SIC Scholarship

I can’t read everything, even in the subfields of my particular interests. If someone asks me if I’ve read a particular piece, chances are the answer is either “no” or “I have no idea.” In other words, it’s very hard for a piece to stick in my memory because there are so, so many. I say this because this essay here is entirely subjective, and intentionally so.

When I think about what articles stick to my ribs, so to speak, and the type of scholarship and public engagement in which I hope to participate and that I would like to encourage in my colleagues and compatriots, I have begun to codify (though not quantify) my interests along three different scales.

I hope to read, share, and create, SIC scholarship.

S(trong), I(mportant), and C(ompelling).

Strong is the most traditional aspect of it, the scholarly rigor. Basically, peer-reviewed, though I know this excludes some valuable work. This is what I need to continue to learn about in my methods classes and my other coursework. I don’t know that I agree with the way rigor is defined, and it’s surely used as a gatekeeping tool, but if I’m going to cite something and it’s going to be criticized for relying on something not considered rigorous, then I should be aware ahead of time. For my own reading, I don’t care as much, but especially while I’m in school and soon after, I am mostly reading articles so I can turn around and write. So, yeah, it needs to be strong for me to rely on it, even though I think the journal system is a mess and so are conferences. I can’t exist fully outside of the system just yet.

Important is purely subjective, of course, but to me, it means two main things. It’s important to me if it’s related to my subfields, sure, because I can use it, but it’s also important to me if it seeks to challenge oppression, dominance, white supremacy, etc. This is mostly about the goal of the study or the article. Articles that reify power structures just aren’t important to me, aside from their roles as counterexamples of what I would not like to consume or produce.

And for me, I hope to consume and create work that is Compelling. This is purely about the way people write (or otherwise express themselves). This is what journals really stifle, and if an author can force precise prose into their published piece, it can totally sing. I will cite a piece that’s important and/or strong, usually looking at the findings, but when the introduction or “discussion” sections are particularly compelling, that’s when I hold articles close to my chest.

I think if more of us strove for these qualities, our work would be much better. Imagine if it wasn’t unusual to challenge oppression in our work. Imagine if reading most journals wasn’t dull. Imagine!

This is just a silly idea, but I think it’s a fun concept, and I’m going to hold onto it.

Latest Episode and Thoughts on Two Trains

First of all, new episode is up. You should listen!

Second, I posted recently about which angle I want to take in my research. To remind you, I’m circling white antiracist language teachers as research participants, but also interested in the sort of meta-topic of how to make innovative public scholarship more effectively so. Will this strain bear more fruit, or will it be my more traditional research? Do I need the more traditional research for legitimacy, yet the meta-topic might have a large impact?

Fact is, I have to do the traditional research to graduate, so it’s getting done. And my twitter feed, this website, and my podcast, can serve as informal research on public scholarship. I guess time will tell as to what has had more resonance for more people.

A Long Digression About Radical Public Scholarship Reaching A Broader Audience

I feel like there’s four groups of people.

When it comes to issues of oppression and marginalization, some folks are really curious to learn more, and some folks aren’t curious. Some folks have been exposed to theories, evidence, and data concerning oppression and marginalization, and some haven’t.

So that makes for four quadrants, something you can imagine on a matrix.

People who are incurious but high in their level of exposure. These folks have chosen to shut themselves off from developing an antiracist or antioppresive stance. Maybe they’ll change some day, but for the moment, they’re basically “obstacles.” The president and his people are often in this group. They know what they’re doing.

There are people who are both highly curious but also high in their level of exposure. These folks, like me and many I know, are seeking out everything they can. They (we) are “the choir.”

There are folks who are incurious but low in their level of exposure.  They may learn and grow, and maybe this is where many folks start. This group can be considered “future projects.”

And finally, there’s the fourth group, people who are highly curious but low in their level of exposure. They want to know but they haven’t come into contact with tools that can help them. They’d embrace it if they did, but for whatever reason, they aren’t coming across it. I was once in this group. These are “the targets.”

So, the “future project” group interests me for my empirical research for school. I want to ask how antiracist language teachers developed a deeply felt critical stance. In other words, how did they become curious? Was it being exposed – in school, in conversation, in life – that developed their curiosity? Or was it innate? Were they always pliable and open to learning more? So I want to know that.

BUT.

If someone is already curious, and sympathetic to these issues, what avenues, what media actually reaches them? Is it really journal publishing that is the best way for information, particularly antioppressive literature, to be disseminated? Is it books? Should it be school? What of those who have finished? Is it conferences? (It’s not.) Is it podcasts and other new forms? How do you reach the people who are potential allies to bring into the fold? Is it best to “trojan horse” radical messages into traditional media, or will they eventually find it if we keep it in other places? Is it most effective to work within traditional avenues with more power to promote or to create your own where you can have more control? That might be a good idea for other reasons, and it is surely more satisfying, but do we want to be satisfied, or do we want to reach an audience that’s looking to grow?

I think about this a lot. My recent publication, a few dozen people have definitely read it. More read it as I send it around. There were 25 or so people at the live presentation.

And the recorded version of my presentation has been heard by nearly 300 people. Now that’s not 3 million, but still. That’s a lot more folks. I worked on that presentation (and article) for months. It might get cited someday, and professors may yet use it in class, which is gratifying. But if I want more eyes onw hat I feel is valuable, traditional publication doesn’t seem to serve the purpose of reaching the most folks who may want to develop their stance. In other words, I’m pretty sure, as proud of it as I might be, it’s mostly going to be read by the people who already agree. I love them, and I appreciate it, but how do we, in this antiracist work, get the curious folks who can expand the movement to see this conceptualization?

In other words, how do we get someone outside of our language nerd field to know who Flores and Rosa are? They’re better than a Gladwell, but not as easy for most to digest.

Maybe, however, this is the way it must be. And over time, their ideas (and maybe mine) can trickle into the mainstream. It’s too slow, though. The handful of us educating with these theories in mind can’t reach all the students who need to be shown this love.

This is all to say, I do think, although I’ll continue to try and publish and speak in the traditional way, the new forms of public scholarship might stand a better chance to “convert” and/or push people. I have a small podcast (for now), but whether it’s that, or youtube, or music, or other things, I do think, without dumbing ourselves down, we need to meet the curious on pathways with which they are somewhat familiar. And maybe the previously incurious will join them.

Are journals obsolete? Not entirely, no. Books surely aren’t, and the work that becomes books often begins there (e.g. White Fragility). But I do think sometimes we’re just talking to ourselves in these bubbles while the world burns, and I wish we could be heard and listened to.

 

A Real Teacher

A “professor” who knew me when I was in South Korea once told me I wasn’t a real teacher, and I want to tell you about that to make a point about the state of the ELT field. So, story time.

A little more than ten years ago, sometime in the fall of 2009, I was finishing my second (and final) year teaching English in South Korea. The situation there was interesting. Most of the, as we were called, “guest English teachers” did not have education degrees (in fact, I can’t remember a single one who did), and although many of us (myself included) did acquire week-long certificates in teaching. We didn’t need these certificates to get hired, but it ensured us a marginally higher salary (though we had paid for the course in the first place, so it took about five months to pay for itself). All of us teachers were “native speakers,” hired from a select few countries based on the perception that we would inherently benefit the Korean students by virtue of our NS status. Some of us worked at private language academies (hagwans), some of us (like me) worked at public schools, and a handful worked at universities. The former group often made plenty of money, but worked unusual hours (2-10 or something) and had little job protection when the owners were shady. The public schools didn’t treat us very poorly and it was most likely the most stable of all positions, so I chose this option to minimize risk. But the third group, the universities, while a bit riskier in that they often needed to renew their contracts mid-year (whereas my contract was yearly and nearly impossible to lose), that was a group of folks that really hadn’t earned their status, for the most part.

So the crowd of educators in S. Korea, at least in 2009 (but I am skeptical much has changed from the literature I’ve read), was, as you might be able to tell from the description above, a bunch of wastrels, myself included. It was a shame, because, like any large group of people, there were plenty with the ability and compassion to be effective educators, but there was little incentive to truly commit to the craft, so the only ones who did so were those who were intrinsically motivated to do so. I’m sort of judging us, as a group, mostly because I’m judging my own entitled feelings at the time, but it was accurate to say that very few of us were committed to developing as ELT professionals. For most of us, it was a blip before going back to our real lives, or, in my case, and I said this out loud, starting adulthood. We spent much of our social time in the “expat” social circle, partially because of a language barrier we didn’t really want to try and cross, and partially because we were more comfortable in our original social milieu. We rarely spoke about our teaching aside from telling stories about our “hilarious” students, and most of us lived for the next party. I certainly did.

I say all this to say that if being a real teacher is being committed to the act of teaching, then very few of us were. Some, sure, maybe a handful. And the schools don’t market the experience that way, so that’s who applies. Our orientation was mostly about Korean culture and the basics of the language (useful!), and the one or two sessions we had on actual instruction were largely ignored (including by me).

A few of us ended up continuing as educators after the time in Korea was over. We may well have become real teachers. But when that professor told me I wasn’t a real teacher, I was really upset by it… because he was right. By that time, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in the future, and coming to realize that I did want to be a teacher long-term. I had planned to become an NYC Teaching Fellow or something, but ultimately got an MA in TESOL. But in 2009 in Korea, I wasn’t a real teacher. I was play-acting at the craft, like everyone I knew there. And I was embarrassed that this was true. I had spent the second half of my second year trying to really connect with the students and challenge the assumptions I’d been handed, but I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

The issue, though, is that the entire profession, in the way it’s constructed, especially the “expat” field, is not designed to develop real teachers. We’re built to be facsimiles of “authentic” English language, assumed to have expertise without having demonstrated as such, especially if we’re white.

I write about these issues because, honestly, I think our field is pretty hypocritical. Not so much the individuals, but collectively. We speak about wanting increased professionalism and more stable employment, but at the same time we’re happy to employ and promote unprofessional jokers. This guy who insulted me in 2009, in the middle of an argument I don’t even remember, was a guy who spent all of his time trying to get mini-magazines off the ground and start businesses that repeatedly failed. He had the title of professor without any qualifications besides native speaker status. But to the ELT field, it remains acceptable to hire these folks over people who don’t fit inside our narrow box. And this holds all of us in the field back.

ELT will continue to mistreat its more vulnerable and committed professionals, its real teachers, until we collectively fight back against the supremacy of unqualified people who feel, as I once did, entitled to teaching positions by virtue of their birth location. We’ll never escape the traps we have set for ourselves until we face what we’ve done.

In Dialogue

I have a piece that is up for possible publishing (at this point, I would like them to conclude their review, but that’s not how journals work), and I have a longterm research plan.

I won’t get too deep into it, but it involves investigating anti-racist praxis in English language teaching and trying to determine if it has common origins that can be replicated, if it comes from “moments of disruption” or, to use the language of addiction, “moments of clarity,” or some other type of “moment” I can label later.

But I can’t get to that endpoint until later in my classwork, after I make my way through the IRB and begin to collect data. You can hear about that in 2021 or 2022.

For now, though, I’m just writing. Building muscular strength. And I think, regardless of what I do with my career, anything I publish (so, not this stuff) needs to be in dialogue with what comes before and after.

I used to think it was arrogant for people to cite themselves, and while that’s still possible, I get it now. You need to create a dialogue and a path of development and evolution.

As it stands now, the only thing I have possibly published is about a defense mechanism that prevents anti-racist work in the field. I am planning to respond to a call for papers this December, and I’ve been debating about what to wrie. The CFP is related to anti-racism, so the theme is clear, but do I leave the whole “defense mechanism” part out of my next piece?

I thought about this since I completed my successful presentation last week. I need to build on that but also reach higher. Connect but not repeat myself. Try for big things in my writing, but make sure it’s realistic, as I still lack data.

So, I decided that, before I even gather data, I want to use my ideas about the reflexive defensiveness and cowardly “niceness” pervaving the field to ask how possible anti-racism even is in the field. This CFP is asking for 6,000 words, which is a lot, and whether or not I get in, I plan to use it as an exercise to really lay out all of my thoughts and opinions on how the field needs to change if anti-racism is going to become possible at all.

As it stands right now, anti-racist English language teaching is basically an oxymoron, and I intend to propose what would be necessary for that to no longer be true. This way the writing speaks backwards with my previous piece and looks ahead to my research, and a sensible path is built. If rejected, will reform for a different proposal and just keep it going.

(Sort of) published!

I have (sort of) been published. It is not something I can really say is journal-level, though I do think journals, especially the exclusive, pay-walled kind, are outdated in a lot of ways. But in terms of being reviewed and approved by my peers, this is the first time my writing has been through others and then been released. My first official-official publication is pending (you will surely hear about it if it occurs), but this is cool. And those who have read it seem to find it resonant.

The article is here, though the formatting is awful on their site, so I would advise you to download the newsletter. I’m on page 7.

I won’t recap the whole thing, but the gist of the article is a debate I have with myself as to whether the racial discrimination in ELT should be referred to as racism, systemic racism, or white supremacy, and why. The conclusion I come to is that all of them are accurate, but that racism and white supremacy might cause far too much white fragility to be productive, and also using “systemic” is precise in that it forces people to stop thinking racism is the province of Bad Individuals. The fact that it seems to really resonate is genuinely special to me, and I want to remember this feeling.

The best thing about it, though, is that the theme of the issue is “diversity,” and that’s a dumb theme, and I made a point of saying so, and, surprisingly, they left it in. The pull quote is,

The use of the term diversity obscures the deeper issues at play, and is often diluted into a call for diversity of thought that contributes to ongoing racial erasure, leaving us precisely where we began.

And yes, I could indeed tag that as (Gerald, 2019). 🙂

 

A Dream Coming Into Focus

The class I’m enjoying the most this fall is a research seminar where we basically get time to deeply consider the direction of our work and pursuits. We’ve only had 2 sessions (vs 4 of the other classes) and will only have two more, but in just these two times, I’ve gone from basically being completely uncertain about where to go with my research to pretty well set.

Leaving aside the particulars of quant/qual and the actual work I hope to publish, let me tell you about a dream I have.

These days, most English Language Teachers are, as I’ve said before, Teachers of Standardized English, even if they don’t refer to themselves that way. They’re mostly white, like any group of educators, and there is, in my view, a not-great undercurrent of savior syndrome in the field. It’s not bad for a job to be fulfilling, but too many of us see our job as some sort of charity, and unless we’re volunteering (which some ELT folks are, but still), it’s still a job with professional standards and expectations. I want this image to die.

What I want to do isn’t to make English stop being taught. That’s silly, because, for all the railing I could do about colonialism and racism, people still move to places where the language is spoken and want to acquire it. But imagine this, if you will: An adult moves to New York and, like their relatives before them, is absorbed into a community of their home language. They want to go to school and/or work, so they decide they need to acquire more English. They don’t have the money to pay for a private language academy, and they hear about a nonprofit or another organization that offers free or low-cost classes. So they go and sign up and return for the first day of class. If this was happening now (and it is probably happening literally today), they get to their first class and it’s a smiling white woman, and the student has about a 50/50 chance of leaving before the session ends. But imagine they get to class and there’s a teacher from their own community at the front of the room. Imagine someone who knows their experience existing in a world that oppresses them racially and culturally. The person doesn’t necessarily have to speak their language – in NYC, you can’t be expecting everyone to speak every language, after all – but just that sharead experience would go a long way. I remain convinced – and there’s research backing me up, though not in the same context – that part of the reason my classes were so well-attended at my last job was the shared experience of being something of an outsider, even though it wasn’t always voiced.

I don’t mean to say we should kick out the good teachers we have. No. But there are always new Standardized English teachers being developed, and especially since it’s often a second career type of thing, we have the opporunity – and, I’d argue, the obligation – to change the new faces we place in these spaces.

How do we get there? The work I hope to do would catalogue how often race and other forms of oppression are part of new Standardized English teachers’ syllabi and/or lessons, and then I would speak to professors who emphasize these issues to have them share why these topics are so important for new teachers to learn. From there, if I can publish on these things, I can find work promoting these ideas, and maybe the industry can grow and change in some small way. Maybe.

For now, it’s just a dream, but at the very least, it’s never been clearer and more tangible than it is now.

Of Two Minds

I feel as though I’m of two minds at all times when it comes to the work I am doing (and hope to continue doing) in the field. So these are some conflicted thoughts I have that I believe others committed to social justice in education can relate to.

On the one hand, I would prefer never to publish in journals that the public (and really, I just mean the educator public, since other folks probably won’t care) can’t access without paying. I think open-source is the future and it’s the only fair way.

On the other hand, the open-source journals don’t carry the same weight as PRESTIGE. And you need the Names to do a lot of things in academic or academic-adjacent work.

On the one hand, there is so much I want to write and say that is critical of the education I have received thus far and how I feel I’ve been let down, particularly as a learner of color.

On the other hand, would I not be in the position I am in to write the way that I write had I not attended these institutions? Can I prove the counterfactual that I’d be better off had I studied in other places? I cannot. It’s a sample size of one, and there’s no control group, to be a wonk about it.

On the one hand, I want to shout that there is such a poor understanding of the ordinariness of systemic racism that, yes, you can perpetuate it even if you’re a “good person.” I have perpetuated it too.

On the other hand, to make any progress, I’ll need support from a broader community, and I can’t be running around with a rhetorical flamethrower this early in my career.

On the one hand, any writing and presentations I do may make more of a splash if provocative.

On the other hand, they’re likelier to just not be accepted/published, or, if they are, just make a splash while sinking to the bottom after a short burst of activity. Provocation isn’t sustainable, because you just end up chasing it instead of doing good work after a while.

This last point is the crux of the internal debate I have now made external: it might feel cathartic to poke people, but it’s not very productive to make that a goal in itself. If it happens, be prepared, embrace it, roll with it. But if you just want to shake people up for its own sake, you won’t really succeed for more than half a second, even though the system does need to be shaken to its core.

So that leaves all of us, with a clear-eyed view of what needs to change, looking for small ways to chip away at a mountain. By the time it’s reshaped we won’t be here, but the small steps are worth taking anyway. At least that’s what I choose to tell myself. On the other hand…

 

 

Using New Tools for New Things

EdTech is definitely a thing. It’s very much a thing.

Any educator who tries to pretend they can have a full career without using some form of EdTech is just being foolish, although I know a few like that.

The tragedy, of course, is that the tech giants got involved and turned it into an “efficiency” machine, which really just means “profit.” But I don’t really fault them for it, because corporations will corporation.

Yet, unless you can find one and show it to me, there hasn’t been a single study proving that even with all the tools in the world, marginalized students still struggle relative to those in dominant groups. Of course, this just means they are problematized, their cultures, languages, and races become pathologized, and deeply concerned people fret about various “gaps,” be it language, achievement, or what have you.

The problem is schools are cruel to them and they’re not given the support needed that would foster healthy motivation. But it would require school leaders, and teachers, to admit culpability to change this, and this is the biggest battle.

(Before someone jumps in with, “Teachers work hard!” Of course they do. We still do things in a way that’s harmful for the marginalized and we need to do better.)

EdTech doesn’t really have any solutions for this, yet. It can provide lesson plans and help with assessment and grading. It can help students prepare for exams and do research more easily. For all its faults, EdTech has the ability to be of great use. But if our educational institutions are meant to push our society forward by training future generations – and I believe, ultimately, that that is the purpose of schooling – then it needs to turn its focus to improving the way educators support the marginalized. I suppose there isn’t really any money in that sort of thing just yet. But it won’t meet its potential as a subfield until it addresses this need.

American History S

I hear, and have been hearing, a lot about how we should model ourselves after the lessons found in Scandinavian countries, or sometimes East Asia. I even read an entire book, The Smartest Kids In The World, about these and other similar places and their educational outcomes, which compare favorably to ours. And it’s true, certainly, that our system is rife with injustice from the moment a child is born to a family outside of the dominant groups.

I once admired that book, and even tried to contact the author after I read it (really, I did). But in growing more comfortable expressing the true beliefs you’ve seen me write about here recently, I now understand that there is no way to import the system of other countries without reckoning with the uniquely brutal history of our nation.

I imagine us, with a different administration, deciding to model a new public school system off of that in Finland or the Netherlands or Denmark or Japan. And I imagine how spectacularly it would fail. Similarly, as much as I agree with and support a move towards a more socialist economic system, replacing our current practices with those of another country without a true reckoning of what America is will just lead to disappointment. (We should still do it, though.)

You see, lots of other countries have violence in their pasts (and present). We are hardly the only country guilty of imperialism or predatory capitalism.

But it’s really only us, only the United States, that founded itself on not just the backs of slaves, but upon the lie that Americans could achieve equality without considering the humans we refused to recognize as such. Genocide is not an American concept, nor is slavery, but we are a country that wouldn’t exist without the way we came to be, and any changes we attempt to make that refuse to confront our deep moral failings will be half-measures that won’t lead to anything truly transformative.

To put a pin on it, we can’t become a better country without seriously grappling with the white supremacy in our blood, and we can’t reform our schools without dismantling the white supremacy that they depend on.

For educators, there is no neutral. It’s not fair, I know, to ask us to do more than the hard work we already do, but you don’t go into education to be treated fairly or paid well. (Well, you shouldn’t.) Any educator who isn’t actively fighting inequity – my focus is racial but there are many other forms of marginalization – is just supporting the status quo. And the status quo is a deeply American form of marginalization.

We can’t absolve ourselves of something we can’t admit we did in the first place. I understand that it’s probably painful to grapple with the enormity of what has been visited upon people of color in this country, so, even as many of us stand in front of students who are living through this reality, we would rather pretend it doesn’t exist, or pretend that each incident of racism is just the behavior of a Big Bad Person rather than the result of a system that values one group over all others.

Guilt doesn’t really help us, though; it’s paralyzing. Yes, we’re guilty, to some extent, but what’s more important is that we’re responsible, and have been since we chose to become educators. Because of the way our country was built, because of how it has always been run, it is our responsibility as educators to confront our history with honesty and humility. Our students deserve this. Our country deserves this. And, in the end, we deserve this.