Helen Mae Cothrel: PER Identity as Its Constituent Parts, not Just P+E+R

posted by Helen Mae Cothrel, Kettering University on

My PER identity begins at my identity. I am a young, queer, disabled woman with mental illness working in a field in which I am far outnumbered. It continues through my educator identity (I knew I wanted to be some kind of teacher about a decade before I ever took a physics class) and my physics identity (I am an experimentalist). It ends at my research identity. I love collecting, pouring over, and sharing qualitative data about students, particularly data that I get through conversations or interviews with students. I do not have a research group, and operate in the realm of “Solo PER.”

To be transparent, I am still finding my place in PER, and often have conflicting feelings about whether I belong. I feel isolated within my department as the “PER person” and as someone who does not have a PhD. I feel isolated within the PER community as someone without a research group and as someone who does not have a PhD. My path toward PER was indirect and painful. I am envious of students now who start doing PER as undergrads; I didn’t know PER existed until my second attempt at graduate school. 

However, now that I am here, I feel it is one of the only spaces in which I can really be myself. 

Education research gives me a chance to pursue my values in a way that physics does not. Students are my first priority. Students amaze me. Physics is pretty cool, I guess. I have a lot of human feelings, and want to learn more about our students’ human feelings. I have multiple disabilities that make traditional lecture + textbook courses disproportionately challenging, and want to advocate for increasing access to physics through thoughtful curriculum design. As a physics major who became an education researcher, I have great respect for the many paths our students may take after graduation, and want to support them. Qualitative research is how I can center all of these things in my work. 

So I arrive at my PER identity as someone who cares deeply about students and is enthusiastic about qualitative research and storytelling, but is a little lost at the moment in the grand scheme of things.

Tags: Identity  Solo PER  

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