Kristopher Ray Cleland

Kristopher Ray Cleland

Kristopher Ray Cleland

Graduate Teaching Assistant

Sociology: Food Security & Sovereignty, Morality, Deservingness, Qualitative Methods, Pedagogy, Critical Theory, Social Psychology, and Applied & Public Sociology

I am a second-year Sociology PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at George Mason University. A first generation college graduate with working-class origins in Covington, Louisiana, I often think back to how hard my parents worked just to survive. It is this origin, I think, that biases me towards the belief that all people should have the necessities of life—clean water, nutritious food, and adequate shelter—and that no one should have to work their lives away to barely make a living. 

I obtained my B.A. in Sociology in 2016 from Southeastern Louisiana University (SLU) while working full-time as a department manager at a regional grocery store. This, alongside the Pell Grant and a Louisiana scholarship called the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, allowed me to get through undergraduate studies with no debt. I obtained my M.S. in Applied Sociology in 2018 from the same university while working there as a Research Assistant for the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice.

It always surprises folks, but SLU is where I was first exposed to Critical and Feminist theoretical frameworks. Increasingly, however, I find myself drawn to symbolic interactionist and social-psychological perspectives, mainly because I find them more "grounded" and practical, and not necessarily at odds with my theoretical background. I generally use interpretive frameworks and grounded theory for my qualitative analyses, but cannot help but see the ways Critical perspectives allow us to go beyond narratives as they appear on the surface. 

Learning as an end-in-itself is great, I believe, but merely interpreting the world does little to change it for the better. I occupy a tradition that believes we must take what we learn in the academy, determine what is unjust and just about the world through the free exchange of ideas, and—based on that knowledge and those ideas—make the world a better place. What is "better" of course is a value statement, but I think for a particular historical context many of us can determine what "better" and "ideal" are and act on ways to achieve those visions of the future. This is not to say I do not value more "objective," "value-free" work. Indeed, my valuing of this work is evidenced by my recent research interests at a social-psychological level. Regardless, transparency requires that I note I identify most with post-positivism. But I realize at the same time the use and value of other approaches to knowledge generation and understanding. 

In a classroom setting, my pedagogical slant is one towards providing control and autonomy to students in the context of real institutional constraints. I encourage students to evaluate my performance as an instructor throughout the semester, and I use those evaluations to adjust my approach to the needs and preferences of a specific class. Further, although I do hold on to traditional lectures for instruction, I also provide students with regularly scheduled days in which I subordinate my place and allow students to largely control the discussion—my place being mostly that of a moderator to keep us on the subject-at-hand. I continue to question my exact role as an educator, and constantly explore effective and engaging means to serve my students in a relatively liberatory way. 

In the past, I worked with a team to develop a proposal to expand the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans, Louisiana. More recently, I worked as a research assistant for a project evaluating Produce Plus Direct in the DC area. Using data from that project, we are working on a paper to publish in Public Health Nutrition. Currently, I am involved in exploring anti-racist participatory action research with a small team, along with studying the social history of Virginia for a project called Democratizing NoVA. 

It is my hope one day in the future I can write I am full-time faculty at a university somewhere, with most of my responsibilities directed at teaching. I am reminded of the memory of a high school mentor noting, however, that "hope is not a course of action." I try to keep that in mind as I pave my story with the help of so many great colleagues and mentors. If you are a prospective student doing your research before choosing a 101 instructor, I hope you will help me pave that path, and I hope I can help pave yours.