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of the aspects of this transition that caused me to ponder the future role of my research was the stacks and stacks of out-of-date journals and books in the hallways that the departing faculty had left behind.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 chapterspeer-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 blogsradio 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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  • Thank you Julian for this timely and insightful view into how your Blog got started.

    Before electronic media of any kind existed; roughly from the time of our beginnings as a country to the period of WWI, or so, – print media; newspapers, magazines, and books held great sway- it seems to me. Print media advanced theories, ideas, and ideologies that shaped our social world. And, I learned from books, only, in my college lifetime- I’m 70. For another, example, I just learned from a 90 year old historian who read a paper at a seminar I attended. I learned that Tolstoy passed on a copy of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” to Gandhi who in turn used the ideas (even named his movement in Hindu- using a term meaning “Civil Disobedience”) with his cause in India.

    In Thoreau’s case, he was protesting the “Mexican War” and the only war until Iraq 2, where the U.S., attacked another sovereign nation without provocation. He went to jail to protest rather than pay a “war tax’ because he believed correctly that the political agenda by wealthy plantation owners was to advance slavery with that war. It was said that when Emerson visited Thoreau, Emerson said, “Why are you in there?” to which Thoreau answered, “Why are you out there?”

    As a high school teacher- Why am I out here? I now struggle with what seems to many of my students to be an arcane book curriculum filled with histories and literature, including Thoreau, of the past – and not important!

    It’s difficult to motivate them, sometimes, with the cultural legacies I’m assigned to pass on to this next generation- and, in this social space of the post-modern high school I’m often confused- as a teacher.

    Electronic media beginning with radio, then TV; at first, were tightly controlled by opinion makers- at first.

    Now, media has evolved technologically to where theories and ideas and ideals and ideologies and beliefs and “knowledge” all seem to compete as though each individual’s thought is equivalent- and revered thinkers like Thoreau, are sometimes found wanting.

    Meanwhile, in the Supreme Court, worried opinion makers with a “marketizing” “materialistic” view of society, in contrast to Thoreau, and the “Walden Societies” in England of the 19th and early 20th century, have fought in court and have won the opportunity spend their billions to advance their economic and social agenda and try to win the collective minds of the public.

    Today, social media has allowed students to actively compare their thoughts and their ideas, in a world where ” virtual knowledge’ is “virtually” accessible at their finger tips in my class – literally- on their Ipads, their Ipods, their e-tablets-notebooks, and on their lap tops!
    All of them know how to use GPS to find their own and other important locations- and to view places, photographs, images, where only a few years ago, “imagination” or arduous trips only to a library made such information available. UTube and other digital media provide near TV quality “reality” in real time and sometimes there’s not much I can say that can compete with “virtual reality” in proximity to the ‘social reality” and natural adolescent angst as students secretly, or openly (depending on adult efforts to control their behavior) txt and email each other continuously.

    Cloaking Inequity- the title alone- names the struggle being addressed. On your Blog, Julian, I find your creativity with images, and the interchange of ideas with the use of actual rigorous scholarship all to be intertwined. You present to the “virtual public square” and you are leading the way, in my view, as Thoreau did. You are in contrast to the marketizing and attempts to turn education into nothing more than for job seeking. I believe you are leading us where education is headed in many ways anyway- whether the e-industrialists like it or not. As a high school teacher, I’m just running and trying to catch up with my students so as to pretend to lead them.


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  • inspireteaching001123

    Reblogged this on Inspire Teaching.


  • JVH, You are spot on (again) in your analysis. Research for sale, or purchase, has become inherently suspect, all across the scientific landscape. With the proliferation of new knowledge, the “gated communities” can no longer claim the ability to withhold or control access (nor should they be able to). Just as water seeks it’s own level, the proliferation of new knowledge/perspective seeks dissemination. (Yep, it carries some junk on/in it, but so do those trusted journals). And, the new intellectual highway carries with it a new, quite robust version of peer review.
    “Onward and upward,” my Friend (as they say in the Chronicles of Narnia).


  • Julian, Good stuff here. I wrestle with these issues quite a bit and this has given me a lot to think about. As a new Department Chair, I’m in a new space to think about how my department, faculty and the university engage and don’t engage via social media. The culture you describe here is very real–many still view this as self-promotion, and as you know in academe, this is not only frowned upon but there can be serious consequences for it. The Kristof quotes are great, and you mitt also be interested in the Joel Westheimer case from a few years back:http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_text/v020/20.4westheimer.html. It also begs the question for all of us who produce scholarship, university-based or not–who are our exemplars? The likes of Diane Ravitch and Noam Chomsky or the folks who remain in the comfort of “traditional” academic fora like PR journals, conference presentations and the like…good post. Keep up the good work…


  • The academic publishing cycle is too slow and the issues are too urgent for us to keep our insights hidden from the people who can benefit from them the most. And in the fast news cycle era where managing messages has become a corporate game, the moderate discourse of academics can add value, even if we don’t always talk in soundbites. Thanks for your blog. Thanks for your work.


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  • Great post. Very interesting hearing the stories of how things work inside the academy. I appreciate your voice from the tower. That said, it isn’t always clear on how your voice is remarkably different from the elite academics who make up the American educational hegemony. You often mention “peer review” without challenging the elitism of your peers.

    Still, great post.


  • Francesca Lopez

    This is a must read for all grad students who ponder just what kind of impact they can make.


  • Thank you Dr Julian Vasquez Heilig for having the courage to do what fewer and fewer university professors will dare. The founders of this country risked their lives in order to speak truth to power, but that once brave spirit has waned to be replaced by greed and lust for power, or meekness and submission. Now it seems that any scholar who challenges the educational industrial complex and its punitive culture will be targeted and scapegoated, especially in Texas, and especially in Austin.
    Please keep up your valuable research and public presence, and know that you are appreciated and valued as a true hero among us peasants (teachers). UT deserves acclaim for supporting your work, and I hope you get millions in grants.

    I am a 3rd grade teacher who was targeted for complaining that Social Studies is not being taught to children in AISD elementary schools, since it was replaced with “test prep”. Sad.


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