Ethical Quandary of Discourse Analyst Interviewing

Martyn Hammersley, never one to shy from instigating hard looks at methodology for qualitative researchers, has recently called into ethical question the research practice of conducting discourse analysis on interviews as a kind of bait-and-switch contrary to the priority of informed consent.  Qualitative Research provided a couple of responses from Stephanie Taylor and Robin Smith that encapsulate the responses that come to mind immediately to me–and more.  Yet Hammersley’s charges nag at me, because they articulate hesitations that have bothered me in my few, immature attempts at discourse analytic research.  

As an example, even as Ben Rampton talks about opening up the tools of discourse analysis to those educational practitioners under study, in a manner that might mitigate some of those ethical concerns, he is uncharacteristically limited in vision, from my point of view.  As an analyst, I think we have some hard thinking to do.

Developing Academic Language (notes from a workshop presented for Hayward Unified, Summer 2014)

This past week I had the privilege of presenting a two day workshop with an incredible group of middle school English teachers in my school district. The workshop was part of a larger, four day Summer Institute on implementing Common Core, which we have structured around inquiry projects that we are encouraging our teachers and their departments to pursue. Mine was one of three workshop tracks that participants could have chosen, and I want to capture some of my presentation and our discussion on academic language in a series of posts here.

The presentation, like the training itself, was not meant to be a definitive “final take” on academic language, and we were more concerned about embarking together on inquiries than offering foolproof solutions or pre-packaged strategies. This is not because there aren’t a lot of curricular options when it comes to academic language. There are many. One that our district is starting to implement is Kate Kinsella’s English 3D program, targeted towards Long Term English Learners. More on that program later in these posts.

But I have to admit I’m not wholly satisfied with what’s out there. I’ve learned a lot about academic language from scholars like Mary Schleppegrell, Patricia Duff, Catherine Snow and Paola Uccelli, and Douglas Biber; and from the world of practitioner/writers, Jeff Zwiers, Fisher and Frey, Benjamin and Oliva, Don and Jenny Killgallon, Janet Allen, and others I’ve probably forgotten. I’ve also learned a lot about approaches to teaching language and literacy from various scholars and teachers, too many to list. But I still have yet to find the combination of deep awareness of academic language, instructional approaches relevant particularly to youth who are pushed away from academic language, and language- and literacy-acquisition conscious approaches that satisfies me. I think this workshop was a first attempt at putting that together with teachers who I respect and enjoy working with.

As an introduction, I shared a bit about my own personal history with forms of standard and academic English (I think personal histories in this regard can be very relevant). I’ll spare some of those details except to say that in some ways, I have had a tenuous relationship with academic English and English in general, being an immigrant as a child, often feeling left out or locked out from certain kinds of discourse, and questioning the identities that I would be putting on if I spoke and wrote in certain registers of academese. On the other hand, I’m also the opposite, a kid who found great vistas of imagination in things written by Victorian writers, a school and media nerd who knew how to interpret Thoreau before he was super clear on the difference between stoves and ovens (not for lack of using those appliances, but because they were called their Chinese names in my house), and an adult who traffics in academic language all the time. My larger point was that it’s way too simplistic to say that some of us “have” academic language and others don’t, or even that there’s such a thing as a stable, bounded set of things that would be called “academic language.” It’s all continua, spectra, hybrid and cross-flowing features.

But the workshop as a whole was segmented into five parts, which are what I will write about in these posts. In a cheesy alphabetic AND logical ordering (I told you I was a nerd), they were:

“Aspects of Academic Language and Vocabulary.” We tried to understand what distinguished academic language, and focused in on dimensions of vocabulary.

“Beyond Sentence Starters: Syntax Impacts.” We tried out a particular way to build students’ generative syntactic repertoire, and considered how grammar could be taught in a way tied to expression, imitation, and creation.

“Conversations leading to Critical Thinking.” We considered the role of academic discussion, using Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s Academic Conversations as a set of tools for building critical thinking through discussion and tying those to linguistic pieces. We also considered sociocultural theory of learning and the relationship of talk to writing.

“Discourse is My Favorite Course: Motivation and Social Aspects of Learning English.” We thought about discourse (language-in-use) and how it is tied to identity and participation in social groups, and how we could introduce and connect students to academic language in ways that made it meaningful to their development as social creatures.

“Editing and Evolving toward Academic English: Elaboration, embedding, explicitness, and elevated diction.” I offered some suggestions for developing students towards academic language in their writing through workshops and mini-lesosns focused on certain aspects of academic language, aspects which tend to separate the typical 7th grader’s writing from a more academic register.

The participants were awesome. I learned so much from them and owe them gratitude for teaching me quite a bit. We had fruitful exchanges and I’m eager to learn from what they do in their classrooms, how they take the work we did and extend it further in their practice.

I’ll try to do one post a day for the next week or so, putting down some of the ideas that we conveyed in our workshop. Stay tuned!
Photo on 7-3-13 at 3.20 PMMe, the presenter of “Developing Academic Language,” in Someone Else’s Office

The Empowering and Burdening Work of Transculturations

The science behind the cognitive benefits of multilingualism is well established.  But maybe we think about it too simplistically when we suppose that it’s merely toggling between language systems making the mind more flexible and adaptable.  That much is true, but there’s much more going on in multilingual experiences, I think.

Here, as always, the children are instructive.  Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s Translating Childhoods is based on ethnographic research with children engaged in language brokering practices, the kind of thing immigrant children know quite well: answering and making phone calls for their parents with the Department of Motor Vehicles or pizza delivery, translating (or arguing with proud parents about the translation of) documents from the mail way over their heads , etc.

Orellana’s chapter on the multiple positions and roles that children translating in parent-teacher conferences must take on, entitled “Transculturations,” unpacks the potential complexities of multilingualism really nicely.  Translating for the parents and teachers, these children are certainly not purely conveying information verbatim– the extremely tricky nature of translation makes that impossible.

The immense subtleties of language that have so much impact on communication between parties have to get juggled by kids with still-emergent command of those nuances.  One example from Orellana’s chapter’s involves a teacher saying, “tell your mom she has a lot to be proud of,” an ostensibly simple pragmatic act riddled with complexities in meaning, implication, and positioning.  Convey to your mother some form of hedging or qualifying statement that suggests that, in spite of the criticisms you’ve already heard from me, I intend for you to feel affirmed in those aspects of parenting which you clutch on to in the face of these criticism [my extreme extrapolation, not author’s.]  Instead, the child ends up with, “Dice que tú tienes que estar muy, um agradecida por mí [He says that you have to be very, um, grateful for me].”

Moreover, in these situations, the stakes are high and the subject about which these children are translating (not just language but huge communicatively complex and culturally nuanced moves) is none other than themselves and their schooling.  This begins to unfold the multiple complexities inherent in a multilingual child’s situation.  Contrast this with the monolingual kid who sits at home while mom or dad attends a parent teacher conference and comes back to report that the child better start turning in her homework every day.  The experience of schooling, relationships, and language is utterly different.

And when I say language, I’d emphasize, not just language in terms of systems, but language in terms of worlds, cultural worlds, worlds of meaning and expectations and imagination.  The child is constantly translating those worlds.  Transculturing.

A research project I did with transnational students writing their college application essays revealed the same complexity, the juggling of not just the Spanish or English or Cantonese or English versions of the same words, but juggling multiple cultural worlds, the sense-making systems of vastly diverse experiences.  I’ve worked with many students on college application essays.  It’s always a complex task.  For some of the multilingual students I’ve worked with, their inhabiting multiple worlds provides them the resources, the allusions, the imaginations, the aspirations to write themselves as extremely cosmopolitan and knowledgeable young people.  But for others and also for those same students, there’s something overwhelming, almost crippling, about the burden of representing a summary of themselves, who they are and what they hope to become, when they consider the mad complex of their multiple experiences.  Many monolingual students wind up writing about that one trip they took somewhere once where they learned how the rest of the world lives.  For these students, this was a lifetime’s experience.

Transculturation.  Great power and great burden.

 

Long Term English Language Learners and Social Languages

I owe much to Laurie Olsen, Guadalupe Valdez, and Kate Menken, scholars who have studied English Language Learners and helped us to understand the dimensions of their experiences, needs, and schooling.  I also appreciate Kate Kinsella’s contributions to the practical and pedagogical arsenal of teaching ELLs, though I have to admit that I have absorbed most of it secondhand.  From that quite extensive secondhand exposure, though, I have to tease out a nuance, maybe a point of difference between my thinking about ELLs (and especially Long-Termers) and what I’ve seen Kinsella advocate.

First, if you don’t know what I’m referring to when I talk about Long Term ELLs, I encourage you to read Laurie Olsen’s Californians Together report, or for something shorter Menken and Kleyn’s article, or for something longer and broader Guadalupe Valdez’s book on Latino students and ELs.

Kinsella has provided really useful teaching tools to help explicitly teach academic language to English Language Learners.  In a similar philosophical vein to how Lisa Delpit overcame the thesis-antithesis of “teach standardized English” versus “honor children’s own languages and voices” by pointing out the need to explicitly provide students with the language of the culture of power, Kinsella has developed and popularized ways of giving ELLs the linguistic structures (with explicit tools but implicit modes of acquisition, I would say) of academic English.

She has also painted a picture of the English classroom being a place that often doesn’t exist for Long Term ELs, a haven of comprehensible and contextualized academic language, a place where “they get what they don’t get at home but other kids do.”  Not in what Kinsella says but in the way teachers often interpret this, I think there’s the idea that ELs are deprived of exposure to academic forms of language like one might encounter when one’s parents listen to NPR on the drive to school or indulge in reading passages of David Brooks at the dinner table or something like that.    It dovetails nicely with the research about kids in lower-income homes who have language or vocabulary gaps that are powerfully determinative.

But it also rings of the verbal deprivation arguments once made about African American children, and other such arguments throughout history, many of which have been debunked but all of which reflect a certain ideology about what language is valuable and meritorious and what language is less valuable.  I don’t want to get into the circular reasoning about languages of power (such as academic English) being valuable because they are powerful and being powerful because they are valuable.  But I do want to extend the metaphor of certain varieties and registers of language serving as a kind of capital, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu articulated, or as a kind of currency with exchange value in particular markets.  Yes, languages are like currency or capital.  Yes, it serves children to teach them to how to acquire and use such currency so that in social settings with real economic and psychological consequences, they can transact in these symbolic markets.  Yes, we should explicitly teach kids academic English.

But the thing about currency and markets that we have remember as well is that they hold value because they belong to human, social systems of belief and belonging.  As such, the value differs depending on which social group you belong to or inhabit, or attempt to cross boundaries into.  Anyone who has ever tried to use foreign currency in a US store, or has struggled to understand why any kid (or grownup) would spend hundreds of dollars on a baseball card or Pokemon card or comic book, understands the idea that exchange value exists within certain communities and social circles because .  And that in fact, different exchange values interact, intersect, and conflict in various ways among different social groups, in different communities and institutions, and for different purposes.

This is true of language as well.  My favorite example is the frequently funny and often outrageous use of English words in signage or clothing in Chinese-speaking countries, which English speakers often find inconceivable until they understand that oftentimes the purpose of the English is not to accurately convey descriptive information so much as to serve as a kind of symbolic decoration.  It’s much easier to understand if you think of the phenomenon of tattoos of Chinese characters on non-Chinese Americans, where the meanings, nuances, and connotations of the words in their “native” settings defer to the aesthetics of the words in the new setting.  All of this to say that languages are currencies, but they are currencies that have differential symbolic value for different people, and they can’t always be given, taken, or used in a pure calculation of simple addition and subtraction.

Therefore, while I agree that there is power in teaching children to punctuate properly or use the appropriate pronouns in a job interview, my problem with the “my classroom will be the 100% haven of academic language for these children who are deprived of it” approach is that it assumes that children are already locked in and ready to take on the symbolic exchange values of academic language with the same meanings and same calculations as all other children.  I don’t think this is a safe assumption.  In fact, oftentimes the reasons they have been marginalized from acquiring and appropriating those linguistic markers is not that they have not been read to, had the chance to watch CNN, or been given lessons on subject-verb agreement, especially long term ELLs.  Oftentimes, they have been marginalized because those languages and lessons have not been socially meaningful to them, have not had the exchange value that they have for other kids, and in some cases have even had the reverse value.  For some of them, school language is the language of the other, even the language of the enemy, as much as it may also be at the same time the language of opportunity and important communication.  To teachers, such a resistant attitude seem like a counterproductive, self-inflicted wound, but for kids, there are often good and reasonable, real and often socially and historical rooted causes.

This is not to say that all Long Term ELs resist acquiring academic English or don’t value it.  It’s not so simple.  I would just put it this way: teachers of academic English have to think not only about making academic English explicit and accessible to students, but also to introduce and maybe reconfigure its significance, its contexts, and the people for whom it is meaningful and how students relate to those people.  We have to be thoughtful as teachers about the aspects of identity, belonging, participation, performance, and association that are involved in acquiring academic English for our students, and how we intervene in those social and cultural dimensions.  Besides teaching how to use and value the currency, we have to consider how the community that the currency counts is one that students know, feel part of, have reciprocal significance with, etc.

Which brings me back to the question of whether the classroom should be the haven of 100% academic English.  There’s great value in exposure, in comprehensible input, in saturation and immersion in the target language, in models and tokens and so on.  But if academic English is already somehow isolating to students, if there’s a need for teachers to be models of the way humans move between language groups, can identify with being a Spanish speaker or a culture consumer or a game spitter as well as an academic English teacher, then an injunction to rigid all-classroom-language monolingualism compels the wrong model.  I feel that long term English learners need models of mobility, not of fixity.  If the monolith of standard English was going to be intrinsically appealing to them as a language of the heart, a language of home, a language of expression, it would have become so already.  It has not, and we have to mitigate the alienating effects of it with a greater linguistic consciousness than a blunt either/or raw exposure effect.  This might mean being code-switchers and code-meshers in the classroom.  This might mean showing how different signifiers, different dialects, different registers can be meaningfully mixed and crossed.  This might mean cultivating multi-multi-linguals instead of just better academic English users.  Those social languages, of which academic English is but one, one that has to be made social and relational for students, can’t be artificially divorced and divided when we’re asking kids to manifest their mixing.

 

 

 

The SCALLAHS Project: Immigrant Youth, Civic Action, Language, Literacy, and Argumentation

The research project I intend to be engaged in over the next two years involves the study of adolescent immigrant and “English Language Learner” students and how their civic participation influences their academic language learning, and vice versa. I want to know how immigrant youth involved in critical civic and political action find new meanings, purposes, and contexts for acquiring, using, and appropriating academic English, for example in the course of reading real-world texts that bear on the conditions of their communities and families, or in composing argument texts with real-world audiences where they have a chance to educate, inform, persuade, and mobilize others. Underlying this is my sense that students in our schools need a counter-narrative to learning for individual success or “getting a job,” but are hungry for spaces for their emerging political consciousness, hungry for meaningful social action, hungry for a community of purpose to surround them. In that context, learning to read texts and compose speech and complex, sophisticated communication rises in importance, but for other reasons than the standard, neoliberal ideology-driven ones often promulgated in schools.

SCALLAHS stands for Student Civic Action, Language, Literacy, and Argumentation in Hayward Schools. The idea is to make the classroom–and by extension, the schools–a place for interacting with the community on issues of concern within the community, learning to read the world and write the world, learning and communicating with local leaders and constituents in the course of becoming politically active, and engaging in literate activity that’s also empowering and makes a difference. I hope to enroll a few teachers to pilot with me, initiating a unit (or units) in their classes with English Language Learners. I hope to show that projects with these priorities can lead to the gains that test-focused educators are looking for, but more importantly, that students come to develop in their academic achievement in a way not subtractive to their cultural and community commitments, but in ways that are additive and agentive: they gain access to codes, to cultures of power, that they can use in the course of affirming their own voices and the concerns and causes of their own families and communities, ones often marginalized in schools and in the public space. It’s intended to be a social justice pedagogy, building on the work of teachers, activists, and researchers who have initiated youth action research as critical pedagogy, but with special consciousness of the linguistic and discursive aspects of such engagements.

More details on this project to come.

Diffendoofer Ethics and Common Core Assessments

Seuss/Prelutsky’s Vision of Schooling: Teach Creatively, Teach Creativity, Watch the Tests Take Care of Themselves

Anyone who talks about implementing the Common Core State Standards cannot be serious about the CCSS’s stated objectives if they are not simultaneously transforming the ways we learn about students, not just with the types (and media) of standardized assessments (PARCC and SBAC, that’s at you), but with different, ongoing, and authentic ways of assessing that help us to teach them better, as Linda Darling-Hammond describes in that link.  (And, as well, not serious unless they resource teacher professionals to do that work.)

Much of my work as a teacher-coach is shaped by the test-makers, and I don’t love that but it’s not a hill I will die on.  But whatever chance I get, I try to emphasize the principle I learned from Jack Prelutsky’s completion of Dr. Seuss’s planned, unfinished Hooray for Diffendoofer Day.  At Diffendoofer School, Miss Twining teaches “tying knots in neckerchiefs and noodles” and “Miss Vining teaches all the ways a pigeon may be peppered,” sparking and spurring creativity with all the eccentric and adventurous activity, until the fretting principal announces, “All schools for miles and miles around must take a special test, to see who’s learning such and such–to see which school’s the best.  If our small school does not do well, then it will be torn down, and you will have to go to school in dreary Flobbertown.”  The children are in shock, until they start the test and find, “‘Yahoo!’ we yelled. ‘Yahoo!’ For it was filled with all the things that we all knew we knew.  There were questions about noodles, about poodles, frogs, and yelling… there were questions about other things we’d never seen or heard, and yet we somehow answered them, enjoying every word.”  Diffendoofers teach with passion, experimentation, and the rigor of real-life engagement, and find the exams to be incidental.

It’s Dr. Seuss day or something, which we can celebrate by reading to our kids and encouraging reading.  But we should also demand that equity means much more than standardized thinking and test-driven instruction.  Let’s teach critique, let’s teach depth, but let’s teach it not because a computer will demand it of children in May, but because they world will thrive, because there are problems to solve and suffering to alleviate and stories to be told.

 

Preschool for All Kids- Now is the Time.

Alongside a federal push for Universal Pre-K, California has some political momentum towards expanding its Transitional Kindergarten or some other means of widely broadening voluntary preschool access, especially for low-income and immigrant kids.  How this will happen–and particularly how it’s paid for–are still in negotiation, but there are lots of reasons, fiscal and otherwise, why it’s a worthy investment.  This repository of links and fact sheets is a good resource for FAQs on the issue, from a pro-preschool perspective.

There are many ways to address the achievement gap (or the educational debt to non-dominant communities), but this particular idea has strong research, good sense, broad appeal, and ideal timing.  Most important of all, investing in good quality preschool means good things for kids’ life outcomes.  I’ll be particularly curious and watching for how it influences multilingual kids, immigrant families, and dual language learning programs.  But as a matter of policy we can get behind, this is one whose time has come for California.

Thoughts on Developing a Writing Assessment

The focus of my teaching work of late has turned toward developing and administering a district wide writing assessment for middle school argument writing.  Amid warnings from the latest Rethinking Schools about all the extra baggage that makes Common Core implementation dangerous, like even higher stakes in testing and privatization, many of us on the ground are still working towards making something good out of what might be good.  The writing assessment we are crafting, like so many others being made in the likeness of the testing industry’s new Common Core assessments, involves a performance task requiring multiple sources students weave together as evidence to compose their own written argument.  It’s a tough task.  And we’re asking for teachers across disciplines to be involved in the endeavor with us: some English and Science teachers developed the test in consultation, teachers are administering it across the board, and most of the teaching staffs (including Science and History teachers, not only English) will be involved in the scoring process, learning to distinguish performance on various scales of a rubric.  The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary understanding and discussion, so that we’re all in the same boat.

My hopes are that teachers begin to give students credit for the sharp critical thinking they are capable of doing about problems of social, scientific, and cultural concern, and learn to express and argue with sophistication, nuance, and maturity across spheres.  I hope that all of this leads to teachers imagining engaging, cross-disciplinary units that involve interaction rhetorically with real-world problems and perhaps real-world audiences, cultivating civic voices and ethical commitments in the process of refining their linguistic repertoires. 

My fears are that teachers feel another wave of endeavors crammed down their throats without the time and space to formulate their own understandings, to take ownership and cultivate their own belief systems, and to hone practices that get students beyond surface understandings and procedural displays.  My fears are that students are being asked to do much, with the stick coming long before the carrot.  I am concerned about the ideology which attempts to drive teaching with evaluation, drive pedagogy with assessments, since evaluations and assessments often boil down to the most blunt and simplified versions of “the answers,” and what students need is complexity, individualization, and trust.  I tremble when I hear about computer-scored essays and merit pay schemes based on these assessments.

What teachers have to do (magically in the negative four hours of free time they have each day) is coordinated efforts of ownership, demonstrating that collaborative creation, scoring, and use of these assessment instruments by teachers for teaching is the only function that matters.  But it’s just impossible with all else that we have on our hands. Continue reading

Cultivating work of “a tough mind and a tender heart”

In a sermon reprinted in 1963’s Strength to Love, Martin Luther King calls for a dialectic of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness, which he encapsulates in nonviolent resistance, which “combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”  It’s a simplistic schematic, but it contains the best of what I appreciate about Dr. King, particularly as a thinker.  Resistance cannot be complacent, must not only be in a state of unrest, but must stir up unrest.  Academia’s complicity in reifying the domination and stratification of the ruling classes extends from its dependence on the means of corporate interests and warmongers, to its shirking of intellectual responsibility to be truth-tellers, as gadflies from Chomsky to Cornel West, from Gramsci to Bourdieu, have reminded us.  But nonviolence is a concerted effort of compassion and love, a hard-nosed and sustained, painful and dedicated commitment to humanizing oppressed and oppressors, of calling out the evil in others and recognizing it in ourselves, of strength enough to fight and sympathy enough to free.  I think my own tendency is to attempt to be a scholar of reconciliations, a tender-hearted embrace of as many perspectives as wish to sing kumbaya around the table.  But the organic intellectual must also speak forth what’s misguided, what’s hegemonic, what’s imperial, often in the very language and forms of communication which are designed to mark out, distinguish, separate, and exclude.  She must do so while suffering the schizophrenia of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness.

We must be in grateful and continued dialogue with those we resonate with, but also with those we disagree with.  We must engage them with clarity and force, but also in a spirit of understanding.  For instance, I think often of how I should write about our schools as a scholar.  Will my critique antagonize school leaders?  Get me pinned as a “critical” (read: irrelevant) voice, offering nothing substantive to the conversation?  Or do I compose myself with the same norms of research, the packaging of quantifiable, value-added economic efficiency-trained best practices, that I feel drain the work of its humane, particular, contextualized, and potentially revolutionary bent?  The answer is to do neither.  The answer is to step into the morass, to march up where other voices are uninvited, to speak with common moral language of authority, and if necessary to stand there with the courage to be flogged and hosed.  But to do so with the recognition that your opponent needs to hear something, needs to be reminded, needs to be called back to something which first put him in front of kids in a classroom, first compelled her to invest in children…

Education scholars must be endlessly critical, as a matter of critical hope, which is material hope, substantial hope.  But we must also be willing to be refined in good-faith dialogue.  We must continually find the veins of shared blood even among those with incommensurable perspectives and contrary positions.  For me, that means despite my significant concerns and critique of Common Core, David Coleman, and the Gates Foundation and so on, which I will have to write about one day, I can’t help but bristle at Susan Ohanian’s sometimes eloquent but often bitter screed against the “heart’s death” we are supposed to resist with Common Core’s onset.  In broad sweeps, I largely agree, and would like also for my daughter to have crayons and finger paints, but I wish our disagreement did not have to be such a whole-cloth dismissal.  In reality, earnest teachers are rolling with this momentary swinging pendulum, still instilling the distinctive and personalized passion for language and literature with or without CCSS, NCTE, or whatever body’s say-so.  Only those who believed in salvation by standards will perish in its flames, and would have anyway.  Instead of a “resisting the system,” we might, by our teaching, call the system to the carpet for its failures of vision and purpose, and struggle for children to be “college and career-ready” as incidental to the bigger project of human flourishing, civic empowerment, and cultural development that we are engaged in.  I’m not saying we should sell out, but can I hope we can retort transcendently.

 

phD uncertainty.

In year four of my Ph.D program, doubt sets in.  I’ll be plain about my studies: I’ve done terribly with my benchmarks, those milestones of progress that should pace me through “normative” time to earning the doctorate.  To be clear, the demands are by no means unreasonable.  I should at this point have completed my oral exams after finishing my position papers.  I’ve drafted my position papers, one a review of research, another an empirical study, and a third paper that serves as a draft proposal for my dissertation project.  Only one of those has completed the review process, and the other two have gathered varying degrees of dust on a digital shelf, having already garnered valuable feedback from my advisor and classmates, awaiting my attention like starved offspring.  Also, a paper I was invited to submit to a publication, the not-yet-ripe fruit of a long collaboration with some very willing and thoughtful research partners, also sits and waits.  I believe in all these projects.  They are rich with data, with conceptual relevance, well-articulated methodology, meaningful findings.  They sit and wait.  I can’t bear to revise them.  It is grinding and grueling work for me, combing through my own writing, re-writing and seeking clarity, making the judgment of Solomon for concision’s sake.  I need to approach it with freshness, stamina, and expanses of time.  The first I find from time to time, the latter two elude me, and always have.

I admit I feel at this point like I’m languishing, my scholarly career in a prenatal ICU, caught in the contradiction between not having enough funding to focus on the work and not having focused on the work enough to be competitive for funding.  My first semester was a sunlit backstroke on a Maui beach, and then my daughter was born and time disappeared in a diaper-shaped vacuum.  Stints of teaching, working at my church, family and family and family, all those local and familiar attachments of not having moved away for graduate school, and then the scholar-related chances at teaching, publication, research projects… all have left no margins for the clean, well-lighted place and the uninterrupted time to apprentice in the rigors of fifth drafts, peer review, lengthy reading lists.  I read, read constantly, read widely, read promiscuously, read fruitfully… but in scattered bits, like a desperate prisoner squirreling away illicit bits of food and sunlight.  Meanwhile, by day, I keep hustlin’ for fatherhood, for meaningful labor in schools, for these other facets that I cannot divorce from myself, the million yeses I could not no, rows of doors opened for me or that I’ve pried open that I cannot shut.

So much dissatisfaction in a life that should feel satisfying makes me question whether to continue trying to become a scholar.  An analogy: my spotty bilingualism.  Mandarin was my first language, the earliest language of my consciousness, the first reservoirs of culture, the primal sounds of intimacy.  But moving to the US, my literacy in English soared and my literacy in Chinese dissipated, and with them my access to the productive capacities of those language structures.  Yet, even though as a ninth grader, I routinely read 19th century British literature, crime novels, and dramatic theory, I did not know the difference between what was called a “stove” and an “oven”.  I could distinguish regional accents of Mandarin but forgot how to write “dog.”  Gaps.  Glaring gaps.  The side effect of inhabiting multiple worlds.

My formation as a scholar, divided as it has been with all these other obligations, is riddled with gaps.  I haven’t done any conference presentations.  Haven’t even written a proposal for one.  I’ve written hundreds of pages but can’t get myself to turn in twenty-five.  I have not served on any committees– I have to be home by dinner time.  I’ve joined all the organizations but contributed to none, not even attended their meetings or conferences– I have to take mom to the doctor.  I’ve accumulated repositories of journal articles and books about my research areas, but can’t pull together my orals list– I lost a whole summer selling our house, renting another one, and moving. It goes on and on like this.

And I have to question my readiness to enroll in scholarly work as a whole-life endeavor.  Research engages me, especially the kind of research I get to do, the horizons of research that are humanizing and decolonizing and reflexively rigorous, the possibilities of what research can introduce us to and how it can engage practice.  I appreciate critiques and the opportunity to refine my work.  But I have insufficient space and capacity for them in a hard drive and CPU so tasked with being a good dad, and drafting rubrics, and expounding Scriptures, and maintaining loyal friendships, and keeping up with my cherished former students.  I don’t know that I really want to sacrifice those, whether that is even a possibility.  Even leaving aside for a moment the extra-professional spheres, I don’t know that I want to give up chatty lunchtimes and teacher collaborations and curating educative experiences for lectureships and grant-writing and checking citations.

My ambitions have always been that I can have it all, the opportunity to study, to speak to the world, to remain a teacher for equity and justice, to be a family man, to be a follower of Jesus.  What I did not count adequately before, what I always fail to account for, is the unavoidable costs of such a division of self.  No matter how integrated my vision, no matter how productive the cross-pollination of identities and roles, each day still only has 24 hours, each month only its 35 days.  Oh, wait.

A professor who I have not worked closely with but whose advice I cherish once challenged me with a hard, direct question: do you really want to be a researcher?  Do you really want to do academic work?  My enthusiastic yes at the time is now wavering under the strains and the tradeoffs.  Usually, such tensions feel right, necessary, appropriate.  Today, my fingers reach for the white flag.