Jill Walls holds a PhD from University of North Carolina at Greensboro and works as an assistant professor at Ball State University in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences. In her classes, she teaches how race, gender, sexual orientation and social class, among other factors, shape individuals’ experiences and family relationships. She recently published a paper that examined intensive mothering beliefs among full-time employed mothers of young children, and is currently working on a project that examines the lived experiences of African American college students when race is discussed in class.
THE FEM: What would you say to full-time mothers of young children who are coping with some of the intensive mothering beliefs you’ve written about? As a mother yourself, are there things you’ve researched that you wish you had known earlier?
JILL WALLS: That’s a hard question to answer because beliefs about mothering are so much a part of who we are as mothers. Women form beliefs about children and mothers’ roles based on information from many sources including their family, the media, other women, their partners, and personal experience, for example. What I’ve found in my research is that although many full-time employed mothers do not ascribe to intensive mothering beliefs, those who do tend to end up feeling guilty for being employed. And although research has demonstrated maternal employment can be beneficial for women and their families, women who buy into the “good mothers stay home” ideal might have a harder time being employed outside the home than mothers whose beliefs about mothering include paid employment. To be honest with you, even though I place importance on and get satisfaction from my career, there are times when I desire more time with my children and more time to care for myself. Finding ways to see the benefits of one’s work and also strategies to cope with the challenges of being an employed mother is important. If I could give any mother a piece of advice it would be to practice self-care. It’s not selfish to refill your cup from time to time. We all need that.
THE FEM: What surprised you about the experiences African American college students have when discussing race? What advice would you give to other students on how to discuss race in a way that’s productive and conscious of differing perspectives?
JILL WALLS: I began this study with a genuine desire to understand how my African American students experience class discussions about race, particularly because Ball State is a predominantly White campus and most often I have only one or two African American students in my classes. Therefore, all of what was expressed by the African American students in my study was interesting and important to me. They do so much cognitive work when race comes up in class! Although many have something to say about the topic of race, many decide to sit back and listen to the conversation to determine if the room is a safe space for them to speak. Even for those who speak up, they expressed concern about how their words will be perceived by others. Specifically, several female students worried about conforming to negative stereotypes of Black women. All of the results were eye-opening, so it is challenging for me to identify just one thing that made an impression on me.
By “other” students do you mean White students? I would encourage all students to explore and critically examine their own beliefs about race. Being aware of your beliefs and biases is essential to having constructive dialogues about race (and we all have biases!). I would also encourage all students to be brave enough to speak freely, but also respectfully, in class when topics of race come up. As an instructor I’ve noticed that students tend to be quiet or hesitant to speak up when in fact they might have something really important or thoughtful to share. I believe that we can have constructive conversations about race in the classroom, but sometimes it’s a struggle to get there.
With that said, I believe that instructors carry the most responsibility when it comes to setting the tone of the class. Some instructors are very skilled at creating an academic environment that promotes thoughtful, open, and respectful conversations about race. Yet, some are not as skilled. Colleges and universities could offer specialized training for faculty to promote cultural competence in the classroom. I’m hoping the results of my study will shed some light on areas that might need improvement (from the perspective of African American students) with respect to teaching about race at Ball State University.
THE FEM: What led you to decide to research and study race and gender?
JILL WALLS: Wow. That is a deep question. I think that issues around race and gender interest me so much because I am a feminist. And as a feminist I care very deeply about historically marginalized groups and their experiences. I also tend to view the world and my everyday experiences through a feminist lens. For example, when I’m shopping for gifts for my two young daughters I look closely at the messages on the t-shirts in the “girls” section (I also hate that there is even a section for girls/boys, but that’s another issue). My heart is drawn to rectify situations that are unfair and I try to do that in part through my research. I also try to affect the world through the messages I convey to my children and to my students. I’ve had some excellent (male and female) feminist mentors during graduate school who inspired me to question the status quo.
THE FEM: If you had an unlimited budget and unlimited resources, what would you study? Is there a topic you haven’t had a chance to look into yet that interests you?
JILL WALLS: Great question! Funding for projects like mine seems to be few and far between these days. If I had an unlimited budget I would love to examine the effects of holistic methods for addressing emotional and mental health issues, particularly for mothers of young children. Stress and anxiety are so commonplace in early parenthood that I think we sometimes dismiss those experiences as “just the way it is”. Many new mothers struggle in silence with mental health issues. For example, I’m not sure that we really know how much meditation, essential oils, Reiki, and supplements from natural sources can help postpartum women with mental health and early parenthood challenges. That type of project would take a considerable amount of funding I suspect.
THE FEM: What’s one bit of research that you wish more people knew, whether it’s from your own studies or someone else’s? Are there things you know as an assistant professor that you wish more people knew?
JILL WALLS: I personally do not study this topic, but I teach about it in several of my classes. I wish that the world would come to appreciate the research that has been done on the effects of corporal punishment on children. Over 300 studies have concluded that it’s just not the most effective discipline strategy and can place children at risk for a host of negative outcomes. There are other places in the world that have instituted bans on the use of corporal punishment and here in the U.S. some states still allow for corporal punishment to be used as a disciplinary strategy in schools. I believe that our nation’s children deserve more respect and a gentler approach to discipline. There’s simply too much evidence to suggest that other methods are more effective in promoting positive developmental outcomes. It’s a form of family violence that has been unfortunately normalized in our country.