A Vision of Something That Does Not Yet Exist

Did I bomb this interview with Dr. Juan Manuel Niño (The University of Texas at San Antonio) that was published recently in the UCEA Review? I was honored to participate. Here it is:

JMN: Dr. Vasquez Heilig, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. Our conversation will focus on your work, publications, and involvement in policy and community engagement. Let me ask, as a scholar, what influences your work?

JVH: I think there are a lot of factors that influence my work. As a scholar, current policy contexts influence my work in terms of what types of questions I want to ask and the different issues I try to engage. I try to stay tuned to what happens at the local, state, and national levels in terms of educational policy issues. Also, the research literature impacts the work I am able to engage in several ways. First, the evolution of theory impacts my work, and secondly, the peer review process. This process allows me to read some of the most recent research that is out there and helps drive my thinking about current research. Additionally, the research in the field that is presented at conferences drives the kind of work that I want to do and helps me gravitate towards the newer, cutting-edge work on the different topics that could potentially impact my ideas. I think more recently, for me, the drive by community interests has influenced my work. This is something that is fairly new to my career. The questions civil rights leaders ask me and conversations I engage in with community and educational leaders have deeply influenced my research.

JMN: From these conversations you engage in, how can inequities in school and community systems be addressed?

JVH: I think the most important factor is doing work that is important to the community and making the work accessible to communities in multiple ways. I am a big proponent of making my work available online, including social media, platforms like Academia.edu, and blogs. As scholars, critical scholars, we must maximize our impact. The average peer-reviewed paper is read by 10 people, so I think it’s incumbent upon us to nd ways to mobilize our knowledge and make it available to public. Once you do that, there are implications. My mother would tell me, “Be careful what you ask for because you might get it.”

When you make your work available it becomes utilized in many different places. For example, the first time I went on MSNBC was because I had published a piece on charter schools. I think a lot of public speaking opportunities come from putting your work out there and letting others know about your research. We have to make our ndings accessible to as many people, whether it be in the format of university lectures or traditional media conversations.

JMN: You mention different outlets to present your work. What is your take on traditional versus more open-access formats of the peer-review process?

JVH: I always remind folks that it is not an either/or proposition but an and proposition. I think you have to do peer-reviewed work for a number of reasons. The peer-review process is very important because the process of doing the research is an incredibly educative experience for individuals. I think about my first 8 years of my career at the University of Texas at Austin. The amount of work that goes into peer-reviewed work, from field work, the conversations, the literature review and background work, and the collaboration with students and colleagues, is transformative. The process allows you to have a good grasp on the topics in your research agenda and also provides an opportunity to be more knowledgeable in mentoring in others in this work.

Earlier in my career I couldn’t imagine doing the work I am doing now. I view the tenure process as a chrysalis. Once you get there, you have this special and sacred responsibility to do impactful work. You don’t rest on your laurels once you get tenure. Many of my colleagues and friends achieve tenure to make a difference in society and education. Tenure is a process, much like life. My mantra is, if you do what you love, the process will take care of itself. It’s amazing what will happen if you continue to do what you love to do.

JMN: Absolutely, great advice. What policy work are you currently focusing on?

JVH: Much of what I’m working on now is not visible. What is interesting about my career at this point is most of my current work is managing and working behind the scenes. Once you get to a certain phase, a more senior status, your work tends to take a different role. Five years ago, every one knew what I was doing because I would blog about it. Now, I’m doing more leadership and administrative work at my department, so my blogs have become more limited. My work with policymakers is different. I advise them on school nance, school choice, and community-based reform, and much of my work doesn’t make it to print. It’s influential work that makes a difference to communities. I want my work to be impactful. In our field, once you become more senior, our work takes a different role. Your work becomes more behind the scenes and becomes a gratifying experience when you provide meaningful input.

JMN: Creating change at the local level is a great place to begin in our departments and communities.

JVH: Let me add one more thing. As faculty, we have certain expertise, yet few of us are involved directly with community-based civil rights organizations. Whether they are local organizations like IDRA [Intercultural Development Research Association], or at the state or national level, with organizations such as MALDEF [Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] or NAACP [National Advancement for the Association of Colored People], our expertise and independence are highly needed. I stress the need for us to connect with them. I want to challenge people in the field, especially faculty of color, to reach out to civil rights organizations and volunteer your time. Some of the volunteer work is straight forward, while some of it will require intellectual input. I personally think this is a space where our field is in need of change. We desperately need to take our expertise to local, state, and national civil rights organizations.

JMN: How do you attempt to emphasize policy issues as you prepare aspiring school leaders?

JVH: I recall the quote, “Half of life is showing up,” and I think about community-based work. We expect to show up and everyone be like, “Ok, tell us.” Working with civil rights organizations, with all the different grassroots organizations that are out there, the key is showing up and being present and committed to participate. Although we all have our specialties, research lines, etc., we also have general knowledge that is very valuable to communities. Some of us have incredible abilities to write, organize, speak, and read, that go far and beyond our particular research skill sets and topics. I think we need to do a much better job of sharing our skills with grassroots organizations.

JMN: Who is your audience for understanding your work?

JVH: Actually, I write for my mother. Whatever the outlet may be, I keep in mind that I’m trying to communicate with my mother. I do that because she reminds me of the people I want to reach with my work. As academicians, we are constantly talking to each other at conferences and multiple outlets. We are great with talking to each other, but we

need to be able to communicate our work, and the work of others, to a wide range of stakeholders, educators, and policymakers. When I write and speak, I am always mindful of my audience, my mother, so she can understand the message I am trying to make. We have to be more intentional about our messages and how we deliver them. If we go in and talk about critical race theory, organizational theories, and neoliberalism, of course we would be describing those concepts to the audiences, but we must do it in a way that is appealing and connects with audiences. As faculty, we need to be more intentional about our audiences and how we share our research with them. We need to be able to communicate complex theoretical concepts and complex statistical ndings for variety of audiences and not just with others in academia.

JMN: How are you able to relate concepts of complexities in your own classrooms?

JVH: Interestingly, I view my classes as opportunities. My teaching informs the research that I do. I think I learn so much from my students in any given course as they learn from me. Teaching has pushed my work in new and interesting ways. For example, teaching the law class at the University of Texas at Austin pushed my thinking into researching and publishing in law reviews. This opportunity surfaced when colleagues were not able to teach law and I volunteered to teach the course. Teaching the law course really inspired my work in other directions and other formats. My thinking shifted to publishing in law reviews where attorneys would read the work and end up in amicus briefs at the Supreme Court. Teaching is extremely important in our field, so we must find a balance with our teaching, research, and service. These three aspects work in synergy to create the scholars we are. It’s important to note the different types of institutions we work in and their expectations within the three aspects of our responsibilities. However, we have to do more than meet some criteria for promotion; we have to be reflective of our teaching practices and have it influence the research that we do.

JMN: How do we de-colonize the academy and change the conversation that our work as academicians does not end just at a publication?

JVH: When you extend beyond a publication, you increase your opportunities for more publications. As you become more senior, people seek you out for publication opportunities. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to turn publication opportunities down because you don’t have the same amount of time you did as a junior scholar. With seniority comes an increased level of responsibility; thus you have to make sure you make your work more readily available and create more opportunities. I think we have to look beyond the research, teaching, and service and move towards the next step of knowledge mobilization.

JMN: How do you envision social justice leadership?

JVH: As a leader, you need expert communication and a vision of something that does not yet exist. The traditional leaders in academia are usually hired because they have a publication record or prominence in the field and know how to push paper and understand the bureaucracy of institutions. However, we have to be interested in someone with a bit more, someone who is transformative. Leaders who are going to transform our educational programs, change the curricula, challenge the recruit efforts of faculty and students for more equity and inclusion. Sometimes the reason why we are unhappy with our academic leaders is because they have a certain publication record and are bureaucrats. As faculty, we should demand more and prioritize those transformative skills for equity, diversity, and inclusion. We have to prioritize what skills we need from leaders. Recently our provost at California State e-mailed all department chairs stating she had reviewed all job applications and only x% of departments included equity, diversity, and inclusion as a desired qualification. In terms of bureaucracy, when we are hiring, that is something that needs to be a priority. Traditionally what you ask for is a cover letter and CV for faculty or leadership position, but it has to be integrated into the conversation, whatever transformative aspects you deem are important. It’s difficult to expect someone who has never been thoughtful of this topic to come in as a faculty member or leader and embrace this work.

JMN: How do we embrace the notions of differences when faculty members are not intentional about desired qualifications yet adhere to a social justice agenda?

JVH: There are multiple reasons. One of the things we can talk about are recruiting and hiring. I am proud to say that our doctorate program is the second most diverse faculty on campus as measured by data sent out by the provost. Not many institutions would generate similar reports. Have you seen something like this at the University of Texas at San Antonio?

JMN: Not that I can recall…

JVH: The provost distributed this data to all department chairs in the university showing how diverse each department is, and everyone’s data was there to see. It turns out our doctorate has the second most diverse faculty. The top department with more diversity is the Ethnic Studies department. I think that’s a real accomplishment for our faculty, and it’s something they have been working on for some time. So there has to be leadership from the top saying this is a priority, and we are going to do something about it, and here is the data to support our movement. I think it’s a pretty rare approach for some institutions, especially in Texas because of the political context. I am also aware that I live and work in California, which is a different paradigm in terms of leadership flexibility. Also, our faculty and UCEA are slowly integrating, and more promising is the number of graduate students of color attending and participating at the convention.

For example, the Black faculty had dinner at UCEA in Denver. Originally this was a dinner for 10 or 15 Black faculty. Well, this year around 120 faculty and students showed up, which is an incredible size from 10 years ago. As the pipeline of leaders and faculty of color make their way into these programs and senior faculty start to sunset out of these programs, I think the political dynamics of these programs will change. There is some limit to what a chairperson of color can do when the faculty is opposed to being strategic and thoughtful about equity, diversity, and inclusion. There’s always a limit to what people can do in their environment, and it requires you to stand on political capital. As a leader, you have certain capital, and you need to determine where you are going to spend it. It must be a personal responsibility for a leader to stand on these issues to support faculty and students of color to do research, because the system will not recognize the importance of this work. But, I do think the trend to engage in these conversations is more positive.

JMN: What advice would you offer to junior faculty members as one researches and in uences policy for more diverse communities?

JVH: Simple. Enjoy and thrive in the work you are doing. Also, make sure when you publish that article or chapter or brief, book review or blog or tweet, share it in different platforms. Upload it to your websites for accessibility for all to read. You have to make your work available. You spend a lot of time writing a chapter or piece and submit it for publication. Don’t let it be lost and forgotten to only those who purchase the books or journals. Try to digitize your work to make it available to multiple stakeholders in multiple forums.

JMN: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas on sharing our work in the many outlets that we have in everyday life. Much of the work invested in writing a piece tends to end with the publication. However, you have invited us to extend our work to multiple spaces.

JVH: The way I look at it is as a tier. When you publish an article, you have to do several things with it:

  • Use your university press release and see if any other press is interested.
  • Then, perhaps, write a short policy brief from it, and share it with local policymakers, school board members, and the community.
  • Then perhaps you can blog about it or a create a podcast.

Many times, when we publish a piece, we are quick to move from it and neglect the opportunity to expand our work. You need to repackage it for another audience and strengthen your topic. You have to try to make your work available and public knowledge.

Finally, be patient with the process. If you love what you do, and you trust the process, you realize everything you dream of.

JMN: Thank you for taking the time to participate in the interview. It’s been great talking to you. I look forward to reading about your research in multiple platforms.

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