michelle fine: 5 ways I work the scholar-activist hyphen

michelle fine was also at the AERA pre-conference workshop, and what a pleasure to get to hear her talk. her main point is that everytime we do anything that reinforces institutional structures – e.g., using test scores as a measure of schools – we collude. it’s important to notice the ways in which we collude, especially as members of the elite we often let those go unnoticed. fine’s goal now is to find places where her privilege speaks, that is, places where she has the ability to get people to pay attention to her. (her example: as a jew speaking on behalf of palestine.) she gave 5 ways in which she becomes a scholar-activist:

  1. what we teach and how we teach. even in “detracked” schools the students still know who’s supposed to be smart.
  2. relocating what we take for granted. relocate injustice in structures, not in the bodies of children. remember that children are “dying to be educated, but terrified to be schooled”.
  3. giving expert testimony. for example, she conducted focus groups in preparation for a trial (I believe she said this is the data presented in her article Fine, M., Burns, A., Payne, Y. and Torre, M.E. (2004) Civics Lessons: The color and class of betrayal. Teachers College Record, 106, November, 2193-2223.(low-quality pdf on her website). she finds that criticism for results of qualitative research is more often not about the methods, but because the data breaks your heart – which reminds me now of the defenses offered by milgram & zimbardo, among others, that people were critiqued the methods because they were outraged by the findings. not that i necessarily want to equate fine’s findings with theirs, i just think it’s interesting.
  4. conducting policy-related research. for example, she worked with Mothers on the Move to document their activist history and participatory research. In NJ, she’s doing a new quantitative project on which students graduate high school via the HSPA (hi-stakes 11th grade test) and which get the alternate SRA (critiqued as low standard), and will follow up comparing the outcomes for the 2 groups of students.
  5. using activist methodologies, for example participatory action research, and teaching other academics about those methods – right now, for example, by writing (as an epilogue to a methods text) an “open letter” about how to interpret research conducted using PAR. Fine, M. (2007) Dear Tenure and Promotion Committee: An epilogue of sorts. In J. Cammarota and M. Fine, Revolutionizing Education: Youth Participatory Action Research. New York: Routledge Publishers.

She reminded us that we can choose when to reveal our expertise. Questions are biographical because biography IS expertise, but coming out is not everyone’s responsibility and burden. Fine worries about:

  • finding worthy audiences
  • appropriation
  • the squeeze on junior faculty in using new/appropriate methods
  • the loss of creativity in schools/teachers/students
  • the fact that you can’t lie to your kids and say it will be ok

i LOVED hearing her talk, partly because she’s just so personable, but mostly because when she talks about research and activism you can just feel the moral weight of the issues, much more raw and immediate than in folks who stick ” to the facts”. for me, she’s both a reminder that we need (that is, it’s a moral obligation) to make our research connect with real people and real issues, and a living example of how one can make that work from within the ivory tower. also, when i wrote her, she wrote back within 24 hours with pdfs of her articles. rock on.

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