Collaboration, Mothering, and Doula Work in Anthropology at Butler University


Julie Searcy, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Butler University, consistently exceeds all conventional expectations for academic success—in teaching, publishing, and service—while simultaneously embracing and amplifying practices that are often undervalued by the academy: openly bringing her identity as a mother to all aspects of her work, focusing on subjects that have traditionally been seen as “women’s concerns,” and engaging in sustained—and quite productive—research collaborations.

Julie began to be interested in the field of reproductive anthropology when she started her master’s program and her first pregnancy at the same time; graduate school became a space to explore the larger experience of pregnancy and motherhood. She went into labor with her first baby right after a seminar on Bakhtin’s “grotesque body” and “vividly remembers thinking about labor as a space of excess embodiment.” After that, academic work was never abstract but always about the fleshy embodied material world. These experiences and realizations, along with her work as a community birth doula, have led to the many avenues of research she continues to develop, all of which explore interactions of birth, race, socio-economic status, and illness. Julie’s record in both research and teaching are “phenomenal,” notes colleague Tom Mould, Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at Butler University. After she served as a lecturer in the department while finishing her doctoral research, her colleagues at Butler recognized her incredible strengths and found a way to offer her a tenure-track position. Tom states that her “teaching is off the charts” and that “she is on fire with research.”

One of Julie’s recent research projects is funded through The Wilma Gibbs Moore Fellowship awarded by Indiana Humanities. Along with longtime collaborator Angela Castañeda, Professor of Anthropology at DePauw University, Julie is pursuing a project titled “Obstetric Racism in Indiana: How Hoosier Doulas Resist Anti-Black Racism in Birth.” Tom points out that this project spotlights race and socio-economic status in the context of birth; this work is both important and relevant in Indiana, where overall Black maternal mortality rates—and rates of other adverse outcomes for Black pregnant and birthing people—are third worse in the nation.

This summer, Julie reports she has been having fun completing extensive interviews for two projects. For the Indiana Humanities project, she explains, she and Angela want to engage in oral histories to capture what the doulas working with Black clients are seeing in the many worlds they straddle—home and hospital, birthing person and nursing staff, Black and white cultures, etc. In one interview, a Black, queer doula described being with a trans man giving birth at a teaching hospital, with residents continually moving in and out of the birthing space and nurses continually mis-gendering the client. Julie points to the important work queer doulas do as they care for birthing people whose identities are outside of the perceived norms.
In the second project they’re working on this summer, Julie and Angela—along with a colleague, Ellen Block—are looking at how the work of doulas has been impacted by Covid. They recognize doulas are uniquely positioned to speak about the birth experience because they serve clients at home, and at a variety of different hospitals. This summer’s interviews follow up on a related, previous qualitative survey which garnered five hundred responses from twenty-one countries; they’re asking questions such as “How has the pandemic changed your practices?” and “What, if any, virtual care do you now give?” Hospitals have placed new limitations on doulas since the pandemic began, with some hospitals restricting access so that only certified doulas can be with birthing people; some hospitals have gone further, limiting hospital access only to doulas certified through specific programs they have designated. The challenges facing pregnant and birthing people highlight ongoing racial injustices in Indiana and further afield, and these challenges show the value of exploring the roles doulas can play in advancing reproductive justice.

Embracing Multiple Identities
Early in her career, Angela says, she understood that it was taboo to talk about one’s identity as a mother in a university setting. She hopes that administrators can now remember that professors and instructors need to bring their whole selves to work and to feel that all of their identities are valued and seen. Approaches that Julie uses and Angela hopes others will emulate are to “recognize” and “honor” faculty identities, “listen” to their experiences, and “allow” them to be their full, authentic selves in their professorial work.

Angela notes that she and Julie share several identities—they were growing their families at the same time, and they were able to support each other as working mothers in the academy. Angela calls herself “blessed” to have experienced this research relationship which has also grown into a friendship. In “Making Space for Mothering: Collaboration as Feminist Practice,” published on the Cultural Anthropology website, the two authors draw explicit connections between collaboration, feminist concerns, and their identities as “mother-scholars.”

Julie’s four children—now fourteen, twelve, nine, and seven—were all born during her years in graduate school. She and her husband took their three older children to South Africa (she was pregnant with their fourth) so she could conduct her dissertation research on how the high rates of HIV infection were affecting pregnant people and their birth experiences. What was clear in this “vibrant, complex place,” she states, was how race clearly dictated the experiences of birth, and what was really troubling was how different the birth experience was between public and private hospital settings. HIV, she explains, was the primary focus of public care, but it was never mentioned in her interviews with those who had been in private health settings. Her interviews showed that HIV—and HIV testing—was the primary focus of prenatal care in the public health clinics; by contrast, the subject didn’t even come up for those who had access to private healthcare. This research led her to “try to untangle how class and race are tangled up,” as she puts it.

Ironically, Tom points out, while women in the academy are often discouraged from discussing their roles as mothers, they can also often be penalized in student evaluations if they are not “maternal enough.” Tom reports that Julie is “inherently empathetic and sincere,” and these attributes serve her well both in the classroom and in her fieldwork. Building relationships in fieldwork can be tough, Tom says, but Julie’s nature helps bridge the gaps between herself and those she focuses on in her research, as well as with her students.

Tom learned about one of Julie’s practices when they both served as Social Justice and Diversity Fellows at Butler—a group of faculty members who met on alternate weeks throughout the academic year. The Fellows took turns sharing helpful classroom strategies, and one of the approaches that Julie shared focused on helping students to examine their own values, both for themselves and as relating to values embraced by other cultures. Julie’s students had access to a deck of cards, each of which presented one value. During the semester, she had them shuffle the deck from time to time and consider how they might change their own ranking of the importance of different values. Tom notes that this approach is a fantastic way to have students personally engage in the material—getting students to reflect without being overbearing and without dictating a static worldview. He points out that this practice demonstrates Julie’s strengths as a professor.

Embracing Women’s Concerns
Angela points out that it is important to bring female-centered work into academic spaces through publishing as well as by including such information in course content. Such a focus is connected to the care work that doulas engage in, she explains, and that’s why she and Julie feel that it is valuable to amplify that work. As Julie conducted her field research in South Africa while pregnant, she really understood how “one can’t be disembodied as a scholar.” The people she interviewed saw her simultaneously as a mother and a scholar—but this dual perception never led people in South Africa to see her as “less than”—or her work as somehow less important. In South Africa, she also saw firsthand how people are much more open to intergenerational spaces—having children included in a variety of settings is much more normalized there than in the United States.

While many professors and instructors feel they should keep their interests as mothers and about mothers separate from their academic work, Julie brings these interests and attitudes into the classroom, and students respond enthusiastically. According to Tom, Julie gives students in her classes the “space to re-envision their world views” by challenging them to think about who they are—and such self-reflection can fundamentally change students’ lives.
Julie brings her research interests—which necessarily touch on motherhood—into the classroom in a variety of ways. In her Introduction to Anthropology class, she shows the film Babies early in the term. This film shows the experiences of four babies in vastly different parts of the world as they move through their first year of life. She asks the students what they noticed, then repeats the experience near the end of the term; she reports that it’s fun for the students to notice the additional insights they have gained by engaging with the course material throughout the semester.

Julie has doulas and midwives speak to her classes, including one called Reproductive Technologies. This class examines transnational surrogacy, racial dynamics of reproduction, and many kinds of reproductive loss that aren’t often considered in reproductive conversations. She is also overseeing undergraduate researchers working on a Covid project; they observed interviews before conducting interviews of their own, and they will begin coding the data this fall.

Embracing Collaborative Work
Angela points out that collaboration is often undervalued in many academic disciplines, particularly as administrators make tenure and promotion decisions. She points out—despite the pervasive emphasis on individual research—that anthropological research is never solitary. Though a single author may be listed, the reality of group effort is revealed in the multiple people authors thank in the acknowledgements sections of their publications. Additionally, Tom says, the nature of anthropological fieldwork is inherently collaborative, both with interviewees and with other scholars. Angela also explains that tenure and promotions committees often try to pin down percentages of work that each collaborator contributed to a publication; this attitude fails to understand the nature of truly collaborative work in which collaborators both fully contribute to every aspect of research and writing. As Angela analogizes, “If we’re playing an instrument, it’s valuable to play with others!”

Julie seeks to bring the values of collaboration to the forefront, honoring this approach in her research, teaching, and community work. Angela states that she and Julie have collaborated for over a decade, and that she wouldn’t have been able to be nearly as productive without their partnership. When they began working together, Angela recalls, she at first thought her role would be as a mentor to Julie as a junior scholar. “It quickly became apparent,” she says, “that she was mentoring me just as much as I mentored her!” Such egalitarian, inclusive collaborations can enrich academia, Angela points out; they can provide information and perspectives often lost in hierarchical power structures that reinforce exclusionary gatekeeping practices.

Julie reports that she knew Butler would be supportive of her whole-person approach to research and teaching when future colleagues spoke openly about their experiences as mothers in the academy at a lunch during her on-campus interview. She is grateful that Butler, from the president and provost on down, encourages and supports her in such work. Angela says that Julie is “One of the most generous people I know—she is heartfelt and sincere in all aspects of her life,” including the classroom, her scholarship, her community work, and how she lives her life. “She gives so much of her time, energy, and whole self” to every endeavor, with threads of generosity and care threading through every aspect of her life and work. Such authenticity—and the university setting that allows and encourages it—is admirable and provides a model for institutions of higher education around the world.

About the Author
Cynthia Mwenja, PhD, teaches Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Montevallo and is a staff writer for PUPN Magazine.