Our “Meet the Scholar” interview for the upcoming Spring 2017 Sociology of Children and Youth (CY) newsletter is with Kate Henley Averett. Kate is an assistant professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where she teaches courses in gender and sexuality, race/class/gender, and family. Kate's research falls generally within the areas of gender, sexuality, childhood, education, and the family. She is broadly interested in how gender and sexuality, as social institutions, shape experiences of childhood and parenting. Kate received her B.A. in Religion from Mount Holyoke College in 2004, her M.Div from Harvard University in 2008, and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016.
Ann Beutel (CY Publications Committee Member) asked Kate the following questions:
Ann: Your initial academic training was in religion—you have a B.A. in religion and an MDiv. How did you end up as a sociologist studying children? Have your religious studies informed your research on children? If so, how?
Kate: I started college as a math major, but realized pretty early on that I was enjoying the electives I was taking in the religion department at Mount Holyoke a lot more than my math classes, so I ended up majoring in religion and minoring in math. After college, I worked as a youth minister for a year before going to Harvard for my M.Div. At the time, I didn’t think I wanted to pursue a career in academia – I saw myself doing some sort of work with LGBTQ youth in a non-profit or educational setting. But I took a course during my first year called “The Spirituality of LGBT Youth” that really piqued my interest in the academic study of children and youth. By the time I finished my M.Div, I was pretty sure that I wanted to continue in academia, but I found myself frustrated with what I perceived as a lack of consensus around methodology in the study of religion. I took a couple of years off, working as a nanny and reading voraciously, and once I realized that what I was most enjoying reading was works by qualitative sociologists, I decided – having never taken a single sociology course! – to apply for doctoral programs in sociology. I started working on my PhD in sociology in the fall of 2010 at the University of Texas at Austin.
The book that was most influential in my making this decision was C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag. I was drawn to Pascoe’s analysis of the institutional factors that shaped how masculinity played out on an interactional level at the school where she did her fieldwork. I found myself wondering how these institutional practices might look different in religious schools, especially those with conservative teachings on gender and sexuality, and how that added layer of religious doctrine might influence how students experience and enact gender and sexuality. When I applied to doctoral programs in sociology, this was the project that I proposed undertaking. While this isn’t the dissertation project I ended up doing, my religious study has definitely still informed my research, more broadly by making me attuned to how the cultural beliefs and practices of parents influence their child-rearing practices, and more specifically in my research on the homeschooling movement. While homeschooling has always served as a container for multiple ideological perspectives and has grown more diverse of late, there are still a large number of families who undertake the practice because they see their religious beliefs as incompatible with public education.
Ann: Can you tell me about the book you are writing based on your dissertation research on the homeschooling movement?
Kate: My dissertation was a mixed-methods examination of the homeschooling movement, for which I surveyed over 650 homeschooling parents, conducted in-depth interviews with 46 of these parents across different religious and political beliefs, and attended multiple homeschooling conferences and conventions as a participant observer. I’m currently writing a book based on this research, in which I argue that the homeschooling movement – particularly, its growth in popularity and acceptability in the last decade – can be understood as the product of two interrelated social trends: increased polarization of views on childhood gender and sexuality, and neoliberal education reform, including increased acceptance among parents of the rhetoric of school choice. The book illuminates some of the competing discourses about children and youth currently circulating in the United States, and I argue that these discourses, which represent very different ways of understanding what childhood is, what children need, and who can best provide it, can help us understand a lot about larger debates about childhood and education. I’m currently in the process of writing the manuscript and preparing to send my book proposal to editors. I’m really excited about the book, in part because I think it will be of interest to sociologists in a wide range of sub-disciplines, including children and youth, gender, sexuality, family, education, and religion.
Ann: What research on children will you conduct once your book is done?
Kate: I have a few projects in mind that should keep me occupied for at least the next 10 years! The research I’m planning on working on next, however, is a project that builds upon my homeschooling research in some interesting ways. One of the reasons I was drawn to study homeschooling in the first place was because of what I saw as an increase in rhetoric about homeschooling as a possible individual-level solution to bullying, particularly gender- and sexuality-based bullying. One of the questions I asked the homeschooling parents that I interviewed for my current project was about the peer dynamics of homeschooled children, and how they saw them being similar to, or different from, peer dynamics in schools. One of the really interesting themes that came up repeatedly in these interviews was the belief that the structure of contemporary public schooling – its compulsory nature, clear adult/child hierarchy, age segregation, and the strict rules required for one teacher to maintain order in a classroom of 20-30 students – contributes to the culture of bullying in schools. This led me to wonder what peer relationships look like in schools that are structured differently, particularly those in which children have more choice in what they do in school. In the next year, I am hoping to begin laying the groundwork for an ethnographic study of peer relationships in a school or schools that use a democratic or free-school model. In these schools, children are not segregated by age, and students have decision-making power both in the running of the school more generally and in what they learn and do on any given day. I want to know, are there major differences in how students interact in these settings, given a very different structural environment?
Ann: You just finished your first year as an assistant professor. How did it go? What advice do you have for members of the CY section who will be starting assistant professor positions in the fall?
Kate: Overall, my first year as an assistant professor went really well, despite some early landlord issues that resulted in moving twice in two months (which I don’t recommend doing)! I’m really grateful to my new colleagues in the sociology department at the University at Albany, SUNY for making the transition from graduate student to faculty go as smoothly as it did. I would say the hardest part – which I didn’t fully anticipate – was how different it was to teach at a different institution. While there are ways in which my students at UAlbany are very similar to my students at UT Austin, there are other ways in which they differ. One piece of advice I have for those starting assistant professor positions, then, is to talk to various people at your new institution about the undergraduate culture at the institution, and to get advice on the particularities of the student body you’ll be teaching. A related piece of advice is to establish mentoring relationships, whether formal or informal, with multiple faculty members in your department. And finally, don’t underestimate the importance of relationships of support from other new faculty members. I was really lucky to be one of three new faculty in my department this year, and we’ve figured out various ways to support each other, from getting together to write, to sharing bits of information about the often-confusing university bureaucracy, to spending time together socially with our spouses/partners. I’ve also kept in close touch with some of my cohort-mates from UT who are also new faculty, working on post-docs, or finishing up their dissertations. We “meet” via Skype once or twice a month to check in and workshop things we’re working on, and it’s been really helpful having that support from people who know me, and my work, really well.
Ann: Do you have any hobbies or other interests that you would like to share with the Children and Youth newsletter readers?
Kate: One of the best things about moving back to the Northeast has been being close to my family. I like to spend as much time as possible with my siblings and my nieces and nephews, who are spread out across New England. I’ve also, for reasons that are probably self-evident, become more of a politics junkie in the past year than I had ever imagined I would – I’ve actually willingly watched CSPAN on more than one occasion in the last few months. I also really enjoy reading fiction, especially mysteries/thrillers, though I’ve been on a major dystopian fiction kick lately (probably for similar reasons to the newfound political obsession).
Section on Children and Youth