Into the Doctorate

This fall, I’ll be starting a doctorate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) at Michigan State University. I received an email from one of my methods professors asking us to answer these two prompts:

  1. What motivated you to apply to and enter a doctoral program?
  2. What do you hope to focus on or learn about as a doctoral student?

Even after I wrote my applications last December, I’ve been reflecting a lot about why I’m doing a doctorate and what I hope to get out of it. My thinking and motivations have shifted and evolved considerably over these past seven months, and so I’ve used these prompts to put down in writing some of the thoughts that have been floating in my head.

What motivated you to apply to and enter a doctoral program?

In short, my goal in entering a doctoral program is to prepare for and do scholarly work that has a net positive impact on the experiences of mathematics teachers and learners, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. To elaborate, I see my decision in terms of three concepts: agency, identity, and representation.

Agency: I was a middle school math teacher for six years. I had a lot of agency to change the lives of my students. I am also involved in a non-profit and somewhat active on social media and so have some agency communicating math ed ideas to people outside of my school. I’m doing a doctoral program to engage in a new kind of agency, where I’m not only affecting students and sharing ideas but also discovering new knowledge.

I know many people who change from teaching to academia say they do so to have a wider impact in education. I do not share those feelings. Especially today, classroom teachers can have just as wide an impact as academics through blogs, websites, Twitter, conferences, and books. The question becomes: what value can academic scholarship add to educational discourse that cannot already be done by teachers, coaches, consultants, and administrators? My response is to say that academic scholarship tackles education problems systematically and with an acknowledgment of its messiness and complexity to a degree that other professions might not have the time for. So through this doctoral program, I hope to develop the tools, habits, values, and relationships that will give me a kind of agency within the education field that is uniquely nuanced and disciplined and that derives its power from the knowledge process.

Identity: I will always be proud to be a classroom teacher and will always have a passion for working directly with children. However, I’ve entered this program because I would like to see myself as someone who does scholarly work for a living. Even in my first year of teaching, I knew I had a passion for the knowledge process. By this, I do not just mean having a lot of knowledge but also knowing how to create, wrestle with, communicate, and operationalize it. I see much power in this kind of expertise and closely self-identity with those who use research to effect social change. I became a math teacher through role models like Magdalene Lampert and Jo Boaler, whose scholarship connects them with teachers, parents, and the general public to shape discourse about mathematics learning and teaching. Someday, I would like to do the same.

Representation: There are not many Filipino Americans doing education scholarship in the U.S. In general, Filipinos bear a kind of liminal status, often lost in the black/white paradigm of race and even differing from our more recognized East Asian counterparts in that our brown skin and Spanish colonial past gives us both Asian and Latino affiliations. This liminality is becoming even more important as greater numbers of U.S. schools are hiring teachers from the Philippines to make up for teacher shortages in their home states.

My research interests are not focused on the experiences of Filipino teachers or students. Nonetheless, I hope to bring a perspective to this doctoral program that is at least partly shaped by my background as a second generation Filipino American who, having been raised in a small suburb of Ohio, has struggled with racial identity and the pervasiveness of Whiteness in the U.S.

What do you hope to focus on or learn about as a doctoral student?

I am interested in studying mathematics classroom discourse, which James Gee defines as the characteristic ways of talking, doing, thinking, feeling, valuing, and interacting that give rise to socially recognizable identities and practices. My interest comes from my time as a teacher, where I saw that different students had differential access to identities and practices, which connected to different sorts of status and other social goods. Despite my best efforts, there were still students who felt marginalized, isolated, or dehumanized by mathematics. I realized this was often caused by the language used by students, teachers, and society at large about what it means to do mathematics and what kind of person can be a mathematician. Language reproduces dominant ideologies surrounding math and math learning, but I am interested in it because it is also a potential site for social change.

Instead of simply theorizing about language use, I hope to meaningfully observe how teachers and students use language in actual classroom practice. I am particularly interested in how teachers and students use language as a resource for achieving their goals, whether it is making or accepting bids for authority in cooperative learning situations or constructing what it means to be a competent and valued member of the classroom. I have a particular interest in Rom Harre and Luk Van Langenhive’s ideas about positioning theory, which first brought me to the work of my current advisor, Beth Herbel-Eisenmann.

I am also interested in the discourse practices and language issues of ELL students, refugees, and newly arrived immigrants. Reflecting back on my life, education, and work experiences, I have always been drawn to refugee and immigration issues. My parents’ immigration stories played a significant role in my childhood upbringing. In college, I interned for an immigration non-profit. In law school, I interned for the immigration court, where I helped decide asylum cases. During my time as a wall street attorney, I did pro bono work representing refugee clients who were victims of domestic abuse. During my time as a teacher, some of my most meaningful experiences were working with ELL and newly arrived immigrant students.

The common thread that runs through both my motivations for doctoral study and my research goals is a simultaneous love for mathematics and concern for those who are marginalized by or vulnerable to the systems within which mathematics learning takes place.

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