Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.

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COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS PROTEST ON MARCH 10, 2012
SOURCE: HTTP://WAGINGNONVIOLENCE.ORG/FEATURE/WHY-IM-WALKING-200-MILES-WITH-THE-IMMOKALEE-WORKERS/

Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).

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CAT WITH A CIGAR BY LOUIS WAIN, COURTESY OF WIKI COMMONS

The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

Captain America: belonging and fear in Prospect Park

I was walking through Prospect Park near where I’m staying this month in Brooklyn. As I turned a corner, I spotted several small tents with American flag patterns:

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I thought to myself, oh god, it’s a Trump rally. I’d just volunteered for Hilary Clinton the night before…would that show on my face? With the news about Donald Trump’s comment that “the Second Amendment people” could do something about Clinton should she appoint a pro-gun control judge to the Supreme Court, concerns about nationalistic demonstrations hung clearly in my mind. New York is blue, New York City is bluer, and Brooklyn is nearly indigo, but with money moving into the boroughs, you never know.

I kept moving and saw crowds of people standing in a small clearing, with police officers nearby. I spoke to two of them, asking what was going on. “Captain America. It’s his 75th anniversary.” I moved closer to the milling group and saw young college students in platform heels and pigtails tied with the stars and stripes, little boys with shields and masks, and dads whose well-worn t-shirts could, at least on this day, be worn publicly without a rolled eye from their spouses.

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Nearly everyone was looking in the same direction, and I followed their gaze, to see this:

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SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.COMICBOOKRESOURCES.COM/ARTICLE/BRROKLYNITES-ARENT-THRILLED-WITH-INCOMING-CAPTAIN-AMERICA-STATUE

Evidently, some Brooklynites are unhappy with this installation (yes, it’s a real statue). Yet I was hugely relieved…and then saddened. How is it possible that over the years, the sight of the American flag plus congregants in open spaces has become menacing? It speaks to our times, our public discourse, our sense of belonging and fear intermingled in the same national identity. Am I American? Yes. Am I the American that people like Donald Trump and his followers say I should be, fighting to make our country “great” again and accepting the currency of intimidation and incitement of violence? I certainly hope not.

What immigrants are good for

It’s an interesting question. A crude parallel can be made between this question and the question of bilingualism. Both enrich the host country (the former, the U.S. or any other literal receiving nation; the latter, the “host” of the speaker’s brain/cognitive function), both contribute various forms of diversity, benefitting the economy in the former case and one’s ability to think creatively and adapt to new situations (see here, here and here for examples of associated research), and both add resources in times of deficit and change.

But if you’re not connected to immigrants or a variety of languages through your work or your social environment, why should you care, really? The trope espoused by Donald Trump and others, that immigrants are here to steal work from and violate the native-born, has been soundly defeated by solid research over the years, and yet threads through an American consciousness increasingly clotted with fear and anger as powerlessness and disaffection rise. The brown people he indicts publicly in his displays of chest-beating become a fearsome enemy to be inspected for benefit, briefly, before the doors are shut and walls are built. Demographically overlapping at times though not synonymous with “immigrants,” speakers of languages other than English tend to be found in urban centers, far from the safe belts of White conservatives whose “authentic American” thinking is referred to as politicos and pundits haggle over issues like “political correctness” in critiquing decisions about gender-neutral bathrooms or trans-friendly policies.

In truth, the reasons why foreign-born participants in U.S. society are “valuable” can indict the interests particular to the person listing them. A video showing the fervent arguments of Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics where I study at the Graduate Center in New York, is a case in point. Kaku asserts that foreign-born students benefit the science community in the United States, which struggles with the shoddy fodder provided by our intellectually deficient educational system (with, Kaku states, its rising “stupid index”), buoying up our economy as it is driven by Silicon Valley and other job creators in business. Importantly, the distinction between “immigrant” and “foreign-born” should be made (as it is unfortunately not in the blog post that inspired me to write). Nonetheless, this expresses the neoliberal ideology that defines how we perceive value and normalcy in education, business, and other human pursuits in the 21st century. The value of foreigners, says this viewpoint, is directly related to how they can contribute to our economy, to our ability to compete on the world stage with other major economic powers. Donald Trump himself could not disagree with this, as low-status Mexican workers helped him build major components of his empire. Thus, we can justify their presence here on such apolitical terms that allay American anxiety over the precarious hold we seem to have over our position as leader of the world in so many respects.

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BY СУБОЧЕВА ЮЛИЯ (OWN WORK) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (HTTP://CREATIVECOMMONS.ORG/LICENSES/BY-SA/4.0)], VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Is this what immigrants are good for? I can’t answer this question directly but must instead ask another: Would we suggest that our own children are valuable and “good” for the United States for the same reasons, e.g., their fitting into the puzzle of how to remain in our most assumed position of global economic power? What rings as a reductive stance for our innocent progeny seems somehow acceptable for adults who speak and look different from us coming to this country. Kaku may feel passionate about the need to challenge our ignorance of how we maintain global preeminence in science and technology, but his rather romanticized discussion still invokes a discourse that dehumanizes and constrains human potential, agency, and variety in an apolitical and logical course of events. Foreign-born people should not be commodified and sorted according to how much they keep us on top. Arguing from such a perspective reinforces the same neoliberal model in which atomization, dehumanization, and alienation have become commonplace and, worse, increasingly normal.

Silence in education and ed research: taking off the crusader’s cape

I’m reading a book entitled “Perspectives on Silence,” an oldie-but-goodie text on the various constructions, interpretations, and meanings of silence from various disciplinary perspectives. I’m very interested in this topic as it relates to my work on how research involving asymmetries of power influence the construction of knowledge, particularly in interviewing and survey-based data collection. Explorations of this topic by Miller (2010) and others update the conversation as it relates to adult immigrants, especially those who are not first-language speakers of English. Questions include, “How does a researcher’s position of power, in terms of cultural capital and linguistic capital, social class, race/ethnicity and senses of belonging, and symbolic status as a highly educated person, influence the way information is shared?” and “How does silence express more than a speaker’s pause to gather her thoughts?”

I spoke with some of my graduate students last night — all of whom are teachers in New York public schools — asking them about how they see silence in educational contexts. The response I got from several students, all raised and schooled in China, added dimension to the insights from the text. They stated that in their country’s schools, speaking in class, especially in order to challenge a teacher’s authority on a particular topic, was considered to be a sign of disrespect. Further, such a communicative move could open the speaker up to embarrassment and shaming. My students volunteered that even in group settings without an explicit authority figure, it was often the case that silence was a tacit offer of approval to a speaker, even though the listener might ask questions or contradict the speaker in private later. Such interesting ideas, and of course it begs questions relating to cultural difference, as well as how my students, as teachers, evaluated things like fluency or considered questions of personality, which in reality are very much culturally defined (case in point: many ESL teachers will say that Japanese and Korean students are “shy,” which is a self-contradicting comment…if they are all shy, then none of them are shy.)

These thoughts bring me back to my upcoming research, in which I work with adult immigrants who are “low-status” in terms of educational background, social class, language ability, race/ethnicity, gender, (dis)ability, and/or many other reasons, and how my participants could be silent in their interviews or their talk in focus groups. Perhaps I could even silence them in the ways I collect information, through question design and even the ways our socially-based power relationship plays out in a micro environment like a conversation in English. Such questions relate to the concept of interactional dynamics and speak to epistemological inconsistencies in research. Papers by Dodson and Schmalzbauer (2005) and Miller (2011) explore these topics and will shape my work as I move forward toward into the dissertation phase of my PhD. The real preoccupation is the political commitment to what lies beneath the work: to understanding that even the greatest of social crusaders can write over the stories of her participants through unequal power dynamics and assumptions about research participants who are poor, speak and think differently, and have different abilities and literacies than she does.

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SOURCE: HTTP://COMICVINE.GAMESPOT.COM/IMAGES/1300-4347966

The objects of our mission: disability and subjectivity in social media

A friend of mine wrote an article recently about an interesting phenomenon in the ubiquitous conversation about social media: the use of the Internet to access voice, subjectivity, and visibility in new virtual spaces. The article refers to a mildly ironic story of a Russian website, “Dvach,” which in the past has opened up space for misogynistic attacks by regular citizens on women who been in pornographic movies (no men were pursued in the witch hunt, I’m guessing), yet whose comment boards have recently given rise to a different, more socially progressive outcome. Evidently, a woman calling herself Yelena Ovechkina who lives in Kazakhstan posted a video on YouTube about her life as a real live PWD (person with a disability). She speaks to the camera during the video, stating “invalids are people, too.” The article wrapped up with an important idea:

Ovechkina says she loves the Internet, especially because it lets her reach out to fellow disabled people and learn more about their lives. But most of the information available about disabled people is depressing, she complains, and that’s why she decided to record videos about her own life, which she says is a happy one. “I want to show the other side of disabled people’s lives. After all, it’s not all lousy, hard, and sad,” she says, smiling.

The story is a poignant one about the ways in which public opinion shifts via the ticker tape of information on social media, as it translates into awareness of different ways of being. A single user on Dvach drew the attention of the other participants on the site to the video, and the connections made across the world included tributes and well-wishing. Of course one can comment that social psychology plays a hand; who hasn’t seen a Facebook post that they liked because they thought they should participate in some sort of ethical box-checking not unlike signing a yearbook in a certain way because you know others will see what you wrote (or didn’t)?

Still, the story is meaningful and important, not least because of Ovechkina’s comments about her life with disability. She is a real person with individual experiences in disability, someone who has subjectivity in her experiences and her ways of articulating them. It is easy to make assumptions about others as they are represented to us by media or by hearsay, something which is particularly complicated when we think about people who are depicted as the downtrodden, the lost, the pushed aside by society.

I experienced similar changes to my understanding when I wrote a blog as a graduate assistant at UMass Boston a few years ago. Every week, I posted about different topics regarding inclusion in the workplace, as well as the community(ies) who participate in the conversation about disability in society. A powerful shift in my own thinking came gradually, as I realized that it’s one thing to post on/about and another to dialogue with ideas and people, and that positionality is central to the construction of truth in the public space. Did I think I speak for people with disabilities? Did I choose to represent them, and if so, who was I to do so? How did my representations contribute to (mis)information, and how could I be more interested in acting as a moderator or facilitator than simply a conveyer of a version of truth that kept me in a posture of authority while the people I was writing about were simply my latest subject?

An example of alternative authority and subjectivity in such speech is called Autistic Hoya, an eponymous blog written by a young person who identifies as “queer, trans*, asexual, fat, disability, gender, and sex positive; anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, and anti-racist; and inclusive of, accessible to, and affirming of all bodies/minds.” Autistic Hoya has published since 2011 on a number of topics related to a critical view of dominant paradigms, forces of oppression, and injustice enacted through ableism in American society. Yet also, the blog, like Ovechkina’s YouTube video, expresses the real voice and real face of a real person with disabilities. It is not seeking pity or attention. It is speaking to express one lived experience in a shared space where norms are highly dynamic and ideas pop and splash constantly.

This is the remaking of power relations and definitions through access on a new stage to an audience that didn’t know it wasn’t listening. Attending to this construction of meaning in fluid spaces of sharing and dialogue demands that the self-righteous banner of saviorism be lowered and real action, through listening and interrogating assumptions, become possible. While we in the able, dominant groups believe we have a mission, it may not be one which includes the voices and leaders it should truly have.

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PHOTO BY SUE AUSTIN

Be(com)ing a professor

My professors at the Graduate Center tell me that my work as a scholar and a new professor — I work as an adjunct at two colleges in the CUNY system — is a process of socialization, one which involves me becoming a professor as I learn, experience, and grow by doing. I love this idea. I think it speaks to what is most true about learning: that it is personal, meaningful but differently so according to where and who we each are, and transformative.

Tonight, my students showed me this, yet again. It’s been a fantastic class and a blessing in my life, one which I look forward to every week. Our last meeting tonight was a sad one for me, and I thanked them for everything the course has meant and all the great work they’ve done, as well the community we’ve built together. I handed out Self-Evaluation forms for my students to complete, as a means of reflecting on the semester and pulling together the ideas we’re taking away from class. Reading them on the way home, one comment struck me, and made me realize how far we’d all come together:

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I always thought that the highest compliment a teacher could receive was, “I loved this class” or “My teacher was the best.”

I stand corrected.

Relying on “experts” and the problem of expertise

I teach a class about emergent bilinguals and bilingual education in the United States. This week, we’re talking about what constitutes a “successful” program, a highly polemical topic stemming from Civil Rights Era-challenges to the status quo, though the debate about the official language of America and what language to school our children in has origins in the earliest days of the republic. We’re exploring how — and whose — decision-making determines programming for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs), drawing from empirical study, learning theory, and experiences in different schools across the country. One of our readings for class, Successful Bilingual Schools: Six Effective Programs in California, documented “successes” in spite of challenges relating to funding, political opposition to bilingual education, and the ubiquitous pressures to compete, be accountable, and prepare for future job opportunities which can often shackle schooling to the leg of capitalistic destiny-making.

A question I often ask — and did in class last night — is, who is the expert in this conversation? Whose words and experience carry more weight, and why? It’s often the case that expertise comes with many letters after one’s name, conferring value through years of study and research, as well as official titles like “Secretary of _______________” or “Director of _______________.” But for those of us seeking to reach such generally unchallenged heights of expertise, the truth must always be maintained: we can’t know what happens in all given schools, for all children and parents and teachers, within all communities. An obvious statement, to be sure, but the point our class came to last night is important: Local context matters. Student voice and choice matter. What happens in a New York City French-English bilingual program may simply be implausible in Lubbock, Texas, for reasons ranging from resources to political will to community views of language use to geography.

A complicating issue is how we, as progressive thinkers in education, involve students’ communities, especially their parents, in the conversation about bilingual education. This is an asset view of students’ cultural knowledge, arguing that their family backgrounds, cultural knowledges and practices, and community histories inform their ways of experiencing and making meaning through schooling. I struggle with the asset view at times, because it’s a theory that often meets resistance on political and economic grounds. Many parents are often unable to participate more as they are pushed away, outside, beyond the walls of a school by prejudice or struggle with pressures to earn money and work harder to support their family. Some schools think they are including parents in decision-making when in reality, they are simply dictating what parents’ behavior should be. Other parents feel that this is exactly what schools should do: make all the decisions and manage their kids for 7-8 hours per day. Another issue stems from beliefs about rightness in language use. Is it a service provided to “low-status” families to help them assimilate, or a process of enrichment like a foreign language, or else the building of political opportunity and ability to participate in civic engagement?

Schooling in general is complicated, and it is experts that are invited to weigh in on what is best for our nation’s youth. Yet I’m glad that we finished the class last night with the question far from resolved. I emphasize the power that teachers, educational scholars, and policy makers have over others, a power that is too often underproblematized outside and even within the academy. Our ability to tell someone, “Yes, this is right” is historically determined and therefore contingent. While we can argue we have years of expertise, we don’t live the life of our students, and the portal via which we attempt to see in — empirical study — is fraught with complications that include bias, silencing, and misinterpretation. The posture of inquiry and uncertainty, uncomfortable though it may be, is an important one given the risk of replicating injustices past. Considering the current state of affairs when it comes to racial achievement gaps or disparities in educational outcomes for ELLs compared to American-born children, we clearly need to be asking why all of our highly-paid experts haven’t resolved these problems yet.