Posted on

A year in review: Q&A with Shelby E. McDonald, Ph.D.


Shelby McDonald, Ph.D., joined the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work in 2015 as an assistant professor. A graduate of the Graduate School of Social Work doctorate program at the University of Denver, McDonald brought with her a robust research agenda and an unfettered love of teaching. She specializes in human-animal interactions research, especially as it relates to intimate partner violence and child and animal abuse and takes her expertise into the classroom to help guide her students to examine interpersonal and structural systems of power, privilege and oppression.

McDonald was drawn to VCU School of Social Work for the opportunity to blend her research and teaching as well as work with a university that has an established human-animal interactions research infrastructure. McDonald is currently examining ethnocultural variations in children’s exposure and response to intimate partner violence and concomitant animal cruelty and teaching  the Social Work and Oppressed Groups course.

Describe your ongoing human-animal interactions research.

For the past six years, I’ve been researching the intersection of intimate partner violence, child abuse and animal abuse as part of a research team led by Drs. Frank Ascione and James Herbert Williams at the University of Denver. These forms of violence often overlap in the same household. Our research team partnered with the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence and received funding from NICHD to collect quantitative and qualitative data from mother-child dyads receiving community-based domestic violence services. We recently wrapped up data collection, and our preliminary findings demonstrate the need for intimate partner violence and mental health intervention services to attend to the potential impact of animal maltreatment exposure on child and adult intimate partner violence survivors’ psychological health and safety. Concerns about pets’ welfare and the human-animal bond significantly impact intimate partner violence survivors’ safety planning, and knowledge of the intersection of family violence and animal abuse has important implications for social workers and other professionals who regularly come into contact with families and their companion animals.


How do you plan to bridge your research interests and teaching agenda at VCU?

The research evidence supporting the therapeutic benefits of human-animal interactions for vulnerable populations is growing and receiving significant attention among health and social service providers. I believe it is important that social work students, as future advocates and clinicians, have the opportunity to learn about how to assess human-animal relationships and design and implement animal-assisted interventions.

Since joining the VCU faculty, I have become a research affiliate with the Center for Human-Animal Interaction, directed by Dr. Sandra Barker, to forge a bridge between the center and the school. The center has several affiliated programs, such as Pet Loss Support and Dogs on Call, that could serve as important training opportunities for our clinical concentration M.S.W. students.

In the future, I would love to see our school provide students with cutting-edge training in this area through human-animal interaction focused courses, internships and certificate opportunities.


How do you connect with students in the classroom?

In the classroom, I draw from Freirean, intersectional feminist and queer pedagogy to bolster student learning. My goal is to create a therapeutic space that holds, supports and cultivates intellectual curiosity and mindful, engaged social activism.

To me, teaching from an intersectional perspective means always centering class content and discussions on the interconnected and overlapping nature of social categorizations such as gender, race and class, and how those categorizations relate to the topic at hand. I have found that it’s a great way to promote constructively critical conversations among students and make space in the room for all voices to be heard and valued. When students approach the content from this perspective, I think it helps them to blend experiential learning, theory and empirical literature in a way that fosters ongoing dialogue and prepares them to make choices that advance equity, positive social change and justice.

When teaching, I always aim to model intellectual and emotional vulnerability so that students are encouraged to take risks in and out the classroom. Social work education is as much about unlearning as it is about learning, and I frequently think back to a passage from Gloria Jean Watkins, better known as, bell hooks, who said, “The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility, we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.”


What was one of the most memorable teaching experiences from your first year at VCU?

There have been so many—even though I’ve only been here for a year—it’s difficult to choose just a few. The most memorable aspect of teaching Social Work and Oppressed Groups, SLWK 311, has been the student dialogue in the classroom and online through the class blog. The level of depth, vulnerability and commitment to social justice that VCU B.S.W. students bring to the learning space has really impressed me, and I believe that the quality of dialogue in the classroom stems from the diversity of identities and experiences present in our student community and the willingness of students to look at themselves and others from an intersectional lens.

A memorable event that comes to mind is from the School of Social Work Research Symposium. I mentored two B.S.W. students, Ksenia Dombo and Colleen Parker, in research-focused independent studies during the spring semester and they carried out small research projects using data I collected. Having the opportunity to see them present their findings to their peers and professors with confidence was very memorable. In August both students joined me in Barcelona, Spain, to present at an international human-animal interactions conference.


What do you do in your free time?

In my free time, I’m usually doing something outdoors with my dogs–checking out a local festival or seeing live music. I’m very passionate about nature and wildlife photography, so I’m always searching for new places to explore around RVA. I love touring national wildlife refuges by kayak and hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail. Also, I recently started taking pottery classes at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and absolutely love it! It’s a wonderful way to practice mindfulness.


What has your time at VCU meant to you so far?

My time at VCU has been very rewarding so far. Shifting from the identity of doctoral student to faculty member can be an intimidating and stressful transition, and I’m grateful to have wonderful colleagues and mentors who have supported me and made the process go so smoothly. I’m particularly thankful for mentorship from people like Liz Cramer, Ph.D., professor in the School of Social Work, and Rosalie Corona, Ph.D. in the Department of Psychology, who connected me with local community organizations that serve women and children impacted by violence. As a social work researcher, beginning my professional career at a university that is dedicated to and founded on community-engagement is exciting. Dr. Corona and I, in partnership with the Sacred Heart Center, recently received a Community Engagement Grant to train Latinx residents in Mental Health First Aid. It feels great to start off my time at VCU with internal support to pursue my research agenda and address community-identified needs in Richmond. I’m looking forward to getting this project off the ground and excited about my future at VCU.

Students interested in human-animal interaction or polyvictimization research can learn more and how to get involved on the Family and Community Violence Research and Action Team site.

Photo: Kesenia Dombo, Social Work and Oppressed Groups Fall 2015 class