sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

entering graduate school, quitting utopia

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 30, 2010

I just spent several hours revising my curriculum vitae, which I can’t imagine is very interesting to you. I do want to share with you my revised research statement. When I looked at the statement I wrote about 10 months ago, I found it embarrassingly utopian and a little bit silly. Also, it didn’t really say anything.

Here’s that version of my research statement:

My interests lie at the intersection of media studies and education. I’m fascinated by the promises inherent in the emergence of new valued participatory practices and cultures, and specifically on the potential of these to transform how we think about and approach teaching and learning. I’m also deeply obsessed with the Free/Open Source Software Movement, the movement toward open education, and what I’ve started to refer to as the social revolution: A deep, cultural shift in values and practices that enables us to rethink issues of social justice and the ethics of participation.

Ridiculous, right?

Here’s the new version:

Research as activism: All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore conduct research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community’s interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to serve.

The community I serve: I work in the service of working class learners, on whose backs our education system has been built. While ongoing efforts toward “educational equity” sprung from honest and honorable impulses, the dominant conversation about equity promotes ideals that too often fail to serve the needs of working class kids. It’s also premised on a lie: That anyone who works hard enough can escape even the most desperate of economic conditions. We might call this the “bootstrapping myth.” If it really was true that anyone who works hard enough (i.e., anyone who pulls herself up by her own bootstraps) can achieve academic and therefore economic success, then it would also be true that everyone could, in theory, achieve academic and economic success. But if this were true, we would no longer have a working class, would no longer have people to work in the service industry or take jobs in manual labor. Our economy cannot operate without a working class; if working class kids started matching the grades and test scores of the middle and upper class kids, we’d simply adjust accordingly.

I accept but do not embrace this reality, and I therefore want to work in the service of learning communities for whom mainstream markers of academic success are either unrealistic or inapplicable. I wonder: How can we make a college education a possibility for every student while also preparing every student for trajectories that may not include a college degree? How can we empower working class learners to confront the Great Lie of the bootstrapping myth, and how can we help them to make informed, meaningful, and satisfying decisions about their educations, their careers, and their lives? How can we educate working class kids in their own best interests?


My research focus: I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion by Schwartz & Arena (2009) that assessment is a normative endeavor. What we decide to assess, and the strategies we employ in order to assess it, become our belief systems about the nature of learning and about what is worth teaching. I’m interested in developing alternative assessment systems and frameworks that can make explicit an educational approach that empowers, values, and supports working class kids. Currently, my focus is on developing assessments that support learning gains on traditional educational benchmarks while also making it possible to make claims about students’ preparation for future learning contexts and about their proficiencies in areas not measured by traditional assessments.

Now we’re cooking with gas!

I guess now that I’ve revised my research statement,  all I need to do is wait for a Reputable Research Institution to call me for advice and pay me for my thoughts. I’ll just be over here waiting for my phone to ring.

Posted in education, graduate school, politics, poverty | 3 Comments »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 Comments »