The Answers, The Questions and Practical Significance

I want to congratulate Sherri Spelic on the launch of “Identity, Education and Power”. As it was explained to me (and I am sure it will morph and grow as all healthy, vibrant things do), this is a space for exploring intersections — what they are, how they come to be, and how they come to matter. Sherri asked me to consider a set of exploratory questions for my modest contribution to this exciting new venture: how did I come to know about and analyze power in relation to education; and, what was it in (or perhaps missing from) my formal education which brought me to what I do now? Those are some big questions and all of them benefit from a cursory look at what it is I do and how I do it.

I am a sociologist. I am a writer. I am a teacher. I am professor (I make the distinction because that isn’t nearly as synonymous with being a writer and a teacher as I would prefer in the modern academy). But, perhaps those are more what I do that what I am. I am also a woman, a black woman, and an American too young to be old and too old to be young. I believe that covers most of my intersections: age, race, class, citizenship, and gender. Those locations matter to who I am, the spaces where I work, and how I work. For six years now, I have written a blog subtitled “some of us are brave” for the eponymous black feminist text. I have written for major media outlets and academic journals and lots of media that falls in between. I study inequalities. I especially like to study emerging inequalities, or the points where the transmutability of categorical inequalities like race, class and gender are happening. For six years I tried to figure out the why, what and how of for-profit colleges in the U.S. through social inequality. Those questions are what led me to start writing publicly and they continue to animate my professional life.

I came to know about power in relation to education the way many black women from and in the U.S. do: power in education introduced itself to me. My first memories of what I’d know to call a power relation are of being about seven years old in Mrs. Haney’s third grade class. I liked Mrs. Haney but I liked all teachers. Teachers, like librarians (those other adults that I loved), had lots of answers. I liked that. I continue to like the certainty of a good answer, even as becoming an academic has been me distrustful of all certain answers. There was something to the neat lines on worksheets given in class and bringing order to chaos that appealed to me on a deep, visceral level. By the third grade I had developed a phobia about writing on unlined paper because neatness so mattered to how I categorized new information. I still have that phobia. I like lines and boxes and squares. In the third grade, the height of that affection was Mrs. Haney who graded all those lines and boxes and squares.

I remember thinking that teachers must know an awful lot to be able to do all that grading. At the end of the third grade year, Mrs. Haney was cleaning out the classroom. I got to clean the blackboards, a very big deal in the small universe of tiny people’s social organization. As I stood beside her desk, Mrs. Haney tossed her textbook in the trash. I gasped. I didn’t know you could throw a book away! Amused by my reaction, she asked me if I wanted the book. Hell yeah, I did. The school had adopted new books for the next year, she explained. I could have all the old ones.

I got off the school bus, the last day of school, with about a dozen books in a trash bag larger than myself. My mother laughed and asked how I managed to have more books on the last day than I had on the first day of school. It wasn’t until the next day that I cracked open Mrs. Haney’s gifts. And there, in the teacher’s edition of the textbook, were wide margins filled with answers. Answers to all the questions on our homework, on our pop quizzes, on our tests. I was floored. Mrs. Haney did not know all the answers! All of the answers were in a special book that only teachers possessed.

That is my first experience of how knowledge and power and schooling become invisible and can be recovered. It is the summer I internalized that “smart” isn’t a person but access to special knowledge; the books had the answers and not the teachers. I still revered teachers but now I had what educational psychologists today would call a “growth” mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. One isn’t smart (fixed) but becomes smart (growth).

That approach to knowledge — that it was afforded rather than made — shaped my entire approach to formal education. And, my formal education was patchy. I was at the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s revolution in the U.S. That meant every post-1970s public reform that had narrowed race and class differences in access and resources was closing just as I was benefitting from them. One year our working class neighborhood had a community center with a public pool and after-school programs. The next year it didn’t. One year we had arts programming, complete with musical instruments free-of-charge, and the next year we didn’t. And so on. My high school experience was one of the best in the nation. West Charlotte High School was a historically black school reinvigorated with public investment as gentrification and tracking drove suburban white kids there in droves to enroll in our Advanced Placement curriculum. I benefitted from that, taking rigorous science, math, history and English classes (sometimes from teachers with PhDs!). Those classes rivaled the rigor at my historically black college and I believe are what truly set me up for graduate study almost fifteen years later.

That is how I came to understand power and education — by bumping up against shifting political economies of the education afforded me. Just like Mrs. Haney’s teachers’ editions of the textbook, I learned the idea of structures and social systems because I was in a social location where those structures change the most often and with the most visible tangible consequences. As an early career academic, it made sense to ask what was in the formal curriculum (e.g. the book) and what was not (e.g. the teacher’s margins) of everything I researched.

I began my doctoral studies in an education department. My first major assignment was to present a research brief on my proposed area of interest in a research design class. I spent a lot of time explaining the spatial dimensions to what I proposed were the pathways poor black women took to expensive for-profit colleges. At the end of my talk, my colleagues just sort of stared at me. Finally, the professor said, “I believe what you’re proposing is sociology and not education.” I was stunned and more than a little chagrined, for it hadn’t been said as if that were a good thing. But, a sociology of education course is precisely where I found myself a year later. All of the questions there made sense to me. In short order, I was in a sociology PhD program studying the social context of power and education. As at home as I was in sociology, however, I still had a penchant for critical reflexivity. Whereas education had not been fond of how I asked questions, sociology wasn’t fond of my penchant for interrogating knowledge production through reflexive inquiry. I was in a liminal disciplinary space that continues in my career. Then it was a challenge. I felt odd and alone. I had to work harder than many of my peers to master multiple discourses with little guidance about how to do that. That’s why I began blogging. I was looking for community and space to breathe. But, today, I think the liminal space makes a more independent scholar. And, I have held onto my critical reflexivity while developing my sociological imagination. They are far more compatible than formal knowledge production would have us to believe.

None of this is new or unique to me, of course. Critical scholars from social sciences and humanities have long argued for reflexivity in research and pedagogy. That’s the space where we tease apart what we know from who we are, holding them up to the light for students — be they in our classroom, our lives or just ourselves — can see the margins of living texts. It is very in vogue in social sciences and education research to dismiss this reflexivity as unserious or unscientific. That is how we end up reproducing inequalities in our theories, data, and research. Rational objectivity and empirical truth are as seductive as my preference for lined notebooks, neat and comforting in how it constrains blank pages. But the trick is to know that you rely on the lines. The lines are crutches when we too often confuse them for truth. The lines can be good but only if they are visible and acknowledged for what they are and what they are not. That’s what I keep in mind as I ask questions, propose lines to minimize the messiness of the social world, and constantly weigh statistical significance against practical significance. Practical significance is where theory meets the road. It is where praxis can be social change. And that is, for me, the ultimate functional and critical good of education.

Identity, Education and Power

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