Interview with Carol Brandt (Temple University)

Carol Brandt works on science education at Temple University.

Eli Thorkelson: Your work on science education seems like it comes pretty directly out of your own higher education trajectory, which was in anthropology, botany, and educational thought, right? Do you think you could start out by telling the story of how this diverse set of interests formed, and how you ended up in New Mexico doing your PhD and working on American Indian science education?

Carol Brandt: As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I was an anthropology major and studied archeology. At first I was in the human osteology lab and working on disease patterns in prehistoric human populations as a work-study. At the same time, I was strongly interested in biology and had almost completed double major, if I had only done the organic chemistry. After graduating with a BA in anthro, I found a position working with the University of Colorado at the Dolores Archeology Project in southern Colorado. It was one of the last huge US Corps of Engineers projects in the Southwest that involved inundating an obscene amount of land at near Mesa Verde by damming the Dolores River. This area had thousands of Puebloan and Basketmaker sites dating from 200 BC to 1200 AD. Because I had biology and botany coursework in college, I found myself doing archaeobotanical analysis for several years. Eventually I decided to get a MS in Botany at Colorado State University to continue this work. After getting my MS degree, I worked for the Pueblo of Zuni doing archaeobotany for six years.

It was at the Pueblo of Zuni that I became interested in educational anthropology. I was one of the few people at the Cultural Resources Office who would go into the schools to help teachers develop curricula, lead field trips, and to talk about science (and archeology) as a cultural process and a particular set of practices. As I realized that I wanted to move into education, I eventually found a position at the University of New Mexico in the Biology Department. I was an advisor for undergraduate students, but I also was an advisor for student clubs, one of which was the American Indian Medical Students. These were undergraduate students from the indigenous communities around NM who wanted to pursue medical school. And most of these students were women.

I was at UNM for almost 10 years and found it to be a really amazing place with an incredibly diverse student body. I was really fortunate to take classes with indigenous scholars and to also teach some senior seminars in the biology department on the topics of ethnobotany and agroecology – again, providing a cultural approach to viewing the construction of knowledge about plants and agricultural domestication. I was always taking a few classes here and there and I became interested in getting my PhD at some point – probably as I realized how low the glass ceiling was for women staff at the university. I also enjoyed teaching so much, I wondered how I might become a professor. I also wanted to understand the experience of the indigenous women that I had come to know through my work in the biology department. Eventually this topic became my dissertation topic and I conducted an ethnographic case study of four women who were majoring in the life sciences at UNM.

I was really fortunate to have worked with such great mentors in doing educational anthropology and to have had amazing participants in my research. As I was nearing the end of the dissertation, I wondered what the next step would be and applied for faculty positions and post-docs. I was hired by UC Santa Cruz as a post-doctoral researcher as part of their Center for Informal Learning and Schools. It allowed me to future develop my research skills and to focus on science learning that occurs outside of the classroom. Even though I no longer work with indigenous students, my dissertation profoundly shaped how I look at the ways that youth and young adults move between home, community, and school. I’m deeply interested in the out of school science experiences that we might leverage to engage students who have historically been excluded from pursuing science.

Eli: I have to say, given that academic careers are often so linear these days, it’s remarkable to hear about your more complex trajectory, with your work as a field scientist with the Pueblo of Zuni and then your work as a non-teaching undergraduate advisor all coming before you joined the faculty track. In recounting your shift to a teaching career, the question of gender seems central — via the glass ceiling for women university staff and the predominance of women among indigenous pre-med students — which reminds me that I was also struck, in reading your work from this period, by the strong influence of feminist poststructuralism, which seemed like it was the theoretical point of departure for your research on scientific discourse and American Indian student experience. I wonder if you could say a little bit about the feminist community on campus during your UNM years, and about the feminist intellectual influences on your work?

Carol: Back in the days when you could go into the university and browse the stacks, I found a small book with a purple cover, entitled _Feminist Science Education_ by Angela Calabrese Barton. It really rocked my intellectual world as a beginning doctoral student. I was pretty bold as a graduate student and I emailed her after reading her book, and we had an amazing discussion over the phone. Angie eventually became an outside committee member on my dissertation and has been a continuing influence on my work over the years. But it was a group of my doctoral classmates that really pushed me to use poststructural feminist theory. With two other women, we formed a small dissertation writing group and I remember being really influenced by the work of Bronwyn Davies – a poststructural feminist. We pushed each other to read new (to us) theory and we wanted to understand how to apply this theory to our own work. The Women and Gender Studies program was also very vibrant at UNM at that time and they had a wonderful speaker series. Dorothy Smith was one of those visiting scholars, and her work on Institutional Ethnography provided me a way to think about how to document and analyze institutional discourse. The Women and Gender Studies program had other guest speakers like Cheri Moraga, Winona LaDuke, and affiliated faculty in their American Studies program like Leslie Silko and Joy Harjo – whose work influenced my own.

When I accepted my first academic position in Educational Studies at Virginia Tech, I immediately sought to be an affiliated faculty member with their Women and Gender Studies program, as I was teaching a graduate course on Gender & Education. The WGS program at Virginia Tech was awarded an internal university grant to host an annual regional meeting called Bodies, Gender, & Society that brought together those researchers in the sciences, Science Technology and Society program, with WGS students and faculty. It was a dynamic scholarly community.

At Temple University, my appointment is in science education and so my connections have shifted toward the College of Science & Technology, but I’m still doing research that involves a feminist perspective and gender in science education.

Eli: Can you say a bit more about what it’s like to work in a Science Education program, and what sort of research and teaching you’re doing now? I’m curious, in particular, how you see your work evolving at Temple. Your more recent ethnographic work on studio/design education seems like a larger-scale collaborative ethnography than your earlier work at UNM, with the massive amount of video recording analysis, and I also notice an increased theoretical emphasis on neoliberal political economy (David Harvey and Wendy Brown) in your more recent work.

Carol: So, working in a science education program has been a challenge for me, because up to this point, all my research was focused on learning outside of classrooms. I also consciously avoided classrooms because of the politics around the accountability movement in teacher education. But now, there’s no avoiding it and I feel a tremendous responsibility to bring an awareness of a sociocultural approach to our students pursuing teacher certification. The history of education and science ed in particular have emphasized learning theory that is heavily couched in the individual, drawing from educational psychology. My appointment is in the Early Childhood Education program where I teach undergraduate and master level science education methods. I draw upon feminist and practice theory in anthropology to construct an understanding of the culture of early childhood classroom. We also experiment with different social configurations of the science classroom and analyze the ways that we talk with children about science. Temple University’s strong suit is urban education, so it’s not difficult to contextualize this classroom within  Philadelphia’s precarious politics and poverty. We do a disservice to teachers when we present science as a-political or a-cultural.

I’ve always been interested in alternative learning environments and makerspaces are connected to that desire. Science ed has jumped on to the makerspace (and STEM/STEAM) bandwagon with very little critical analysis or understanding of how these spaces are used by students and teachers. There are many claims about makerspaces being “democratic” and more inclusive for students with disabilities, but very little data or research in this area. I’m also concerned that all of this “making” falls neatly into the institutional pressures for every person to be an entrepreneur and to be the ultimate flexible worker in a neoliberal economy. Justification for makerspaces are couched in discourses around creativity and innovation – with no mention of how makerspaces can potentially address local problems or contribute to the commonwealth. With makerspaces, I’d like to see more teachers and researchers engaging in critical awareness of social-economic issues as they engage in the studio design work of a makerspace.

And you are right, my work now is a collaboration across disciplines – it’s very exciting: I’m working with those in art education, education leadership and organization, humanities (human geography), and the sciences (geology). I have one new project where we are using the alternative learning environment of the design studio in graduate research to bring together students from human geography and molecular biology to develop a social understanding of research on the human body. The graduate students will be designing exhibits to be placed at the Franklin Institute as a result of this work.

Eli: Listening to you talk about your work at Temple, I’m struck by what sounds like one of the great things about not working in a traditional cultural anthro context: you get to do so much more collaborative work. (Traditional ethnography is too often a solo endeavor, partly I think as a bad side effect of the individualizing structures of PhD training and evaluation.) Do you think you could talk a little bit about how your current research projects work, on a day to day level? Do you end up working as a more traditional PI, getting grants and managing a team, while delegating more of the data gathering and analysis to your colleagues? And in terms of where your projects come from, are you picking new projects purely based on your own developing interests or are there other kinds of institutional needs that you try to address? 

Carol: Being at the university, I am without a doubt a neoliberal subject in a neoliberal institution. I know that my success as an academic is full of contradictions and I try to balance that tension. Success in science education is tied to large external grants and collaborating with faculty in the sciences. These projects were important in gaining tenure and offered me the opportunity to publish on large data bases that as a solo anthropologist, I wouldn’t have access to. I’ve been able to encourage my colleagues to take up a cultural lens as a result (no small feat), but the projects have not been focused on social or environmental equity. I usually have 1-3 doctoral students working with me on these projects and it’s a real challenge to stay one step ahead of them, to manage expenses, and to then synthesize the data they generate. Not many education grads want to pursue an anthropological dissertation, so there’s always a large investment in getting the research assistants up to speed and then “poof!” – they disappear as they realize they need to focus on their own research toward the dissertation. I haven’t found any grads yet, that would like to take the data to do some of their own writing or publishing, or even a dissertation.

The big projects have allowed me to do more traditional ethnographic work in the field where I’m working alone. I have a citizen science ethnography that is about 6 years old now that I really need to tie up and perhaps work into a larger collaborative grant with people in hydrogeology over in the geology dept. One of my colleagues at Univ of Montreal, Jrène Rahm, and I talk about doing more ethnographic research with indigenous youth together and I hope I can make time for that.

As for my day to day working pattern – it’s still working alone, with a weekly meeting among the project leaders of the grant. My graduate researchers are full time teachers and part time students, so it’s hard to schedule meetings with them and we usually do Skype or Google Hangout sessions together. Because the Temple campus is 45 minutes away from me, I have a home office where I do most of my academic work. And Wes [Shumar] has his own office right next door, so we often take breaks, read each others’ writing, share articles, or try to work out ideas together. He’s a great colleague in that way.

Eli: Thanks for taking the time to talk about your work, Carol!

Carol: Thanks for letting me think about all of this. I haven’t really connected all the ideas in a while and sometimes I fear that I get distracted by a new project. With your questions, I can see all the linkages and it’s important to keep that in mind as I move ahead.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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