Meet Susan Walker Woolley: Educational Ethnographer

February 08, 2012

There has been overwhelming interest in AAUW’s most recent research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. This attention does not surprise Susan Walker Woolley, a 2010–11 American Fellow whose dissertation corroborates the report’s findings.

Woolley conducted three years of ethnographic research at a large public high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. She followed peer-education outreach efforts aimed at fighting homophobia and transphobia that were organized by students in the school’s gay-straight alliance club. Students addressed gaps in the academic curricula and the policies aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. Woolley investigated the school’s formal sex, gender, and sexuality curricula that are taught in three freshman social studies courses and analyzed the ways students and teachers constructed and challenged safe spaces for dealing with differences. She focused on how these safe environments were negotiated among students and teachers within the curricula, social interactions, and teacher instruction and intervention as well as through students’ joking and teasing.

Woolley witnessed daily sexual and gender harassment, even at a school that already had policies and training in place. She says that there seems to be “something insidious, something so pervasive as to be unnoticed that perpetuates this kind of abuse. … I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is at the heart of what I am trying to understand in my research.”

In her study, Woolley found that students saw harassment as an ordinary part of school life. Students claimed that their high school was the best place to be LGBTQ and that it was a supportive school environment. However, in three years Woolley collected narratives about abuse, harassment, and everyday violence and found a huge disconnect between these encounters and the view of “normal” student life, exposing a cultural problem inherent in school and society. Woolley says that these social practices are so embedded in the daily lives of students that they perpetuate violence and ostracism.

Since her fellowship year, Woolley has been revising her dissertation. She presented her research to a number of scholars at international conferences, including events hosted by the American Anthropological Associationand the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture, and Society. This spring, she will present at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.

Woolley, who is about to graduate, says that she feels fortunate for her connection to AAUW, which helped her “get in touch with a network of professionals and scholars concerned about school safety for all students, education of girls and queer youth, and issues of equality and equity.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Elyssa Shildneck.


  1. Cathy Foxhoven says:

    I would love to know how to contact Susan. Would love to have her speak at an AAUW-San Mateo meeting.

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