Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Maintaining the Vitality of Our Irrelevance

By Sam Wineburg — April 05, 2005 7 min read
Maintaining irrelevance of education research demands a keen vigilance over curriculum and mission.

I bring you, my fellow researchers, an upbeat message. We’re doing a terrific job preparing future education researchers for a career of keeping out of people’s hair! Most practitioners have never heard of our professional associations, never read our journals, never ordered our research reports or attended a session at our annual gatherings. To America’s millions-strong teaching force, NCME, AERA, NARST, PES, and NSSE might well be noodles on the surface of alphabet soup.

There are many advantages to anonymity: no unwanted pestering, few voice-mails to return, minimal Internet spam. But we can’t fall asleep at the job. Maintaining irrelevance demands a keen vigilance over curriculum and mission.

It is in that spirit that I offer the following 10 imperatives for preparing our young, for designing our graduate programs to train a new crop of education researchers. Adhering to my 10 watchwords will assure the vitality of our irrelevance well into the future.

IMPERATIVE NO. 1: Promote Obfuscation. Getting a Ph.D. is hard work, and we ought to let people know. When first-year students come to us uttering sentences like “Flunking young children is a loony idea that hurts them in later life,” we must teach them to speak as we do: “Social promotion prevents decrements in self-esteem that accrue from practices that are differentially distributed across American society.” Contrary to popular wisdom, plain talk does not equal clear thinking; it’s a tool of the ruling elite. Our students must denaturalize the hegemony of the dominant discourse before they can be counted among us.

IMPERATIVE NO. 2: Abolish Comprehensive Exams. Requiring our young to master a body of knowledge is so Old School (besides, there’s Google). And the practice of making students sit and write for three hours, all alone, surely constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Our job is to liberate students from tradition—not bind them to it. We must be midwives to their muse, collaborators to their creativity. They—not us—must determine the knowledge they need for their development. Required courses? A canon? A body of knowledge that might provide weight and gravity to their theorizing? Phooey!

IMPERATIVE NO. 3: Focus on the Present. Our syllabi should contain readings that have come out in the last 10 years (better, aim for the last five).

This will ensure that when students read about education reform, social class, intelligence testing, or language policy, they will stand on the shoulders of ... intellectual runts. (It’s a shorter climb to a runt’s shoulders than a giant’s, which has the added benefit of allowing students to complete their programs faster.)

IMPERATIVE NO. 4: Stress Methodological Monolingualism. We’ve made enormous strides already—there are only a few programs left that require statistics (and even there, requirements rarely exceed a single course).

Reducing people’s lives—children’s lives!—to mere numbers is demeaning and evil. We must teach methods that honor the textured and positioned lived experiences of our co-research collaborators (aka subjects)—all two of them. If someone asks how we can draw conclusions from our sample of two, refer them to imperative No. 1, the “denaturalization of the dominant discourse.”

IMPERATIVE NO. 5: There’s No Place Like Home. Education is a big tent. There’s no need to venture outward. Who says we need to know some anthropology to write about culture, or a little sociology to theorize about alienation? Let our colleagues in Arts and Sciences come to us for a change.

IMPERATIVE NO. 6: Peer-Refereed Journals Only. Who else do we write for but each other? Besides, our students need refereed journal articles to get tenure. That the Northern Yukon Journal of Second Language Acquisition has a circulation of 23 doesn’t matter: It’s refereed!

IMPERATIVE NO. 7: Stick With the Accepted Variables. Like race, class, and gender. The fact that religion is on the rise all over the world, that 50 million copies of the Left Behind series have been sold in the last decade, that religion was the linchpin of the last presidential election and is changing the way we provide social services is of no concern. Come on, they’re all anti-intellectual fundamentalists anyway.

IMPERATIVE NO. 8: Self-Study Is the Way. We can never know too much about our own feelings as researchers, the shades and hues of how we came to formulate our research questions. We must document and write articles about each unfolding second of our practice. We’re a fascinating lot, and there’s still so much about ourselves we don’t know.

IMPERATIVE NO 9: Opponents? What Opponents? All critique is motivated by those who want to maintain the status quo. Anyone who thinks that scholarly debate is about seeking truth, no matter where it takes us, is surely anti-progressive, unenlightened, sexist, ageist, able-ist, or ... just not worth our time.

IMPERATIVE NO. 10: Keep It in the Family. Sometimes we cannot contain ourselves. When we’re pilloried in The Wall Street Journal, bashed in The New York Times Magazine, or clunked by The Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s only fair to fight back. But we should do so in the pages of the Midwestern Quarterly of Social Studies Research and the Manitoba Journal of Science Teaching. It’s more important what we think of ourselves than what they think of us.

These “imperatives,” each a caricature to be sure, are rooted in my 20-year experience in two different schools of education. When I began graduate school many years ago, I set out to help others with the new knowledge I reaped. Yet, when I went back to my old school after a mere 12 months in a graduate program, I could’ve been speaking in tongues. Confused, I found succor in the explanations that came bundled with my newly minted Ph.D.: the lag time between the development of new knowledge and its adoption by the field, the retrenched nature of educational systems, the recalcitrance of practice. My former co-workers would come around. The problem was theirs, not mine.

I no longer think that. My awakening came one evening some years ago when, as a PTA member, I hosted a meeting for parents in our home. Straightening the books on our coffee table, I glanced at a journal that had arrived that day, one widely regarded as the top in the field. I scanned the titles in the index: a lead article on “situative” vs. “constitutive” identities (in which the argument revolved around whether identity is holistic or “imbricated,” which I had to look up; it means “layered” or “overlapping”), an article on “anti-racist pedagogy” so choked with jargon I had trouble understanding the first paragraph, and another on self-study that told me more about the author than I ever wanted to know. These topics seemed worlds apart from the educational problems I would be discussing with other parents later that evening. I quickly hid the journal beneath a stack of newspapers.

As a faculty member who prepares new Ph.D. students, I am astounded by how quickly students acquire our argot, effectively preventing them from communicating with the very people they set out to help. In a course last semester, I asked third-year Ph.D. students to write an abstract of a piece they aspired to publish. In class, I had them put aside their abstracts, take out a sheet of paper, and rewrite the same abstract in language their next-door neighbors or great-aunts could understand. I then arranged students in pairs and had them exchange their laser-printed originals along with their handwritten rewrites.

As a faculty member who prepares new Ph.D. students, I am astounded by how quickly students acquire our argot, effectively preventing them from communicating with the very people they set out to help.

Not surprisingly, students preferred reading the handwritten versions. They were more straightforward, less jargony, and more to the point. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the heartfelt confessional that followed. To a one, students testified that rewriting their abstracts in accessible language helped them understand at a deeper level what their study was about in the first place. In other words, their polysyllabic strings of “mediations,” “peripheral participations,” “hegemonies,” and “cultural tools” muddled their thinking.

We have aided and abetted those who seek to stifle our voice in the public debate over education. While paying lip service to communicating to a general audience, we continue to write in ways that have us talking only to ourselves. But we’ll be fine—secure as most of us are in our university positions. It’s the kids, teachers, and schools so many of us set out to help that I worry most about.

The way to turn things around isn’t easy, but the road map is straighter than we might think. By flipping around each of the facetious “imperatives” I have listed, we have an action plan for improvement. With hard work, dedication, and clear thinking, we might look to a future of vital relevance—to the kids, teachers, and principals that sent us to graduate school in the first place.

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