Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Childhood

Young at heart

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Childhood

Sally Campbell Galman wants us to rethink everything we know about educating young children.

Professor Sally Campbell Galman

As an educator and researcher, Sally Campbell Galman, professor in the Children, Families, & Schools Program, seeks to upend what we understand about childhood and to challenge accepted teaching and research methods and traditional topics for education scholarship. 

“I’m passionate about people questioning paradigms that were put in place with no consultation to themselves, and people questioning how we know what we know,” she asserts. 

Galman starts with her own work. She questions the way we view children and childhood, the purpose of schooling, and why the structure of schooling hasn’t changed in any meaningful ways in 300 years. She investigates how gender norms impact the field of teaching and the youngest classrooms. She also brings an interdisciplinary approach and arts-based methods to her research, publications and teaching, and is committed to preparing the next generation of teachers and researchers to do the same.

I’m passionate about people questioning paradigms that were put in place with no consultation to themselves, and people questioning how we know what we know.

As an undergraduate at Grinnell College, Galman had been planning a career in medicine, not education. But when she got a job in the college preschool she discovered that she loved working with young children. She switched her major to English and went on to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a masters and teaching certificate. 

Although Galman enjoyed teaching, she chafed at the administrative demands. She was also both fascinated and dismayed by the “feminized” culture of early childhood education, with a male principal and female teachers—primarily white women who are more affluent than the students they usually teach. Frustrated with the experience, she jumped at a fellowship offer from the University of Colorado to work on a doctorate in anthropology and education.

Once Galman was immersed in her early education research, she discovered she was even more interested in the culture of the children in the classroom. “I started really paying attention to the kids and the way in which gender is performative in the classroom and how power is performative in the classroom in a gendered way,” she recalls. This sparked her interest in childhood studies. “I just sort of went down that path of doing ethnography, no longer of these women, but the children in their sphere.”

Galman with doctoral student Kaboul Mansour

When she finished her doctorate, Galman took a faculty position at UMass Amherst. She loved the area, but particularly chose UMass for its “fantastic student base,” its diversity, and the university’s focus on serving local communities. She also saw the College of Education as a place where she could pursue her work on her terms. “I came here because I got the sense that there was a lot of freedom in terms of the kind of scholar I wanted to be,” she explains. It seemed like the kind of place where I could do the kind of different, weird stuff that I like to do without anybody saying, ‘No, you have to get an NSF grant right now.’”

Galman has been at UMass for nearly 15 years, and she has indeed been able to do the unconventional work that inspires her. 

A key aspect of Galman’s work is using arts-based research and teaching methods and teaching her students to do so as well. As Galman describes it, arts-based research involves collecting data using arts-informed methods, such as having subjects draw, dance, or quilt; analyzing and making sense of data through writing fiction, drawing, dancing, etc.; and disseminate findings with visual art, performance art, graphic novels, and other media. Galman has often published in a graphic novel format, including articles, book chapters, and her very popular series of ethnographic research texts: Shane, the Lone Ethnographer: A Beginner’s Guide to Ethnographic Research, The Good, the Bad, and the Data: Shane the Lone Ethnographer’s Basic Guide to Qualitative Data Analysis, and Naptime at the OK Corral: A Beginner’s Guide to the Ethnography of Childhood

Galman’s priority in her scholarship has been to interrogate the prevailing perspectives on childhood. “It’s my continual source of interest, surprise, and challenge to move beyond the sort of nostalgic, limited view of childhood and looking at children as people now,” she says. “I think that in American culture we treat children as containers for future economic activity and that’s not legitimate or fair.”

covers of three of Galman's books

Since 2014, Galman’s research has specifically focused on transgender childhoods. Funded by the Spencer Foundation, she’s following hundreds of gender diverse children (transgender and gender nonconforming), studying them as “resilient actors in their own lives.” In the five years she’s been immersed in this work, the landscape has changed radically. When she did her first literature review for the project, there were five articles. There are now closer to 500. 

Galman’s writing on this project will be in the form of a graphic novel—creative nonfiction—published by the University of Toronto as part of their ethnographic series. The book will focus on gender diverse children and the impact that the advent of the Trump administration is having on them. 

In this work, Galman has had the unusual experience as an ethnographer to see, in real time, the impact of a significant outside force on a population while it’s happening—to be able to see the before and after as it plays out. “I was collecting data, collecting data, collecting data, and then bam, it hit,” she says of Trump’s election and the expressions of hate that quickly followed. “It’s like I have the Zapruder film.”

Further, while observing as an outsider, Galman has also experienced this as an insider, because she is the parent of a transgender child. She recalls waiting at the courthouse in early January 2017 to process her daughter’s name change, gender change, and new birth certificate before Trump took power, and fielding calls from parents terrified parents in states where those protections aren’t possible, asking what they should do to protect their kids.

The stories Galman has heard from parents have been devastating. “There was this kid—second grader—and all his friends were saying, ‘Oh, you know, when Trump gets elected, he’s going to kill all the transgender people.” And the kid believed it. On the election morning, the dad called me and said, ‘he just asked me how he should prepare to die.”

a pink, blue, and white striped flag representing transgender rights

Since the start of the Trump administration and the anti-transgender vitriol, Galman’s work has taken on a new urgency, and she’s found herself unwilling to hold back and not rattle the cage. Instead, in her words, she’s flipping tables and putting sand in the gears. “The scholarship always mattered, but now it matters in a different way.” 

Galman’s response as a scholar and as a parent is to use the tools she has—to write and draw and teach. She turns to drawing in particular because she knows it’s a powerful way to reach people: “I draw because I'm out for hearts and minds.”

She also does pro-bono trainings for schools, foster care agencies, and other social services that work with youth, to help them understand how to support transgender kids and maintain safe environments. “I want people to understand that children are full complete people and we have to value who they are now, not who they will become, and respect the self-identity of transgender and gender nonconforming kids,” she affirms. “You have the right to gender self determination. That is a basic human right.”

You have the right to gender self determination. That is a basic human right.

Galman also explains that not only is gender self determination a human right, creating safe spaces for transgender children benefits all of the children in the room. “If you had one transgender/gender nonconforming child in a classroom or a family or a structure, everyone else reports reduced levels of stress because [according to the World Health Organization], children as young as 18 months experience stress when they’re confronted with a rigid gender binary and relief when they are confronted with a gender spectrum.”

Galman is adamant that as a cisgender woman, her speaking and writing on behalf of her child and other people’s children has its limits, and that as a scholar and as a parent, at some point she needs to let others lead. “Parents must cede the floor because the most important thing for trans children is to know transgender adults. They need to see that you can have a happy life and the parents need to see that you can have a happy life, because that’s what everybody’s afraid of.”

Galman's nametags from conferences with drawings on them

As she had hoped, the College of Education community has proved to be essential in supporting Galman in her work and she feels valued, not in spite of her unusual approach but because of it. “I’m just forever humbled by my colleagues,” she says. “People are intellectuals in the true sense here because they are genuinely curious about work and about different ways of doing things.” She has shown her appreciation as one might expect, by making them guest stars in her books.

On an immediate level, Galman hopes that by taking unconventional approaches to her work she can make the path easier for those coming behind her, to make it easier for junior academics to employ art-based approaches and do more creative work. 

On a broader level, she hopes that by being one of many who are deconstructing the accepted subject matter in education and the accepted methods of teaching and research, she can have a part in making higher education a far more accessible world: “By changing the modes of knowledge production in the academy and the modes of knowledge dissemination,” she asserts, “we democratize and decolonize the academy.”

By changing the modes of knowledge production in the academy and the modes of knowledge dissemination we democratize and decolonize the academy.