Professor Alessandra Early is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and a dedicated criminologist whose academic journey is rooted in a passion for understanding the intricacies of human behavior and identity. From a childhood curiosity that questioned the fundamental nature of numbers to becoming a professor, her commitment to knowledge has been unwavering. With a background in psychology and sociology, she transitioned to criminology, driven by a fascination with the dynamics explored in shows like Criminal Minds.
Dr. Early’s research delves into the intersection of spatial dynamics, identity formation, and behavior, particularly focusing on queer experiences and the impact of social spaces. In this Q&A, Dr. Early shares her insights into research, professional achievements, mentoring philosophy, and her vision for contributing to the academic community.
Can you share a bit about your academic journey and what led you to pursue a career in criminology?
Since I was young, I’ve wanted to help people and investigate the “hows” and “whys” behind everything around me. As a kid learning math, I peppered my mother with questions incessantly, completely unsatisfied with the superficial and desperately seeking to learn a greater meaning. “Why is a one a one?” I asked. “What makes a two a two?” That pursuit of knowledge has become a core mission in my life and led me to become a professor today.
As an undergrad, I majored in psychology and sociology. I fantasized about becoming an FBI profiler thanks to my obsession with Criminal Minds, and I kept finding myself drawn to criminology courses. That tendency persisted when I pursued my master’s in sociology as well; I really connected with some professors who really believed in me and my work. I decided to follow that path and complete my PhD in criminology and criminal justice. (Though I moved away from law enforcement.)
Being a professor means I always have to adapt and evolve as new knowledge develops, which I love. I enjoy reading, learning, and problem-solving and my job asks me to engage in all three. Interacting with students is such a privilege because I want them to have the same light-bulb “Aha!” moments in my classrooms that I used to experience as a student myself.
Could you highlight some of your key research interests or projects, and how do you see them contributing to your field or broader society?
Broadly speaking, my research is rooted in three intersecting areas: Spatial and place-based dynamics, identity formation, and behavior. Specifically, I am interested in the ways in which spaces, particularly social spaces, impact how people understand themselves and can encourage or inhibit behavior. My dissertation, for example, explored how the historical, social, and cultural spatial dynamics of queer social spaces (such as bars and clubs), and using substances within them, can impact queer identities. One finding was that queer people strategically used substances to explore their identities and navigate queer vs. heterosexual social spaces.
Another project investigated the interplay between space(s), identities, and substance use through the experiences of primarily white heterosexual women who had experience with the rural methamphetamine market before being incarcerated. We emphasized the complex, violent, and empowering strategies that women used to confront and overcome gendered and sexualized expectations while participating within the patriarchal market.
My research interests engage in “queering” or destabilizing normative understandings of how we move through our environments, create meaning within them, formulate our identities in opposition to or with the help of those environments, and how those environments and the meanings we prescribe to them encourage or inhibit our behaviors.
Have there been any significant milestones or achievements in your professional journey that you are particularly proud of?
Currently, I’m most proud of my paper, The Role of Sex and Compulsory Heterosexuality Within the Rural Methamphetamine Market, which was published in Crime & Delinquency. Because of the precarious nature of grad school, sometimes it’s hard to see a project from inception to completion. To my and my co-author’s knowledge, this article represents the first paper to apply a queer criminological framework to examine the experiences of primarily cisgender and heterosexual white women. In 2022, the paper earned first place in the inaugural student paper award from the Division of Queer Criminology at the American Society of Criminology.
Do you have a mentoring philosophy, and how do you envision supporting students in their academic and professional development?
I approach teaching as a way to co-construct knowledge with students, with the goal of transforming the classroom into an encouraging space and making the material relatable and accessible. My mentoring philosophy builds upon that same foundation, emphasizing a collaborative and comfortable environment that I strive to offer all my mentees. I often describe my personal experiences with employing particular methodologies, concepts, or theories in order to demystify learning and the process of conducting research. In one-on-one student conversations and larger panel events, I speak candidly and transparently about the joys and challenges of being a Black queer woman in academia. While at conferences, I carve out time to bond with my mentees and ensure that I introduce them to fellow academics who share their interests to encourage networking and professional advancement. I let them know that my door is always open.
How do you envision contributing to the growth and development of our academic community in the coming years?
Although I have only spent a few months here at John Jay, I’m currently working to develop new courses that consider the ways in which queerness intersects with the carceral system and deepen our understanding of qualitative methodologies. I also look forward to carving out pathways that combine critical analyses and intersectional education.
Outside of academia, what are some of your hobbies or interests?
Outside of academia, you can find me practicing Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu karate and Matayoshi Kobudo (traditional weapons). Currently, I am a Shodan (1st-degree black belt) and I am preparing for my Nidan (2nd-degree black belt) test in the fall of 2024! I’ve also recently rekindled my love for video games (after a long hiatus during graduate school) and I’m back to gaming with my friends!
If you could give one piece of advice to students aspiring to excel in your field, what would it be?
Throughout my educational career, I have always carried my grandmother’s mantra and work ethic, which is the best advice I’ve ever received: Good, better, best. Never let it rest until the good is better and the better is the best. Though I’d make one small amendment — rest is important! Be sure to take breaks, but keep those intellectual fires burning.