While I am firmly indoctrinated into the Enlightenment ideal of progress – as the Beatles put it, “its getting better all the time” – I’m also struck when reflecting on the history and scope of research on teachers of how often we do the exact same thing and how exceedingly long it takes for ‘progress’ to make its way into classrooms. While we can see the methodological trend of a turn towards more qualitative forms of research, we also currently live with the yoke of often only being able to justify our work in positivistic, empirical, experimental and quasi-experimental forms. If a program is a success, we need to show that numerically. If the program isn’t big enough, or is grounded in a very particular context (which it should be), it is less valuable because it is less generalizable. I’m struck that many educational researchers still treat teachers and students like they would rats (thinking of laboratory rat-based studies) in their approach to understanding teaching, learning, and schooling.
Part of me thinks we need to not only ask how has research on teaching changed over time, we also need to ask what is the point of this dogged search for generalizability, for best practices, for the universal truth that will finally make education as simple as the animation in Waiting for Superman where the teacher simply pours the white goo into the heads of her students? The value of a study or article should not rest on whether or not it can be realized on a universal scale, it should be measured by the impact and effect it has on the practice (and hopefully praxis) of those who engage with it. Worthy research does works, in that there are actions engendered in readers: if an article does not do this, I would argue it is not worthwhile. I’m making a case similar to Patty Lather’s notion of catalytic validity here, but I think given the fact that in education we are fortunate to have a site in which to work through and rework through our theories ought to mean that the value of our work rests on the actions informed by it, rather than the vulgar notion of generalizability as the criterion under which an idea is seen as good scholarship.
I’m hopeful, because there are many many journals and organizations that espouse many of the sentiments I’ve expressed here. But these organizations undermine themselves, often demanding that more empirical studies be done, more hard data be gathered, more ‘e’ffects be fully understood. The culture of funding is perhaps the most obvious culprit, but I would also charge a lack of commitment to the ideals that ought to (and in all likelihood truly do) inform the work of critical anti-positivist researchers. Why are we so quick to allow our work to be seen as less-than, as un-scientific, or un-rigorous? And why is the charge that one’s work is un-interesting because it is uncritical not enough to substantiate a claim that it is not worthy research? “I love reading ethnographies, but they’re too contextual to draw any inferences from.” What nonsense. My hope is that the glacial pace of the turn to qualitative work will continue its progression to more critical forms of scholarship. I intend to continue doing everything I can as a scholar and teacher educator to aid in this process, as I know many of my colleagues are doing as well. I just wish we could work a bit faster.
In terms of what I took away from the group project, I’m left with a sense that anti-oppressive education, multicultural education, critical pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy almost always leave out a critique of capitalism, or if they include such a critique it is not given the same weight as critiques of other oppressive systems: heterosexism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and so on. A critique of the logic of capitalism, in its current neo-liberal form, has imminent relevance to the work of critical educators. Yet I fear many of them would recoil at my suggestion that anti-capitalism ought to be a central commitment, expressly and openly dialogued about in the classroom. Why is this the case when every form of oppression is linked to capitalism? For example, we almost always understand forms of oppression in economic terms: income across gender, economic impacts of school attendance (or dropping out) and the disproportionate number of students of color who leave school early, and many many others. Why is it so difficult to take the next step and say that it is in fact capitalism that makes us cling to an oppressive reality that privileges the very few at the expense of the many? What is possibly sacred about an ideology and structural reality that allows 20% of the nation’s children to live in poverty while there are hedge fund managers making $11 million dollars every single day? (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/business/01hedge.html)
Anti-oppressive pedagogy is stagnated by not stating concretely what action has the best chance of actually eliminating structural oppression. Even if we imagine a world without racists, or sexists, if there is still a wildly inequitable concentration of wealth we would still live in an oppressive reality. I want to keep thinking and working about these anti-capitalist commitments for critical teachers – and this project helped reaffirm the importance of such work.
To turn to the things I learned from colleagues in their presentations, I was perhaps most struck by how insular so many of the disciplines within curriculum are. The content-specific nature of so many fields in our department plays out in mirrored form in the research literature, journals, and professional organizations. I suppose I understand why this is, and certainly there are an infinite number of things one could take up in the context of schools and teaching. Still, it is overwhelming to think about the insider language rampant in every discipline (critical pedagogy included) and how dis-empowering it must be as a teacher to not be able to read and fully comprehend research that is supposedly being done to help you be better at your job.
To end on a positive note, I truly appreciated the depth and sincerity of the other presentations. The commitment to whatever disciplinary track the particular group was a part of was heartening, in that it called out my own commitments to my work in a way that was comprehensible to me in a new way. In other words, I was struck by the passion and depth of knowledge of my colleagues, not to say I was surprised they were passionate and knowledgeable about their work but rather surprised at how sincere those passions truly are. I’m left with the feeling that there are many people doing interesting work that they care deeply about, which for me means that it must connect to something profound about themselves and who they are for them to be so invested in their discipline. Commitment is terribly important, and very easy to be scaffolded into action: into praxis and thus into transformation. I hope my colleagues and I can continue this Enlightenment project in worthy ways: to advance what we know about our world, in the hopes that we can transform it.