Psychology professor and her two cats write po-mo article on “multispecies inquiry”

July 18, 2018 • 2:00 pm

This is just for grins: I don’t know whether the journal Qualitative Inquiry, where this travesty was published, is taken seriously (it is, however, a SAGE journal); but I am pretty sure this article is NOT a joke or a hoax. The article is free, and may not even require the legal unpaywall app; click on screenshot below to see itL:

Susan Naomi Nordstrom is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, and Amelie and Nordstrom are her cats; or rather Amelie, whose illness and euthanasia dominates the article, was her cat. It’s not clear why the cats are coauthors given that they didn’t actually write the article.

The article is simply the story of how Amelie got sick and, after some extensive medical interventions, Dr. Nordstrom decided to have the cat euthanized, which was of course devastating. That is all there is to the story, but it’s couched in postmodern gibberish, supposedly embedding the story in “the theories of Haraway and Rautio”, which actually add nothing to the narrative. Here’s the abstract, which gives you a flavor of a publication for which the author got professional credit:

All the wordplay doesn’t obscure the fact that is is simply what many of us have gone through: bonding with a beloved pet and being devastated when it becomes terminally ill and has to be “put down”.

You can read the article for yourself; here are just a few ways that Dr. Nordstrom tricked out her personal story with postmodern academic-y trappings that, in the end, fail to transform her drayhorse into a Thoroughbred:

When Amelie, Susan’s cat companion of 15 years, recently died, a friend asked her, “Can you imagine the past 15 years of your life without her?” Susan quickly responded, “No. I cannot think my life without her” as she petted her other cat companion, Coonan. The following Haraway (2008) quote resonated in their mourning bodies: “I am who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind. Queer messmates in mortal play indeed” (p. 19). Our mortal play of subtle tunings and tendings—tuning toward and tending to affective dimensions between species (Rautio, 2017)—dominates our multispecies life together, or kin-making. A narrative of our multispecies living together moves beyond the confines of the narrative inquiry literature that is centered on humans, those “storytelling organisms who, individually and socially lead storied lives” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 2)

Had enough? Wait! There’s more! (emphases are mine):

Coonan (a much younger cat) frequently tried to play with Amelie (a more mature cat). Amelie loudly hissed and growled when Coonan tried to play with her without her consent. Susan reprimanded Coonan by saying “Consensual Play, Coonan. Consensual Play.” Coonan meowed apologies after such incidents. Gazes, sleep-dreaming together, time spent relaxing on the couch together, and so on created different affects within the system and created a sense of equilibrium in our communication system. We moved to Nebraska together and then later to Tennessee with each place shifting our system. New homes, different climates, different human schedules, and other humans shifted our system. These shifts provided ways of knowing our multispecies equilibrium.

Consensual play! Apologies! But wait! There’s still more:

We tune and tend each other in our rhythmic practices of living–dying together. We have come to realize that we are never fully cat or fully human. We are both cat and human moving between constructs in assemblages together. We move through tunings and tendings. No singular being is centered in our multispecies life. We are multiple.

What is the sweating professor trying to say? Or does she just like alliteration? Does the meaning go beyond “I have two cats whom I love”? If so, I don’t know what it is. Later Dr., Nordstrom says she didn’t intend to write the story of the death of her cat, and of her life with both cats, but was urged to do so by her friends and colleagues. They should have known better! And so she justifies her stories with the thinnest of rationales:

Why do we take the risk of authoring our life together? Why does Susan not take sole authorship as she should in a neoliberal human-centered academy? Why do we write evocatively rather than argumentatively? Why do we refuse domestication? We write our kin story to infect narrative inquiry. Our kin story, our becoming with, suggests that “companion species infect each other all time” Haraway 2016, (p. 115). We are concerned that human-centered narratives forget the response-abilities we have to each other, humans and nonhumans alike. We worry what that does for our living and dying together. In a world in which we must stay with the trouble, where we must live and die together better, stories matter a lot and how we tell those stories matters. Haraway wrote,

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. (p. 12)

We must write our living–dying together, our becoming with, to create different ties that may very well create a better and just world for both humans and nonhumans. For as Haraway wrote, “We become-with each other or not at all” (p. 4). It is for this reason that a human and two cats author together—our becoming with happens together and, consequently, so does the writing of our life together.

Now I don’t want to be churlish here: I, too, have lived with and loved cats, and held a beloved cat in my arms as the vet put him to sleep. It was so devastating that, for only the second time in my life, I fainted. (The other is when I dropped a 500-pound oak desk on my big toe, completely severing the bone.) But I don’t gussy up that that story with academic theory and cringe-making wordplay and try to publish it, pretending that it has some significance larger than the already significant lesson that we can love our animals so hard that their deaths are as devastating as the loss of a friend or family member.  I don’t try to “infect narrative inqury,” whatever that means.

Journals like Qualitative Inquiry, which are willing to publish stuff like this as a serious contribution to intellectual discourse, are seriously damaging the humanities, if they haven’t aren’t already irreparably damaged by this kind of lunacy.

And I still want to know why the two cats are authors.


59 thoughts on “Psychology professor and her two cats write po-mo article on “multispecies inquiry”

  1. The creativity of the human mind is visibly boundless – but by far not every finding can be a hit. However, it’s always worth trying, no?

  2. What nonsense – SAGE should be ashamed. My cat Marcus Clawrelius (“Pretentious? Moi?”) wanted credit for this comment, but he’s not getting it. Harsh, I know, but it’s the only way he’ll learn to type his own contributions!

    1. Pretentious? That’s a great name! If anything, you and your cats are of the People. The lowliest pleb to the greatest king can appreciate your naming.

      1. Poor Marcus earned his name the hard way. When he was found as a stray, aged about 7 years, he only had a few teeth left, but his mouth was so badly infected that they had to go too. Before removing them, the veterinarian at the rescue center commented in his notes on how friendly he was, despite being in very obvious pain. He had been given the random name “Mark” by the center, but was renamed “Marcus Clawrelius” when we adopted him in recognition of his stoicism. He’s lived up to his name since, but that’s another (even longer) story.

        1. I’m so happy he found you 🙂 What a lovely story. He’s so lucky to have found such a great person! And I’m sure you’re equally lucky to have him.

          1. Many thanks for your kind words. I’m including Marcus as a controversial co-author to this comment – luckily it doesn’t have to be peer-reviewed. Although on reflection, that isn’t necessarily a problem these days, anyway…

  3. Why does Susan not take sole authorship as she should in a neoliberal human-centered academy?

    Um… I just can’t. This has to be a lark?

    1. In the same way we have “Poe’s Law,” I think it’s time for a “PoMo’s Law” — it has become impossible to know whether a PoMo paper or idea is being honestly presented, or merely a hoax.

        1. “If it were a hoax, it would ruin her career.”

          As if claiming publication credit for that ‘Research Article’ shouldn’t?

          On BJ’s wider point, though, that Poe’s Law (or an equivalent) should apply to Pomo effusions, I think he’s right. If someone does write a parody of Pomo, how could one tell?


  4. One of my cats is nearing her latter years, and I’ll be sad when she passes. I won’t pretend to write anything on her behalf, however.

  5. How is it that the cats took on the surname of the professor? To me that smacks of totalistic humanocentric colonization.

  6. “We have come to realize that we are never fully cat or fully human.”
    Do we need a new species concept?

    1. I’ve never owned a cat. Does that affect the percent cat I am? Is this cat/human hybrid thing a universal trait, or do we only form hybrids with animals that live in our houses? My daughter has a pet snail.

      1. Based on the scientific evidence discussed above, I think your daughter should dispose of her pet immediately before becoming part snail. (Or maybe I am just showing my anti-snail bigotry.)

  7. Next we’re going to be incorporating cat “ways of knowing” into all STEM subjects. You know, humans aren’t the only ones who know how to do math. Cats simply have a different way of knowing, and failing to incorporate the “ways of knowing” of all animals just further cements the hegemony of the humanarchy.

  8. “It’s not clear why the cats are coauthors given that they didn’t actually write the article.”

    Puts me in mind of a piece in The New Yorker some years back which included poems allegedly written by dogs. This was my favorite:


    1. A poem written by my cat:
      Is that ice cream?
      You should share that.
      With me.
      Why are you keeping it all to yourself?
      I don’t want it.

    2. My dogs can only write haiku:

      We pray for pizza
      to fall on the floor. But a
      pancake would suffice.

    3. Another one (applicable to dogs, but cats may have this power as well):

      Though I am quite small
      I become hundredweight while
      Sleeping on the bed.

  9. There is an error in the 2nd line of the 2nd paragraph:
    “Susan Naomi Nordstrom is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, and Amelie and [Coonan] are her cats”

    Coonan must be a German shepherd (not a cat, far less a Maine Coon) or Nordstrom is not a true postmodern 😉

    It’s fascinating to discover a journal that offers the opportunity to increase CV by publishing personal diaries. They pretend that the articles are peer-reviewed:
    “Qualitative Inquiry (QI) provides an interdisciplinary forum for qualitative methodology and related issues in the human sciences. The journal publishes open-peer reviewed research articles that experiment with manuscript form and content, and focus on methodological issues raised by qualitative research rather than the content or results of the research. QI also addresses advances in specific methodological strategies or techniques.”

    Nordstrom’s article must be an “experiment with manuscript form and content”.

    1. How dare she only own, sorry, share her home with domesticated species? (And even “domesticated” is problematic language.) She should share it with a shark. Her different ways of knowing would guarantee its ability to live on land.

  10. Having been subjected to a graduate program in Education (I do not freely admit this shame in public, for the obvious reasons), I have seen entirely too much of this postmodern, different ways of knowing, everything is equally valid, etc drivel. This king of stuff is why I have no desire to get an attendance doctorate…. Sorry, an EdD… despite professional pressure to do so. I have neither the tenacity nor the brilliance to earn a PhD in an appropriate technical field)

    I have had the pleasure of working with two EdD’s in my time as an educator for whom I have respect. I lost count of the others many years ago. This is, in large part, why I maintain my practice as an engineer, in addition to working the education side.

    Now, my coauthor, my furry buddy, wishes to add: jydat 654w, dauj jhldsa

  11. I have to admit that after the initial impulse to make fun of the paper (which is like shooting fish in a barrel, to take one last trans-speciest jab) and then to feel outrage that intellectual discourse should come to this (even if this turns out to be a Sokalism), I feel there is something simply pathetic about the whole thing (provided it is not just Sokal-humor).
    By “pathetic” I mean not simply the sadness the professor surely feels about the loss, but that a genuine emotion should be transformed into this icy-cold, hyper-intellectualized pomo-academese. It seems strange that somehow to the (human) author this should result from or amount to an authentic expression of grief. (Though I do not doubt that to her it does).

  12. Worth noticing, perhaps, that the human/cat chimeric first author is a professor of educational psychology. As such, she (it? they?) is a not wholly untypical representative of the School of Ed mentality, which is responsible for training and credentialing the teachers of all of America’s children. The end result, in another generation, could be a hairball of a problem.

    1. The more things change, the more they stay the same. For an example of how far back nonsense goes, while still remaining in the lifetime of many readers here, recall “new math”, developed by the ed-school pros, and the more recent (30 years ago, roughly) “ways of knowing”.

      Every few years, someone makes their name by scrambling Blooms taxonomy of Maslow’s hierarchy, or some other “classic” in “the ed biz” (to quote Tom Lehrer), then rolls out a groundbreaking new theory and groundbreaking new practices that are indistinguishable from those 10, 20, 50 years ago. Not worth naming names, but there are plenty of them.

      I have never bothered digging to see who, if anyone, Maslow and Bloom borrowed from.

      Fortunately, most actual teachers manage to shake off the BS fairly quickly when they get into an actual school.

      1. I recall ‘new math’, with loathing. I encountered it at my first year at University, in the form of set theory (I think). It was a quarter of the course, and it was gibberish. “We define a binary operation multiplication yadda yadda yadda” and after a whole page of ‘proof’ “we” could eventually derive that, in certain circumstances, a+b = b+a.

        I zoned out the whole thing and passed the final exam on the strength of the other 3/4 of the subject.

        I’m not saying set theory is pointless, just that we were given no suggestion that it might have any real application or use whatever.


        1. “just that we were given no suggestion that it might have any real application or use whatever.”

          And there lies the problem with most fads in education. Useful things are presented in the abstract, and abstract things, that might just be interesting, are presented without context, because most of the people presenting the material are doing so because they are told to with no further buy-in.

          1. Yes, I’d certainly agree with that.

            I was told by other students that the 25% of the exam dealing with set theory was so elementary it was trivially easy to score top marks. (Another sign of a topic no-one was taking seriously, I think). Too bad for me that I’d decided to just ignore that whole section because I wanted to devote my revision time to ‘real’ topics like calculus.


  13. I thought the article’s emphasis on living-dying and birth-penetration was, if you will, ‘baissee par les singes’ as the French philosopher-shepherd Gascon Futon put it in his wonderful 1989 work ‘Colouring Books – Staying Within The Lines’.

    To put it in layman’s terms, its topographical nullity forced through a kind of concomitant growing-ungrowing of form, intermingled with spices and herbs and gendered contrapuntal tonalities of breaded, battered meaning. As my African-American postgraduate professor once said to me: ‘oh god, please shut up, you’re fucking unbearable’, which struck me even back then as a both powerful and wise rhetorical rejection of neoliberal, postcolonial capitalist notions of white supremacist blah blah blah

  14. That is all there is to the story, but it’s couched in postmodern gibberish, supposedly embedding the story in “the theories of Haraway and Rautio”, which actually add nothing to the narrative.

    I forget who said it, but as the saw goes, postmodernism consists of an attempt to use abstruse language to make things that are either true and unsurprising, or surprising but untrue, appear true and surprising.

  15. Urrgh. Are these people even capable of speaking intelligible coherent English?

    I got half-way through the ‘Abstract’ and gave most of the rest of it the TL;DR** treatment. My sympathy for a cat-lover who has just lost her pet was swamped by the pretentious obscurantist jargon and the ‘woo factor’.

    “We have come to realize that we are never fully cat or fully human.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but – wtf does that *mean*? Buggered if I can make it out but, insofar as I can tease any meaning out of it, I don’t believe it. And how does she know what her cat ‘realizes’ anyway? Ah, never mind.

    I’d be charitable and assume her loss had affected her ability to communicate except that pomos seem to babble like that all the time.

    ** Lest I be guilty of speaking in impenetrable jargon, ‘TL;DR’ means Too Long, Didn’t Read. I’m sure you all knew that.


  16. Darmok on the ocean
    Shaka, when the walls fell
    Darmok and Jalad on the ocean
    Sokath, his eyes opened

    Kailash, when it rises
    Kiazi’s children, their faces wet
    Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel

    Equally understandable and insightful. Ready for publication!

  17. I think those felines do not give a purr for that article. It is just human hubris to assume that cats are in any way interested in puny inquiries of that pseudo humanistic kind. Our proud Lords are simply above that;)

  18. Haraway, figures. A pretty sure bet – when any article regardless of “discipline” is mentioned that does stupid crap with non-human animals, Haraway is not far away. (Hm, that rhyme was unintentional!)

  19. Given the idiocy of that paper, it *is* difficult to determine which parts Susan wrote and which parts the two cats wrote.

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