspond?

Simmons: I noticed that architects in the 1920s and 30s — modernist architects — were obsessed with minimum standards, minimum housing. And they were citing all these sociologists and chemists and physiologists so I thought that was really odd and intriguing and I started following the footnotes and the footnotes ended up being my research project.

Ismail: Your research interests are identified, among others, as political economy and feminist theory. How do your interests in science and technology intersect with things like political economy and feminist theory?

Simmons: Something that really drives me that I keep turning back to is the way in which knowledge produces social categories and politics around social categories and then how people negotiating social categories in the political world create or create spaces for new forms of knowledge.

Ismail: How do you think students fit into that?

Simmons: I think we do everyday I would argue. That by thinking about what it means to be a student and what students should have access to; what’s the social status of a student? What are the politics of being a student? We live those things. We live those things everyday and you negotiate them. What does being a student provide access to and what does being a student close off? Those things are not fixed, those things have histories. So that’s what I’m interested in is how (do) those things get negotiated in institutional spaces but also in terms of how we think about them; how certain categories get labeled, how they get associated with certain rights and certain restrictions.

Ismail: How does science and technology intertwine with your study of poverty, welfare and even food insecurity?

Simmons: So that question has been with me also for a very long time from when I started thinking about minimum standards at the very beginning. I’m interested in how we define hunger, how we define food insecurity, how we define nutrition and nutritional needs because those definitions open access and close access to certain goods and certain services … like having a right to a basic amount of food or not. For different kinds of people at different times, young people, old people, who get divided up depending on the time by race, by gender, by age. How that gets negotiated, that gets negotiated in a sphere of knowledge but it also gets negotiated in the sphere of politics. What I am really excited about with this project I am working on about hunger is that I’m trying to work in both of those areas at the same time. So at the same time, I am doing research on the history of the physiology of hunger and ideas about hunger; psychology, sociology, economics and the history of welfare around hunger, welfare policies, like the school lunch program. But I’m also really committed to the UCR basic needs working group and its mission and other student groups that are pushing for the university, for the state, to rethink what it means to be a student and what students should have access to. So trying to work through in my own life that combination of creating knowledge and practice and politics.

Ismail: With all that being said, with your work on the Basic Needs Committee and all of the research that you do, how does that impact how you interact with your students and how you teach your courses?

Simmons: I would flip it around. I would say that I’ve learned from my students. I’ve learned so much from my students and my commitment and my ability to even see these things together around hunger comes from contact with students and with staff serving students. I owe the community of students as much, if not more, than what I bring to the table. John Dewey, the philosopher, has this wonderful line about conversation and how the function of conversation is to open lifeworlds and to expand those lifeworlds. I feel like that’s what conversation with students has done for me. My lifeworld is much broader now after 10 years than teaching here than it was walking in the door. And it’s not just the books that I’ve read.

Ismail: Transitioning into one of your research projects, you do research on Imposter’s Syndrome. What is Imposter’s Syndrome?

Simmons: This is a theory that emerged in the 1970s that suggested that women in particular (the people who came up with this theory thought it applied most strongly to women) became afraid of acknowledging their own achievement. The result was that — and this is particularly women in fields like academia, business, medicine — they felt like imposters. They felt like they were, the position that they got to, they had obtained because of luck, that their achievements, that any recognition of their achievements, should be discounted for one reason or another. The label “syndrome” is attached to it later. But the original psychologists, these were feminist psychologists who were trying to explain their experience and the experience of their students who they felt were holding themselves back.

I would say that I’ve learned from my students. I’ve learned so much from my students … I owe the community of students as much, if not more than what I bring to the table.

Ismail: What motivated you to start research on Imposter’s Syndrome?

Simmons: I studied this because some years ago I read an article in Slate about Imposter’s Syndrome and I thought, “Oh my gosh that explains everything. That’s me!” And a friend of mine invited me to come to a conference on faking and I thought, “Well, I’ll just talk about this experience.” And so I started looking into the history of this concept. And I discovered this insane story of psychologists who came up with a theory that you could explain the rise, literally, the rise and fall of civilizations, can be explained by an innate need to achieve, or motivation to achieve. These are psychologists in the 1960s, back when you know, some of them thought they could explain everything! They are giving these psychological tests to mainly young men to measure their need for achievement which they associate with entrepreneurialism, with modernity. They also go to Japan, Brazil, they go to all these places to measure national need for achievement which they associate with development, for modernity, with being modern. And even want to even instill programs that will modernise people by changing their motivation. But they have one problem is that they can get that test to work on all populations around the world except girls and women. Their test, the setup doesn’t work. So it’s their students, the female students of these psychologists who come up with these explanations that the reason why it’s not working is because women and girls respond to particular expectations and their afraid of the social repercussions of success.

Ismail: And you said that you felt that described you?

Simmons: Yes, but then going in and looking through this, I started to think, the last bit of it, these feminist psychologists developed a particular cure for Imposter’s Syndrome which was a group therapy cure where women would sit around in a group therapy session women would come to realize collectively that they actually were high achievers, that they were discounting their own achievements. They were able to kind of talk their way out of it. And I came to realize while thinking about this that that kind of setup sort of … attempted to cure. The interesting thing about that too is that at the same time this line of theorization is emerging around women. There is another line that applies the same model to African-American students, of both genders, and whereas feminist psychologists developed a kind of cure for Imposter’s Syndrome for women and girls, African-Americans are understood, often by the same psychologists, as “incurable.” That their social station, or historical baggage, prevents them from gaining this feeling of a need to achieve. So I’m also interested in thinking about that split and why it happened and why it happened at the time that it did. But that also made me realize that I need to rethink the whole reason why I started this project was to cure, and cure myself, and to rethink that and to realize “No, that’s actually not the goal I want to achieve.” I don’t want to cure myself, I don’t want to participate in a project that’s restricted if it ends up in perpetuating this same split that I found happening in the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, cure is not the right model to think about at all with this that actually these feelings can express legitimate and very useful orientations toward work and that it’s uncomfortable and it’s troubling and sometimes the places that we work in are not fully just and discomfort with that is okay. So that’s where it ended up at the very end.

Ismail: So, do you think that can resonate with students, that students can feel Imposter’s Syndrome in some aspects?

Simmons: I definitely know from conversations with students that sense of Imposter’s Syndrome. In fact, I’ve noticed that from conversations with colleagues and people of all genders and ages that that feeling is very common. Even though historically it was associated with a particular group, the feeling itself seems to be very common. And in particular, I think it’s really relevant to think about why and how that feeling gets produced in a particular place like this especially with a lot of first generation students, people who may feel for any reason that they’re not entitled to be here by birth, or something like that. Realizing that those feelings can be very powerful tools with which to approach the material that you are studying. There’s a Chicana scientist in New Mexico, whose name I’m not remembering … she mentors a lot of first generation students, and tells them “Bring your whole self to the table” even though it may not feel like that whole table is designed for your whole self; bring your whole self to the table. And if it feels uncomfortable then that’s part of what you learn and part of your knowledge and what you can then bring to the conversation.

Ismail: With that being said, incorporating your study of Imposter’s Syndrome and food insecurity and political economy, all of the things you look at, study and learn from. What advice would you give to students who might want to go into your field?

Simmons: First of all, research is a wonderful thing. The door to research is always open and any faculty member whose door you walk in and say “I want to do research” will be thrilled. I would put in a pitch for students who run into something they find curious or interesting, go for it. Find somebody, ask questions, knock on doors. I would say that I’ve noticed over time, that students who ask questions, because there is a lot of stuff that goes on in a university is not written down anywhere. Some people call it the hidden curriculum. It’s the stuff that it’s assumed you know. Figuring out that hidden curriculum requires asking lots of questions. So don’t ever hesitate to ask people questions, fellow students who have been through something, staff members, because that hidden curriculum exists and it’s something to figure out. If you find something, or if something seems off, pursue it.

Ismail: What would you say to students who are struggling with the issues you study? For example, a student who struggles with food insecurity, comes from a low income or first generation household or even feel that they have Imposter’s Syndrome?

Simmons: Again, what the scientist tells to her students: Bring your whole self to the table. I think that’s a really powerful piece of advice. One thing that I love about teaching a large class, I teach world history which has 500 students, and what’s amazing, in that classroom, any single event that I can mention, particularly a moment of violence and displacement and migration, I can guarantee that someone in that room will have a family connection to it. That’s incredibly valuable. But, recognizing the value of that, recognizing that that family knowledge is something that is unique and the kinds of questions and the kinds of things you might be sensitive to because of that family knowledge is unique. There are things I wouldn’t guess if not having contact with that. You can read all you want, being sensitive to certain gestures or certain hierarchies or to certain ways of representing things, saying things or not saying things: That’s a unique form of knowledge. Oftentimes, that’s the forms of knowledge that don’t get written in the standard histories. So, it might feel marginal, it might feel irrelevant, even inferior possibly because it may not be represented in a standard account. But I would argue it’s precisely those things that are valuable and interesting and need to be talked about.

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