The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Uncommon Interview: Jenn Jackson, Ph.D. ’19

In an interview with The Maroon, Jackson discusses how UChicago shaped their academic and writing career.
Jenn Jackson
Professor Jenn Jackson, ph.D. ’19.

In 2007, Jenn Jackson was working as a workload and staffing analyst for the Walt Disney Company. Even though Jackson considered that their “dream job” and imagined themselves retiring with Disney, they faced a multitude of microaggressions and hurtful discrimination from their coworkers. Jackson’s manager was of no help in changing the work atmosphere, only saying, “Well, that’s how they are.”

Eventually, Jackson fell ill all the time due to their stressful work environment. They knew they had to get out.

It was during this time of disappointment after graduating college that Jackson turned to the books that they used to read with their mother — works by Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Jackson was particularly inspired by Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen and Cathy Cohen’s works. At the time, both Cohen and Harris-Perry were professors at UChicago. Jackson, who had gotten their M.A. in political science at California State University, Fullerton in 2011 and was working as an adjunct professor there, knew that UChicago was where they needed to be too.

Jackson knew that UChicago was going to be a difficult school, especially at that time in their life. By the time they started their Ph.D. in political science in 2014, Jackson was 30 years old with three children and didn’t have a lot of the same political science work experience as a lot of their fellow students. Jackson’s B.S. from the University of Southern California had been in industrial and systems engineering.

“I had a tough time adjusting to the culture, but I found incredible community there,” Jackson said. “It ended up being one of the greatest choices I could have made for myself. I would never have studied anywhere else… I feel incredibly honored with the gift of having gone to such an incredible place and being exposed to the education that I was.”

During their time at UChicago, Jackson says they learned a lot about the art of academia and how to be a social scientist and, just as importantly, really came into their own identity, especially their queerness and androgyny.

Jackson would often attend the lectures and panels of other departments because they loved hearing about new literature and being a part of new conversations.

“There is a type of intellectual curiosity [at UChicago] that pushes us to do really interesting work and to ask really interesting questions,” Jackson said.

Cathy Cohen, who is currently the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, said that she loved working with Jackson, as she both taught and did research with them. Cohen said Jackson is brilliant, creative, and has a deep commitment to centering the marginalized people and communities that are often not the focus of university research.

“Jenn represents the qualities of the best students that we find at the University of Chicago,” Cohen said. “[They are] a scholar with an eye towards producing work that matters and that will improve people’s lives.”

As Jackson continues their journey as a researcher and author, they say that UChicago changed the way they talk about intellectual work, including their own writing.

“UChicago challenges you to grow,” Jackson said. “You become a better version of yourself in a place like that, and I know that my work and my writing is stronger and more resonant with people because of what I learned there.”

Since graduating with their Ph.D. in 2019, Jackson has served as an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University. Jackson said their teaching approach is very similar to how they learned while they were a student at UChicago.

“When you’re trained in the UChicago way, you train others in the UChicago way, no matter where you are,” Jackson said. “They’re getting the same lessons I got, just at Syracuse.”

Jackson published their first book, Black Women Taught Us, this January. Jackson described the novel as “an intimate history of Black feminism” and “a sequence of love letters to Black women.”

While the book does talk about important historical figures, such as Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm, Jackson also writes about important Black women from their own life, such as family and community members. For example, Jackson begins the book by describing their experiences in their mom’s house with her gospel singing group.

“Black feminism doesn’t necessarily start in classrooms or in textbooks but starts in these communities and in these intimate, day-to-day interactions with Black women who are often just invested in the preservation of Black life and the survival of Black children,” Jackson said.

Black Women Taught Us is a history of Black women, but it also travels with Jackson through their own journey of Black feminism and queerness.

“A lot of this story is even though I learned in a lot of ways from society, from church and things like that, to hide my sexuality, to hide my gender, I still was on this journey of becoming,” Jackson said. “These Black women didn’t really care about my sexual orientation. They didn’t really care about my gender presentation. They cared about my life. They cared about ensuring that I survived.”

Jackson said they turned to Black queer feminist literature as inspiration for their life and work, such as the writing of Audre Lorde and Angela Davis.

“I had these other examples as I got older to think about how I could show up in liberation and how I could show up in writing and in the world, and as an academic, at these intersections,” Jackson said. “So, the whole journey through my discovery of Black feminism is also really a journey to discovering myself.”

Jackson’s second book, Policing Blackness, is currently under review and set to be published by the University of Chicago Press. This book considers all the ways in which young Black Americans encounter threats, starting with Jackson’s own experience as a Black person in Chicago.

Jackson encourages students to be intentional with their work because everyone has different skills and thrives in different places. They also want students to be patient in finding where their true passions lie because they believe that’s where real change happens.

“As a Black, lesbian, androgynous, gender flux person who is aware that my existence, for some people, will feel like a revolution, who is aware that my commitment to showing up in public has meaning, it’s important for me to find the places where I can best show up for the people who need to see me,” Jackson said.

On that same note, Jackson remembers their time at Disney and acknowledges the importance of knowing where you don’t belong just as much as where you do.

“We’ve got to be honest about when it’s time to get out of there,” Jackson said. “Even if it’s the place that we’ve dreamed of our whole life, we’ve got to go and find the places where we feel the safest, so that we can walk in our purpose and do it without feeling hampered by the burden of everything around us.”

While every person goes on their own personal journey of discovery, Jackson said that they recognize that those journeys are often more challenging for people from marginalized groups, such as queer people and people of color. Jackson stressed the importance of enjoying the journey instead of focusing too much on the destination.

“Sometimes people feel shame if their journey doesn’t look like what they were told it was supposed to look like,” Jackson said. “I’ve had to really get comfortable over the years with really enjoying the present and how I get to where I’m going. I have to really sit in the moments and say, ‘This is good. I’m doing good work. I’m showing up the best I can today and that’s enough.’”

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About the Contributor
Ava Iwasko
Ava Iwasko, News Reporter
Ava Iwasko is a first-year in the College pursuing a double major in public policy and data science. On campus, Ava is a member of two of the Institute of Politics’s identity-based cohorts, W+ and Spectrum, serves on her house council, and writes for the Chicago Maroon. She is passionate about civic engagement and community building, and in the future, she hopes to pursue a career in public service and journalism. Originally from Dallas, Texas, Ava enjoys listening to music, trying new restaurants, and exploring Chicago with friends!
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