Educational broadcasting history project update

A little more than five years ago, I traveled with my then-student Wooyeong Kim to the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library. The archive there has thousands of feet of shelved material on the American history of broadcasting, much of it on public broadcasting, and we spent the entire week in the papers of the Children’s Television Workshop. Now Sesame Workshop, it’s the nonprofit that created Sesame StreetThe Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact.1 

My projects aren’t usually inspired by a new student, but this was. Wooyeong had enrolled in our educational policy and evaluation PhD program with an interest in the history of national policy in South Korea. He was my first student in more than a decade wanting to focus on the history of education. I had a number of ongoing projects, but none in the history of ed, let alone national policy setting, and I figured he could see a project from the ground up. Time to find a project! I looked for areas of national policy where there had not been a significant amount written from an education history perspective. Broadcasting stuck out as an obvious topic, though at first I had no focus other than the intersection of broadcasting, education, and national policy.2 As I said, I wanted Wooyeong to see a project from its messy origins. When he landed in Phoenix a few weeks before his program started, we had lunch and talked about the fall semester; his schedule wouldn’t let him travel until the end of the term, so he took an independent study reading with me, and then we headed to Maryland in December.3 

This isn’t exactly the five-year anniversary of the project, but it’s time to take stock.

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  1. Dr. Kim graduated in 2022. []
  2. Most of the existing literature sat squarely within media history, or educational technology as used in schools. []
  3. We also decided on Zotero as the way to manage documents, and the workflow we set up was immediately successful. We read a few hundred documents that week, took notes on 159, and scanned most of the ones we took notes on. []

Assessment has a learn and hungry look

I was in sixth grade when I first argued with a teacher about a math test. It was a multiple-choice test, made by the teacher and returned to us with her corrections and our grades, after comparing our work to her answer key. During a few minutes reserved for seatwork, I walked to the front of the room. I was explaining why my choice on a specific question was reasonable when she replied, “Well, it may be a possible answer, but it’s not the best answer.” Like many students, I fumed a bit as I returned to my seat, indignant at the capricious nature of school authority. But I also realized something important: the answer key was the set of answers my teachers had chosen when creating a test. The test was partly a measure of how well I could guess the teacher’s mind at the point of the test’s creation. 

Most adults have years of experience with school-based assessment, and the frustration I experienced that day is common. Our experience of assessment is institutional — each assessment measures agreement of some sort with the test-creator(s) — at the same time that we are told assessment is about learning — how well I knew the math taught in sixth grade in the late 1970s. Often critics of assessment practices urge assessment to strip away everything but what’s essential to learning. I certainly had my own version of that: “My answer was sensible to me, and not wrong!” was my thought that day. 

But desiring assessment to be separated from its context is an unrealistic expectation, and I knew it after sitting back down at my desk. Tests and other assignments are always created by someone, and the judgment of relative success or failure is also explicitly a human creation, in the context of a particular year, school, and society.  

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American education is a tilted ecology

In his presidential address to the (U.S.) History of Education Society, Ben Justice pitched his argument that schooling has historically been a white good. Further, he wrote, the extent to which schooling has served the public interest has been the result of explicit efforts to counter white supremacy, led by non-white activism.1 In part, Justice’s address was an effort to reconcile the potential of education with its frequent historical failings. Whether or not you agree with part or all of his address, it is a serious effort to frame the historical flaws in formal schooling in the U.S.

I want to extend the discussion in a different direction: in what useful ways can we more generally talk about the historical unequal tendencies of American education?

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  1. Justice’s address is open-source and not behind the History of Education Quarterly paywall. []

Applying to doctoral programs

37 years ago, I was writing applications for history doctoral programs. I was a senior in college, had one of my professors give me the “tenured jobs in history are shrinking, regardless of what others are saying” talk (he was right), and had no clue what doctoral admissions committees look for. I applied to a dozen programs, was admitted to a few, and given a promise of full support at one, at the University of Pennsylvania. And that’s where I attended. I vaguely remember that the departments generally had different essay questions — I think Yale’s program asked applicants to write about a history book that inspired us, and why, and I chose Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, which was published in 1965 and probably not anything like what they were looking for in prospective students.

If you’re applying to doctoral programs, don’t do what I did. I don’t mean, don’t apply to doctoral programs; that’s a more complicated discussion. Read the relevant portions of Jessica Calarco’s The Field Guide to Graduate School and Tressie Mcmillan Cottom’s blog entry on the topic for more complete and thoughtful comments. What I mean is, don’t apply as if it’s the 1980s with no solid information widely available about doctoral programs and what admissions committees often look for (I wrote some thoughts on this in March 2015).1

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  1. Some of the context from March 2015 is no longer true eight years later. []

Barbara J. Shircliffe, 1968-2023

Over the summer my friend, fellow historian of education, and former colleague Barbara Shircliffe died while biking in Asheville, North Carolina. I last saw Barbara at the 2019 conference of the History of Education Society, where she was presenting with Deanna Michael and a graduate student. We met while moving into our offices as new assistant professors at the University of South Florida in August 1996, fellow historians of education.1 I was one of dozens of colleagues who benefited from her support in so many ways, from being a friendly ear to a shrewd and quiet observer of human quirks, especially at a public university. I was overjoyed when she met her husband Clint Perigard, and they lived a few miles from us, reliable neighbors and friends. My first semester as a department chair, my wife and Barbara were hospitalized at the same time, my wife from pneumonia and Barbara after she was hit by a van while cycling. For a few days I shuttled in the afternoons between my office, my wife’s hospital bed, and Barbara’s ICU unit, and was grateful when both of them were released.

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  1. Christine Ogren was also part of our cohort, and is now at the University of Iowa. []