Pile of Old Books vs. Citizens as Critical Participants in the Great Education Debates
For a scholar, hiding research behind journal pay walls and subscriptions is safety. As comfortable and warm as cuddling up with a blanket and a book in front a fireplace on a cool fall evening. Should faculty only focus on this traditional notion of scholarly activity in 2014? In 2006, I came to the University of Texas at Austin as a junior faculty member fresh out of graduate school. The department was in a period of transition at the time, as the previous generation of scholars was heading into retirement. One of the aspects of this transition that caused me to ponder the future role of my research was the stacks and stacks of out-of-date journals and books in the hallways that the departing faculty had left behind. I pondered what should and would become of my research in the short-term and the long-term?
I am an educational policy analyst. Inherently in politics and education, there are positions staked out in any given topic under study. I remember early in my career, I published a peer-reviewed paper based on my dissertation critical of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing that didn’t sit well with certain people at UT-Austin— I was given a stern talking to. Then, in 2009, that same paper competed university-wide and won the Hamilton Award as The University of Texas at Austin’s best research paper— a first for the College of Education, a person of color, and a junior faculty member. Despite the award, the admonishment that I received served as a warning that my scholarship on equity and educational policy was going to attract adversaries. So I laid low for six years.
In 2012, I emerged from my tenure process chrysalis. In the fall, I decided that I was going to undertake a post-tenure blog project. I was initially inspired to begin the blog because of a media release authored by the KIPP charter schools that was responding to a peer-reviewed paper that we had published examining charter school attrition in the Berkeley Review of Education. Data from this same paper caused Jonathan Alter to blow his top and accuse me of “dissing” charters when I discussed the research on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show. Without a blog— facing criticism— I had no recourse to discuss the merits of the scholarship in the public space.
I named my new blog Cloaking Inequity as homage to the concept of camouflage from Critical Race Theory (CRT). What is camouflage and CRT? Yosso et al. related that CRT in education challenges the traditional claims of the educational system such as objectivity, meritocracy, color-blindness, race neutrality, and equal opportunity” (p. 4). They continue that CRT theorists argue that, “these traditional claims act as a camouflage for the self-interest, power, and privilege of dominant groups in U.S. society” (p. 4).
Once I began the blog, I realized that there were unlimited avenues in the social media to share the blog with the public— from LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter. I surmised that my scholarship could extend from the proverbial “ivory tower” to the public space in ways that I had never imagined. For example, when testifying at the Texas Senate, several legislators stopped me in the hallway to remark that they had read one of the recent posts on Cloaking Inequity.
Cloaking Inequity is scholarly. It provides a public platform to release recent book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and policy reports. Furthermore, instead of waiting a year to publish in the traditional journal format, I can provide rapid scholarship to the public via statistical analyses that are relevant for the discourse surrounding hot education reform topics. The blog is also a tool by which I invite colleagues across the nation to contribute critical perspectives in posts examining various timely educational policy issues. I am also able to provide voice to teachers and others who have important educational reform counter-narrative to share. As of February 2014, Cloaking Inequity has now reached hundreds of thousands of readers from 170 countries.
There is heat that comes with your scholarship entering the public space. The ad hominem has been particularly noteworthy. Here are a few examples in response to research published on Cloaking Inequity.
You have done a disservice for prostituting your services… You are a joke. Hope you don’t ever set your face in our community.
Look, I’m going to guess that, in spite of the glamour-shot pose on your blog, you really don’t have a lot of street in you…You do your colleagues no favors by dragging your credentials and their name through this particular trailer park…
It’s actually a little painful for me to see a… totally distorted view… It should be painful, too, for taxpayers covering their professors’ salaries.
My mother always told me, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” It’s true that scholars have their squabbles, but when your scholarship enters the public space the venom rises to new levels of potency. There are other costs that result from making your scholarship more accessible to the public. I have experienced and noted that it can cause you to be disinvited from events, affect your ability to receive grants from some organizations and can impact your colleagues who must interact with individuals in the public space that are antagonistic towards your scholarship.
However, there are clearly benefits that outweigh the costs. Stanley Fish recently described his perceived role of scholars in the New York Times. He stated, “Academic work proceeds within the confines of that world, within, that is, a professional, not a public, space, although its performance may be, and often is, public.” In a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, he wrote, “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates” because “an [academic] culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Kristof concluded by challenging, “There are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago… So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”
This new era of media has enabled scholars to make their research and data more accessible to the public via social and traditional media such as blogs, radio and television. However, the traditional measurement of success, tenure, and promotion in the academy do not typically value these types of public engagement. There are some metrics such as Edweek’s RHSU public influence rankings of faculty across the U.S. that are now including such valuations. Regardless, I proffer it is incumbent upon scholars to make their work more accessible to the public and allow their research and data to be more available to the public’s “great debates.” Faculty, if they so choose, can integrate their scholarship into society in new ways via social and traditional media. Media is the technological canvass by which scholars can empower citizens as critical consumers of emerging knowledge and leave a lasting legacy beyond a pile of discarded books and journals forgotten in a hallway post-retirement.
This blog first appeared here on The Equity Alliance blog at Arizona State University. This piece also served as the basis of my remarks in the Research and Advocacy panel at the Network for Public Education Austin, Texas conference on March 1, 2014.
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