Isobel-Marie Johnston

PFx scholar encourages framing Humanities research as a discovery instead of a problem

Please introduce yourself, where are you from?

My name is Isobel-Marie Johnston; I was raised half and half in New Jersey and Illinois. I have also worked in India and Thailand.

Where did you go to school before ASU? What was your major and minor?

I studied for over two years at Parkland Community College in Illinois, then received undergraduate degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Illinois State University. From there, I worked ten years in the hospitality industry as an administrative assistant before becoming a licensed middle school and high school educator, teaching English/Language Arts, with Social Studies and Art certificates. In my short career in secondary education, I taught drama, pre-algebra and Thai history.

What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Academically, my most impactful turning point came from two interlocking places: reading Foucault’s later work on practices of self-making and finding my disciplinary anchor in ritual studies. This combination has brought me to study how ritual practices create specific bodily experiences that inform and condition practitioners’ sense of self. 

In terms of existence, the ritual practice I study (Jewish mikvah immersion) has existed for thousands of years. Over time changes have been more variations on the same themes and practices that arguably existed pre-Biblically. In this sense, Jewish water immersion practices have been remarkably stable and dynamic for thousands of years. My research concerns how Jews are engaging in mikvah immersion today.

Many rituals and special routines are ways we put our ideas of ourselves into practice and also directly condition us to experience ourselves and the world around us in particular ways. In my opinion, this rarely becomes an objective problem; but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying and learning more about how this part of being human works. 

My current research studies the stories of people who describe themselves as having experienced healing through Jewish rituals of immersion in water (ritualized skinny dipping). Without thinking of this experience as a “problem” per se, we can learn more about what is meant by “healing.” By studying stories of healing immersion experiences, we learn what “healing” means to these individuals. We can seek correlations with other aspects of immersion in daily living: How do they engage in other Jewish rituals? What are their general ideas about health, wellness, well-being, and caring for ones' body? How do they understand what contributes to various medical ailments and what inventions are effective? What are their engagements with complementary or alternative health practices? From this, I build a context for understanding what immersion healing means today and how it may reflect emerging patterns in how people think about these basics of personal identity: religious engagement, health, and body. Without labeling this as a problem, we can uncover how various ways of living with a body inform how we interpret ourselves and how our ritual lives interplay with these other ways of living as embodied human beings.

As it pertains to my research, my studies teach two valuable things: first, the process of preparing for ritual immersion is a crucial part of the experience of healing. Jewish immersion ritual involves thorough cleansing of the body (ears, eyes, mouth, etc.,) first a full-body inspection for anything like scabs, calluses, or loose hairs that could hinder full-body contact with the waters in the immersion pool. For my interlocutors, the literal stripping of the body during this process becomes a lived metaphor for lifting the extraneous matter of daily life from our psyches -- and becomes its own sacred time to reconnect with oneself through close attention to the body, leaving only the self to enter the ritual waters (or as much of the self as one is willing to set aside however temporarily). 

The second aspect I am learning is that these emotional, spiritual or psychological healing experiences bespeak a personal resilience practice. Through this, I am learning more about what generates resilience. Sometimes resilience means feeling renewed or re-centered while living through longer-term personal struggles or “everyday suffering” to borrow Joseph Davis’s concept. This aligns with typical ideas of resilience as endurance through adversity. But sometimes resilience also surfaces through closure so that one can continue living in a new direction. Examples of closure through mikvah immersion include grieving a painful loss or coming to terms with a difficult life transition. This is not healing as a  "cure”, but rather healing as a means for sustaining positive engagement with one’s own life. 

Arguably, studying this as a phenomenon rather than a problem allows us to see solutions that people already use. We don’t have to fix a problem per se: sometimes, we can learn just as much by understanding what already works, why it works, and under what conditions.

Why do you think these problems exist?

On the one hand, my personal experience of healing through Jewish immersion rituals played a role in my decision to return to college in my late thirties as a mom of a six- and three-year-olds. But that is only indirectly how I arrived at this subject. On a whim, I included this question about healing through immersion into a pilot survey in Greater Phoenix. I was curious, and thought of this question as the quirkiest question in my survey. I was actually self-conscious about including it all. However, the responses, though small in number - were high in percentage. Over 65% of Jewish mikvah immersion identified their experience as healing in some way. Plus, my survey drew the interest of two organizations promoting Jewish mikvah immersion that we specifically contacted because they were interested in this question. So there was traction behind this question at two levels. Despite this, my initial prospectus delivered in April 2020 focused on the larger organization with its diverse set of interests that did not include this question of healing through mikvah. However, by October 2020, this organization withdrew from the research due to organizational fallout from the COVID closures in spring 2020. So, I revamped my pilot survey to a national scale and developed two possible directions of research that I would build from the survey data. Mikvah immersion healing was the topic that turned out to have the most traction among survey respondents, and in the interest of a second, smaller organization in London. "The Wellspring Project UK" that was interested in “hard data'' on mikvah healing.

What are some of the approaches and methods you use in your work/research?

Due to travel restrictions since 2020, I have had to gather data by circulating the web-survey via social media, mainly Facebook for the USA’s survey. The survey conducted in the United Kingdom (to determine how relevant the USA data might be for the UK) was done by email snowball sharing of the survey link. I also conducted follow-up interviews with volunteers on the US survey via Zoom interviews. I am analyzing the data through descriptive statistics and grounded theory coding.

What are some of the problems you face in your work/research?

As mentioned, COVID mitigation measures forced me to change my subject completely and limited my research options. However, even without this, the small and wide distribution of Jewish communities across the United States and the United Kingdom makes gathering participants online an added challenge.

Are there any organizations or individuals outside of ASU that you network with?

The Wellspring Project UK is an aspiring mikvah organization that plans to incorporate mikvah immersion into a larger complementary center for emotional and mental well-being alongside other therapeutics like massage, acupuncture, and talk therapy. The Wellspring Project UK’s mission and interest in my research underscores that studying existing solutions can be as generative as researching “problems.”

What special skills do you need in this work/research?

My entire project is founded on ethnographic participation in multiple mikvah communities. My coursework and scholarship on practices of self, embodiment, ritual studies and post-modern perspectives made it possible to study this phenomenon at all. Two decades ago, I don’t think this research would have been viable even though the mikvah healing was occurring then, too.

What do you like best about this work?

I love the surprises. I love how this subject emerged out of a whimsical question that turned out to have real traction among widespread communities. I enjoy that my research is substantiating something that amounted to “legend” and “myth” within most Jewish communities. Mikvah healing is not a thing of the past: it is occurring across many communities today.

This question is difficult for me. Most of what I have been able to accomplish in my graduate career that has been useful has resulted from the realities that my personal work-life needs and the needs of my chosen subject caused gaps in my curricular trajectory (requirements, offerings and expectations) within my disciplinary unit and the Grad College. 

What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field or who’re interested in higher education?

Theses gaps resulted in exceptions on my behalf that enabled intensely transdisciplinary coursework and mentoring moments from multiple disciplines. I was way over the limits  of my program on independent studies and classes outside my disciplinary unit, but it really benefited my work. I think of myself and my transcript backs this up; I am the poster child for transdisciplinary coursework and scholarship at ASU. Even before factoring in my certificate in Gender Studies! But I am also painfully aware that my situation has been really different from the average graduate student. So, the advice I could give is even if you fit most of these requirements, it's worth pushing at the edges of them ad not limiting your subjects by program requirements. Follow what your topic needs you to know. Become well-versed at communicating these needs with people in your department disciplinary unit and the Graduate College because faculty and administration are really supportive in getting the coursework and experiences you need for your topic, even if it means making exceptions.

What are some of your long-term professional goals?

Academically, my goal is to establish menstrual studies as a legit, interdisciplinary subfield; this involves integrating menstrual activism, menstrual rituals, and various medical approaches to human reproduction and sexuality. Another dream project is the study of food movements and cooperatives, liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning communities, to see if there are similarities in how these groups think about the nature of the human self, body and health or do different movements also reflect differences in how they think about these basic aspects of human living.

I really believe that all graduate students need to have the information that PFx provides. I wished I’d taken this seminar earlier in my graduate career. I don’t mean last year before starting the job-hunt or after I finished my prospectus, but much, much earlier. This course should be expanded into a curriculum guide for all departments to ensure they provide info-sessions on these topics throughout a grad student’s career. If this is not doable, there is a need for a beginner and mid-grad school version of this seminar. 

Please tell us about your experience with PFx!

PFx programing can save students the time, energy and angst of constructing knowledge that could have been easily available. A lot of the information covered in this class can contribute to a graduate student’s goal setting and planning early and mid-way through the program. The strongest example is the module on reviewing job postings. One of my mentor-professors suggested that I study job postings and CVs of new hires more than five years ago. It has been critical for me to prioritize publishing and conference presentations that make my current CV as robust as it is. Waiting to do this till after defending a prospectus is too late to factor as effectively in grad career planning.

Connect with Isobel: Website


Learn more about PFx


Edited by Marjani Hawkins