It all started with one book review.

After an editor read Kelly Cross’s review of a culturally-responsive teaching in STEM book, she was asked if she had any of her own book ideas, which Cross did.

What began as one person’s vision grew to 320 pages, nearly 20 individual stories from members of the queer and trans community, and two co-editors.

Along with Stephanie Farrell, professor and founding department head of Experiential Engineering Education at Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, and Bryce Hughes, assistant professor of Adult & Higher Education at Montana State University, Cross was the leading editor, authored and co-authored the recently released  Queering STEM Culture in US Higher Education: Navigating Experiences of Exclusion in the Academy.

The volume focuses on the real, lived experiences of queer and trans community members in United States STEM higher education culture. With contributions from students, faculty, staff practitioners, and administrators, Queering highlights the longstanding issues of heteronormativity and marginalization across a variety of STEM disciplines.

Cross, a Virginia Tech Engineering Education alumna advised by Marie Paretti, is assistant professor of chemical engineering at Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and a recent recipient of NSF CAREER grant “GIVEN-Gaming Intervention of Values Engineers Need.”

We chatted with Cross about her writing and editing work with Farrell and Hughes, her own stories in Queering, and the raw realities of sharing queer and trans experiences through the written word.

Drs. Bryce Hughes, Stephanie Farrell, and Kelly Cross
Drs. Bryce Hughes, Stephanie Farrell, and Kelly Cross worked together to develop the autoethnography, "Queering."

How did the idea of the book come about?

I've been talking about diversity for a while, and so I was asked to review a book about culturally responsive teaching in STEM. And the editor who I submitted my review to says, “This is such a wonderful review. Do you have a book idea?”

 Colleagues have been telling me that I need to tell my story in terms of my education and how I came to be an engineer and an engineering professor, because growing up the way I grew up, no one would have predicted that I would have been an engineering professor – that wasn't on the radar. I didn’t know any engineers growing up and I didn’t know what engineering was.

And so I wrote up a quick book proposal, and the editor comes back and says, “Well, that's a great story. But I think there are some other stories out there. Would you consider doing an edited volume?”

I hadn’t thought about that – it was beyond my vision – but I said yes (after consulting with mentors)! And so as I thought, “Let me talk to a couple of people,” and I went to talk to Stephanie Farrell. We had a great conversation and she goes, “Yes, Kelly, I think we can do this.” And so I told the editor, “Yes! We can do it.”

"And then I just came up with a plan; and the engineer in me needs a plan. It’s one thing to have a vision, but it’s really about the nuts and bolts of how you do it, right? "

Those were the keys to the book. So, one, establishing my leadership with the co-editors; the book was definitely a team effort. 

And so, I pitched it to Farrell and to Bryce Hughes, and they both said, “Yes, let’s do this.” We went back to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Leadership Virtual Community of Practice, and recruited our authors from that group. After that, I just made up a call and advertised it a little bit more broadly to see if there were other people who might be interested in writing.

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What was it like to narrow down the submissions? How did you manage that process for such personal stories?

In the call we had, authors also had to submit a book chapter proposal, and then Stephanie, Bryce and I discussed those as a group. I knew that I wanted a range of experiences. Even in terms of my own identities and having many intersecting identities, I knew I wanted a range of experiences; I knew I wanted students, faculty and administrators. We as team agreed that the variance in experience would provide richness for the text. 

And so, based on the submissions that we got, we were able to actually distribute that fairly evenly. And then a couple of chapters were added from academic professionals who, again, add another layer to the intersecting identities and what was experienced.

There were only a few that we actually didn’t accept, and it was just because it was either a little bit beyond the scope of the book, or it was just bad timing and the author couldn't meet the deadline. So it was really a very natural process. Once the authors submitted their proposals, it was more so about sorting, rather than really editing anyone out. 

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What was it like to share your experiences, your life, in written form, knowing it would be published and shared with many people?

We chose autoethnography specifically because it's consistent with Critical Theory, where you use the person's voice. We selected intersectionality, because we wanted to look at the whole person, all of who they were, and not try to parse anything out. We wanted to bring that richness and complexity to the book, which is also consistent with the editing team’s current research areas. And so the methodology and all of those various theories, they were chosen specifically to, one, put the voice of the writers at the forefront. But then, two, let the authors tell their own story in their own words.

And again, I know this idea kind of started with me because I wanted to tell my own story. And in my chapter I do; I walk through my academic career and some things have happened, some hostilities that I’ve experienced because I was an openly gay person, and what that meant. But the other thing, methodologically that was really, really important, because we selected autoethnography, is that we also had to check with the people that we identify in our story. We were adamant that it was the author's responsibility to make sure that those people were okay with the content. So even though it's your story, as you start naming other people in your story, you need to check if they're okay.

In terms of my individual chapter, it's a part of my academic career talking about different situations where some were hostile, and some were more inclusive. I talk about some of the important things that Marie Paretti did with me as a graduate student that were really critical to my development as a scholar and learning to hear my own voice. Marie’s taught me a lot, but one thing she taught me, she said, “You know, Kelly, I can get you through a dissertation. You're clearly smart enough to do the dissertation. But I can't teach you how to be a gay faculty member. I don't know what that looks like.”

"And so she introduced me to colleagues that could help me unpack and figure out what it looks like for me to be an openly gay faculty member in a college of engineering."

That was really instrumental, it was really key. Even one of the goals of the book is we hope that queer students, whether they’re out or not, can see themselves in this book.

Growing up the way that I grew up, I didn't know any engineers. I didn't know any faculty members. I'm the first person in my family to get a Ph.D. I didn't have any point of reference of what it looked like to be a faculty member.

So, seeing queer faculty members was important for my identity to say, “Oh, like I could just be myself; it's okay.” That was really important. And at the time I didn't know it. But that was a really, really important thing for Marie to introduce me so that I can see, “Oh, that’s what a queer faculty member looks like.” They function and they do research and teaching like just everybody else, right?

And so my point is, I hope that other advisors can embrace what Marie did, and say, “Okay. This part of your identity, I'm not saying I don't support it. I'm just saying I can't quite understand it, so let me help you get some other mentors that can support this identity development.” That's the message that we’re trying to expose in the book. That again, it’s a little thing. It wasn't a policy change. It wasn’t this great, big grand gesture. It was a small thing, but it became really important.

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How do you hope readers will be impacted by the book?

Well, first and foremost, I hope that queer people get to see themselves in engineering. That's number one, is that they can see they’re not the only one experiencing what you’re going through, and you’re not alone in your experience. Because we tend to think like, “Oh, this is only happening to me,” or that it's an isolated situation.

Then, also we have chapters towards the end in terms of allies. I want this book to be a resource for those people who want to be an ally, who want to do better, but don't even know where to start, or don't know what language to use, or don’t know who to ask. So, there is a chapter where one of the authors outlines her journey as an ally, and she talks about how she didn’t start out knowing what to do. It was a journey.

So, those are the two main audiences for me; was that one, that queer people know that they are represented and the people who are willing to support queer people by starting their own ally journey. In the book we show academic excellence, that we have families, that we pay taxes like everybody else, right? And so, for me, I dedicated this book to queer people of color, and I say specifically, for those who are trying to negotiate with their family, including my own.

The stories in the book: that's what they are, they are very, very personal. I was so honored by my authors in how forthcoming they were about things; it's going to be shocking how truthful they are.

"These are real and raw stories, I mean, absolutely raw.
But that's the point. We had to live it."

Remember the person who was writing this? They're talking about their own experience, not anybody else’s. And their point in sharing is if they can prevent one human being from not having to experience what they experience, it’s all worth it. We want to shine a light to show how queer people can make it through and contribute the field of engineering and STEM more broadly.