PERC 20/20 Organizers on PER Identity

posted by Beth Cunningham, AAPT; Lin Ding, The Ohio State University; Alexis V. Knaub, Michigan State; and Steve Maier, Northwestern Oklahoma State on


You may ask what this Blog is for? Well, we—the 2020 PERC Organizing Committee—have been working hard to prepare our community for the incoming conference next year. As you may already know, the theme of the 2020 PERC is about the history, current and future of physics education research. In other words, as the PER community continues to move forward, we need to take a pause and ask ourselves some critically important and yet easily forgotten questions, such as who we really are, what we really do, and why we do what we do. These questions are closely tied to the ultimate identities of ourselves. That’s why we created this space for our community, not only as a venue to reflect upon ourselves and/or our work but also as an opportunity for us to share with each other the key features about ourselves (be they professional or personal) that we haven’t yet got a chance to show through our published research.

Remember, this is a friendly and safe space we created for you to write about yourself. So, dive in and enjoy!


Physicist --> Administrator, Friend of PER

Beth Cunningham

Reflecting on my Physics Education Research identity, I need to go back to my training as a physicist.  My doctoral research was on biologically important liquid crystals, specifically, phospholipids, and how various molecules such as fatty acids and various salts affect the structure and function of lipid bilayers.  I worked with a range of scientists including a materials scientist, a biochemist, and a veterinary scientist.  My post doctoral research was done in collaboration with a biochemist.  Being exposed to different ways of thinking through work with a variety of non-physicist collaborators was particularly valuable and enjoyable.  After I started my faculty position, I continued this line of research and collaborations.  However, my faculty position was at a primarily undergraduate institution.  The department was deeply interested in improving student learning, especially for student taking introductory physics.  The department had written their own textbook and exposed students to topics in physics that are not normally taught in the introductory course such as quantum physics using bra-ket notation and particle physics.  They also used the Force Concept Inventory for a few years in the 1990’s.  Everyone was involved in teaching introductory physics and we all had a stake in the quality of the course.  This was my first exposure to applying knowledge from physics education research to courses.  I became involved in a number of organizations that focused on undergraduate STEM education such as Project Kaleidoscope and the Council on Undergraduate Research.  I attended AAPT section meetings.  I even incorporated active learning into the upper level physics courses that I taught.  However, my formal research program continued to focus on biologically relevant materials and their physical properties. 

I made my way into higher education administration and my time focused on higher-level institutional issues that impacted students and faculty.  My formal research program on phospholipids ended since I had no time to go into the lab and work (and didn’t have a lab as the chief academic officer at Illinois Wesleyan University).  My interest in student learning continued and I also devoted time in thinking about and facilitating workshops on how to develop STEM faculty leadership.  That work continues today.  In addition, I am very interested in how we can broaden participation in physics.  Most of my recent publications (as few as they are now that my time is devoted to administrative issues) are on this topic, particularly on women in physics in the U.S.

Am I a physics education researcher?  Not in the strictest sense.  I’ve never carried out a PER study nor published in a PER journal.  I am very interested in the field and read PER articles when I have time.  I am mostly a “friend of PER” and a supporter of the field.  I am deeply honored when someone considers me a physics education researcher.  But, I have to admit that I am impersonating a physics education researcher!  I’m OK with this.  More importantly, physics education is improving because of the work that many physics education researchers are doing.  I hope that being a part of PER in some way, particularly around issues of access and equity, will make the sub-discipline better.  That’s what is most exciting about my contributions to PER through my role at AAPT.


Researcher, International Scholar/Collaborator, Human Decency

Lin Ding

Who am I in the PER community? This question immediately makes me think of a different but related question; that is, how does the PER community view who I am? In other words, my instinctive reaction to this question is to immediately turn toward the outside for a reference point. Isn’t that interesting?

Well, I do not know if I can summarize my identity into just a few lines of words. I certainly do not want to turn this into an abbreviated version of my CV, because that will seem to be missing the point.

Anyway, I think my identity is the dynamic role I play in different contexts. I claim to be a discipline-based education researcher before my education colleagues. If they further ask what exactly I do, I will tell them I do physics education research, or more specifically I study secondary and university-level students’ content learning, reasoning and epistemological development in physics. When my physics colleagues ask what I do, I tell them I was trained as a physicist and am doing research on teaching and learning of physics. If they further ask me what it is, I will tell them I research on ways to improve physics education by finding and changing potential issues in curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Although my research methodology lies mostly in the quantitative paradigm, I often pay visit to the qualitative world for ideas that I can’t get elsewhere. In that respect, I think I am a pragmatist.

I am also an international scholar, actively building collaborative relations with colleagues across the world. I enjoy working with diverse groups of people who think differently than myself and who are genuinely willing to help me see things from all sorts of angles.

Lastly, but not the least, I hold high admiration for, and have the tendency to befriend with,  those who exude human decency. After all, we are humans before we are researchers. That, I think, maybe is my ultimate identity.


PER Identity- it’s complicated

Alexis V. Knaub

When we began discussing PERC 20/20 in January, one of my co-organizers came up with the idea of “PER identity” and discussed what it could mean. The idea has given me a lot to reflect on, which I tried to succinctly capture here.

I think of Gee’s (2000) identity definition, being recognized as type of person, when I think about PER identity and myself. I have a lot of “markers” that indicate that my professional identity is attached to PER. In the past 4.5 years, I would say that I have “joined” PER in that I branched out beyond my doctoral institution. In that time, I:

  • Spent three years as a postdoc with Charles Henderson at Western Michigan

  • Participated in multiple research collaborations with those who would likely be identified as PER 

  • Had papers published in PER-relevant journals.

  • Co-organized a PERC session entitled “People of Color (POC ) in PER” for the past three years

  • Was a co-guest editor for a Focused Collection in Phys. Rev.- PER. 

And I’m now co-organizing PERC 20/20. I wrote this not to brag but to show that I’ve not been someone passively on the sidelines of this field.

Yet, despite all these markers, I don’t really feel part of PER. When I think about my own experiences, as well as colleagues and friends’ experiences in PER, I think about how concerns go unaddressed or treated as trivial things, how power structures and hierarchies (those visible and those less visible) empower some and silence others. If we think of PER identity in how PER is perceived, this is part of how I perceive PER. I imagine this impacts whether and how individuals participate in PER, and in turn, what PER looks like in terms of who conducting PER, what research is produced, etc.

This is certainly #NotAllPER. I have some amazing colleagues and true friends in PER. Some of what I described is very much academia or how people are. At the same time, I would rather have a more positive, less complicated PER identity both for myself and for this field. I find it difficult and tiring to engage with those in PER because of all of this, and I feel sad to see how all of this affects people. 


Gee, J. P. (2000). Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education. Review of Research in Education25(1), 99-125.


PER Practitioner, Collaborator, . . .

Steve Maier

Before I roll right into my PER identity piece, I’d like to share that doing so was more difficult than I’d expected. There’s a vulnerability with sharing one’s personal story and how it’s influenced them professionally, and I’ve struggled at times with being either too reclusive or overzealous in an attempt to fit in. It’s the result of an internal battle between a strong desire to identify with something grander (such as a prominent research group or project) but feeling as though I lack the currency to sit at the table.  For this piece, I have tried to walk the line -- it has been instructive and maybe it will speak to others.

At a critical point while working on this reflection, I stopped and simply asked “Why am I making this so difficult?”  What I had in front of me were three different versions consisting of

  1. a drawn out history [explanatory narrative, perhaps saving a punchline for the end]
  2. a list of factors as to why my identity is what it is [me rationalizing or providing justifications?]
  3. non-linear PER storytelling [in reality, indicating atypical origins and future]

The commentary [in brackets above] is me checking myself, questioning my own approaches.

I stepped back and recognized that these approaches in and of themselves speak volumes. But the history, factors, and PER storytelling were not really statements of what my PER identity is.  So I forced myself to blurt out loud to the wall who I thought I was in the context of “PER.”  This is what came out:

Currently, I identify as 

  • a PER-informed practitioner who is more of an onlooker and end user rather than a contributor or a known PER figure
  • a Solo PER professional, working to set up collaborations and interactions for others trying to make PER connections
  • a PER researcher trying to get back in the water

Then I breathed, and decided to briefly address the numbered list at the top of this reflection within the context of the bulleted PER identities I let flow out of me.

“History. . . “ While my PhD dissertation was in PER, it was completed at an institution without a PER group, solo or otherwise. So I’ve never felt super adept at PER.  And to be frank, some of the early interactions I had while at PERC meetings at that time (and when I was more impressionable) convinced me that before I put myself out there I really needed to “know my stuff.” I likened publishing/presenting in PER to Chopped contestants presenting their dishes to over-critical judges. To be clear, I do not care for that analogy any longer, but it is indicative of how much of an outsider I felt like for a time.

“Factors. . .” The most critical factor I’ve been faced with is that constraints dictate I will need to work with others to complete substantive PER projects.  For quite some time, I was solo in many aspects. Now I realize that if I stay in this mode by choice, I will always have the “I lack the time and resources” crutch for not engaging in new and exciting projects. There will be times that I falter, but I have committed myself to not let this be a barrier any longer.  This is a great segue to the third bulleted item.

“PER storytelling. . .” While my roots in PER aren’t as deep as others’ and my ambitions may be more humble, I am excited to be engaged in new projects. My dissertation investigated natural language usage, reasoning ability usage, and FCI performance. Now I look forward to investigating physics for social justice, DBER programmatic issues/impact/growth, and collaborations with others implementing inquiry guided curricula.  The span in scope of the projects illustrates one of the things I love about PER: The possible investigations are diverse and welcoming to creativity.

To conclude, I posit that my PER identity will have elements in common with others’.  And although the elements in common among some may be displaced by time and not match universally across all of those engaged in PER, the assorted and grouped commonalities are important for PER as a “community.”  So that’s my spin on the PERC 20/20 Emergent Themes: Within PER, shared experiences define and have great influence over the successes of our efforts as a collective whole. Our working networks, relationships, and collaboratives we establish each contribute to the overall growth and health of the community.

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