Interview with Anna Kirkland, J.D., Ph.D.
Posted by Noor Fares on 2022-03-30
Interview with Anna Kirkland, J.D., Ph.D.
Interview by Noor Fares
Professor Anna Kirkland is the Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). She is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and holds courtesy appointments in Sociology, Political Science, and Health Management and Policy. Professor Kirkland has researched and written several books on health, law, and rights in the contemporary U.S.
Noor: How have your academic interests changed over time?
Dr. Kirkland: They really have changed a lot. Typically, academic researchers, people who are professors, stay in one research area because that allows them to grow their expertise and impact. The standard path is to get a PhD in a disciplinary field, pick a research area and stay more or less in that research area the whole time of their career. And I've never really done any of those things, which has its ups and downs; I never picked a field for one thing.
When I was an undergrad, I was a philosophy major because it was really interesting, but then I realized that I wanted to be a professor. I had previously wanted to be a lawyer, just because I never knew anybody who was a professor and you think about a career people know, a big obvious career to choose. And I think that's why a lot of young people end up thinking about law because everybody's seen a TV show about lawyers; it's a bit ubiquitous in our culture. If you don't know anyone who's a professor and you haven't been to college yet, you have no idea what these people even do or who they are. But I looked at my professors and I was like, Oh, I would really like to do that. Also, analytic philosophy is done in a very certain way and I didn't see a path for myself.
I was in one grad program for political science that I left after hearing about this interdisciplinary sociolegal studies Ph. D. program at Berkeley, which I didn't know about the first time I applied to grad school because I just didn't know that this even existed. I didn't really know what was out there.
If you don't know this world, it's very hard to navigate and know how to get into it, especially if your parents do not have experience in the field you are looking into. A lot of these professions are fairly rarefied, and there are a lot of unwritten rules. People tend to follow their parents into all kinds of professions. It's not just academia, but people who are professors are much more likely to have parents who are professors. It's hard to figure it out if you don't have someone telling you how.
I finally got into the Berkeley Ph. D. program and studied there, but I still wanted to go to law school. So, I applied to law school during my first year in the Ph. D program, intending to combine them but also hedging my bets because back then, the law market was booming.
I had to constantly decide how long to try to hold those two options open because they're totally different careers. The preparations for both of them are in competition with each other, and you can't do both simultaneously. Eventually, I had to choose and I got this job. I was hired at Michigan in 2004 and it's great to be here.
Noor: For the various disciplines that you blended together, like health and law or gender and health insurance, was blending those together difficult?
Dr. Kirkland: There's luck involved. Part of it is the structure of this profession, being a professor. You get to choose your own job in some ways, because you choose what you research. Yes, you have to choose it in a way that will gain the respect of your colleagues when you get reviewed and it needs to be able to get past peer review publishing, but you have a lot of freedom in choosing
the topics and the area of focus.
What I've always done is choose topic areas that are going to give me a lot of intellectual leverage on really fascinating, open, and tough questions. I think about what is really hard and what is a big mess right now that nobody has a clear answer to. When I was looking for a dissertation topic and I saw an identity category (fatness) that attracts a lot of discrimination and stigma but there's no agreement whatsoever whether or not it deserves legal protection, that stood out.
It was drawing an enormous amount of focus and disagreement; people were having very opposing conversations. I thought, ‘Okay, well, that's pretty interesting. That's going to be a mess for a long time’. Go to those topics.
After that, I needed another topic because you have to study and you have to write a second book. I could have continued with weight discrimination, but I also tend to say everything I want to say and then I don't have a lot left. So, I decided that I wanted to switch topics but stay with something at the intersections of health and law.
Studying weight discrimination had really led me to see how much health is really at the center of it politically. It's about health care costs; that was the primary focus for it which I hadn't really realized at first. When I came out of that project, I saw it had focused me more on health politically and legally and so then, everybody was also freaking out about vaccines, and childhood vaccines that really peaked in the US around 2001 [and] 2002. So, I hadn't gotten in on the first wave, but I didn't want to just write about why people are hesitant about vaccines just because that was the obvious way in.
Noor: How did you find your place and niche within the research field?
Dr. Kirkland: I've always been interested in right wing conservative movements. I did a little bit of looking into the anti vaccine movement through participant observation at conferences because by then, I had also taken up some more empirical methods that I really needed to add to my repertoire. I realized that I cannot be the only researcher here at this anti-vaccine conference because this is a gold mine. There are some other sociologists and anthropologists in this room and I don't know who they are.
I knew that someone else was going to be better at that. I'm always trying to assess what skills and what weaknesses I bring to a problem. There are topics where I can see that I'm not the voice for that and so I step back and go on to something else.
Then, I found the Vaccine Injury Compensation court, which was going to be my way in because they were litigating cases about whether vaccines cause autism. I did some searching and no one had written about it. Is it not interesting enough and not worthy? Can I get a book out of this?
You don't want to go down a path that's too small and not ambitious enough. Is it big enough and open enough that I can get several years of research? I thought, yes, so I focused on that as
my angle because I thought it brought together skills that I had uniquely then. Other people, even working in that area, wouldn't have the legal focus and methodology that I was willing and able to have the resources to do. I was on a fellowship at Princeton at the time so I was
able to go down to DC from Princeton for my site work. I try to pick the projects by carefully assessing what I am able to do, maybe better than other people.
If there's something that someone else is going to be able to do better, I leave it to them. It's assessing myself as a researcher, and also trying to see a good topic area emerging because I do things about the present day United States. I'm looking to see what's a problematic thing, an interesting sight of where all these things are gonna come together and could illuminate some scholarly debates.
Noor: What was your journey like with writing your Vaccine Court book (2016) and what advice would you give to those who also hope to write or publish in that way?
Dr. Kirkland: I mean, you’ve got to have an ambitious, book-sized problem. A book-sized problem is a really pretty big problem that most people would find interesting. And by that I mean your uncle, your brother, your friends; you can convince most ordinary people that it matters.
You should be able to have like a five sentence description about why this is important and why you might need to write 90,000 words on this topic. Journal articles are the little chunks of what we do; those can be more narrowly focused. But the fun of writing books is that you really can have a chapter or two that really tries to wrestle with something big. You also need to have all of the data and raw materials to really show something new to enough people that would be of interest.
Noor: Have you experienced any setbacks and how did you go about overcoming them?
Dr. Kirkland: Oh, yeah, so many, but I think this is really important to talk about. I was rejected from tons of graduate programs; I barely got into any. I graduated from the ones that I did get into. Even when I wrote my dissertation, I changed topics; one day, I threw away 100 pages that I had written because it wasn't going anywhere. I restarted a year into writing my dissertation. That was a real touch and go moment; I put it back together from that.
Then, while writing my book, I got rejected by one publisher but got accepted by another. We all have tons of rejections in our past that we've overcome, but nobody sees those. You just list where you went; I went to Berkeley, right. Fantastic, but I could list eight other very nice names of graduate schools that I was rejected from, some more than once.
I had projects that I had to just abandon. We had one project where we were going to interview state legislators about vaccine legislation in the states. I had graduate research assistant funding and we were going to try, but we discovered that state legislators are nearly impossible to get on the phone; sometimes, they only meet every other year. Then, we had counter-organizing from anti-vaccine groups getting on social media and telling people not to talk to us by name.
It worked. I couldn’t do that part of the project, because there was counter-organizing and it's just too hard to reach these people. We had to do it an entirely different way where we looked at bills; we just got the legislative bills because you can find those right there in a legislative database.
Now, I have a nice article that came out of that but we had a whole path that was just abandoned; work that turned into nothing. Another time, I had published something in a journal that had a factual error, which was that I listed the wrong president (Obama when it should have said Clinton, as I recall), but it was critical of the anti-vaccine movement. They contacted the journal and tried to get my article retracted and threatened to sue, so I had to talk to the journal editor and I did have to publish a correction. That was pretty stressful.
I have pulled back from social media to keep anti vaxxers from attacking me. If you look at my Twitter feed, I'm not very out there because I don't want to attract the harassment.
Noor: What advice would you give to undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, maybe those who want to go into research, those who want to experience different graduate programs, or just general advice?
Dr. Kirkland: For any student, do the reading. We can tell when students are not doing the reading. The reading is really important because you're never going to figure out what scholarly research and writing is if you don't spend a lot of time reading it first. So reading is really probably the most important thing, you know, and the second would be to just go to office hours and talk to your professor. Almost no one shows up. I would have this exact conversation with anybody who walked into my office hours. Come with specific questions, and you will have one-on-one tutoring or career advice with your professors. Especially professors where you’re enrolled in actual class, they are obligated to you and the students that are enrolled.
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