Who and What Counts in Education? A Conversation with Jordan Corson

This week IEN shares an interview with Jordan Corson that focuses on his work on learning with transnational youth inside and outside schools. Corson is an Assistant Professor of Education and an affiliated faculty member of immigration studies at Stockton University. He is a co-author with Thomas Hatch and Sarah Gerth van den Berg of The Education We Need for a Future We Can’t Predict (Corwin, 2021). This post is the first in an occasional series that features the work of early career scholars. The series grows out of a collaboration (#EdIntColl) between IEN, ARC (Atlantic Rim Collaboratory), ICSEI (International Congress For School Effectiveness And Improvement), and the Educational Change SIG (Special Interest Group) of AERA (American Educational Research Association).

IEN: What’s the key problem or issue that you’ve been working on? 

Jordan Corson: In this early part of my career, I’ve really been focused on critically engaging questions of who and what counts in education. Interrogating problems of marginalization, my work aims to challenge dominant understandings of inclusion, reform, and of education itself. Exploring these issues has taken on a number of forms, but has so far largely focused on two research projects. First, I studied with people living and working in a neighborhood and marketplace in Mexico City called Tepito. When I was first living in Mexico, I heard a lot about this neighborhood that “didn’t have education yet.” People in Tepito may have varying levels of schooling, but they’re constantly engaged in complex educational practices in their everyday lives. Spending a lot of time in Tepito ultimately led to an ethnographic and historical project about educational life in the neighborhood.

An image of Tepito

In a similar vein, my dissertation project looked at the everyday lives of immigrant youth in a newcomer school in New York City. Even in the culturally and linguistically affirmative space of their school, one designed specifically to support immigrant students, the youth with whom I worked had become labeled “at-risk” of dropping out.

In these projects, I aimed to challenge the deficit narratives around educatedness and labels like being “at-risk.” Working ethnographically, I looked at rigorous intellectual work taking place in everyday life, be it practices of translaguaging, navigating the city, taking on family and professional responsibilities, or just hanging out and sharing ideas with each other. But, showing educational life as something already present was just a starting point.  Although scholars like Shirley Brice Heath and Kris Gutierrez have been working to challenge schooling’s monopoly on education, the problem here is that, at the risk of creating an overgeneralization, these kinds of “non-formal” educational practices are still not taken seriously. Something like afterschool clubs or extracurriculars might be seen as important (though supplementary) education, but that still misses so much in everyday life. One example I always love to share is the albur, a kind of wordplay or double entendre that people practice in playful conversation in Tepito. There’s no school or program, no training to learn how to do this, but it takes serious intellect and creativity to engage in the back and forth of albureando. In educational research, that’s just not seen as serious knowledge or a necessary skill. Similarly the youth with whom I worked in New York City were only seen as educated when they succeeded in formal educational processes. I never wanted to attack public schools that are already under constant attack, but this returns to my initial question of engaging educators and policymakers on issues of who and what counts in education.

A sign hanging in the newcomer school

IEN: What did you learn about it? 

JC: Beyond any other lesson, what I’ve really learned is that as researchers, we’re so often limiting our scope and our work. Questions of educational change are largely just looking to keep “tinkering toward utopia” as if the ultimate goal is to achieve Horace Mann’s dream of universal schooling. Youth labeled “at-risk” in schools may want education reform or policy change, but they’re certainly not sitting around waiting for policymakers or anyone else. They are pushing for changes on the ground, through things like demands for immigrant rights. Moreover, they’re also doing their own thing. They’re engaging in educational work that is useful to their everyday lives. They’re taking up rigorous ideas and feeling successful in doing so. And, they’re collectively participating in education (both formal and non-formal) that they find joyful and pleasurable. What that says to me is that we need more educational research that goes beyond figuring out ways to better school kids. Educational research and educational discourses in general are dominated by these twin concerns for inclusion in schools and academic success. I don’t want to abandon those aims or suggest schools should accept the marginalization that many students face, but there are many more educational questions out there. It’s about listening to what is already happening and respecting kids’ collective autonomy. My job as a researcher and educator who wants to change education is not to figure out how to improve inclusion mechanisms. It’s not a matter of reform. Instead, it’s about exploring how kids who are already equal, and who verify that equality through everyday intellectual work, have been marked as “at-risk” or “failing,” even in inclusive and affirmative educational environments. From there, it’s about thinking about inventive, playful ways for researchers to work on undoing all the unequal conditions we’ve made.

It’s about exploring how kids who are already equal, and who verify that equality through everyday intellectual work, have been marked as “at-risk” or “failing,” even in inclusive and affirmative educational environments

IEN: What are the implications for policy/practice? 

JC: I think the biggest implication here is that policy, practice, and even schooling itself need to be restricted. The kids with whom I worked already had jobs, family responsibilities, and all kinds of commitments. As kids struggled, teachers rightly wanted to help. But, that so often meant adding in tutoring, afterschool, and other supports on top of everything else. Simultaneously, educational life outside of the school is getting smaller and smaller. At one point during fieldwork for my dissertation, some of the participants and I were at a museum. A docent was guiding us around, offering really cool details and information about the works we encountered. At one point, she asked us to all sit around a painting and started asking people to raise their hands and share ideas. It suddenly hit me, we were just back in school. The logics and expectations governing school have spread out so far, they’re encroaching on all parts of life. Simultaneously, though, there are obviously standardizing and normative forces encroaching on schools. I want to be careful here and reiterate that I think school is a wonderful place and schools should absolutely be searching out ways to welcome students and help them succeed. But, school is just one educational site among many. And, it’s a place where so much happens beyond academic success. Most of my fieldwork took place outside of schools, but some of the best stuff I observed in classrooms were teachers conspiring with students to subvert and navigate things like state tests. There were also some really beautiful moments when teachers stepped back and let the wild joyfulness of education take over. Beyond any kind of culturally responsive teaching, teachers here let a borderless curriculum rooted in students’ lived realities take over. It wasn’t drawing on interests and identities to help them read but just letting students explore and enact their own educational pursuits. Sometimes, that might be seen as academically useful from a schooling perspective. Two of the participants in the project loved performing translanguaged raps in front of their class. There were also some fantastic collective actions like the kids starting a gender and sexuality alliance. But, it also involved students sitting back, texting, and messing around on their phones. I don’t want to idealize it (there were a few pretty chaotic moments) or ignore ongoing oppressions and exclusions that these kids face, but these moments opened up some amazing possibilities for collective planning and routes that work against policy and practice that sought to govern their lives.

Educational life outside of the school is getting smaller and smaller… The logics and expectations governing school have spread out so far, they’re encroaching on all parts of life

IEN: What resources, tools, readings, helped you carry out your work?

JC: I don’t want to refer to research participants as resources, but the work was only possible thanks to their ideas, activities, and hospitality. It’s been hard to keep in touch since the project concluded, particularly during COVID, but their intellectual generosity is truly what made this work. One of the greatest resources for the participants and I was always New York City. The subway, parks, wandering the streets in the middle of summer. The place just oozes with educational potential. At the same time, beyond any IRB protocol, I always wanted to center mutual care and safety. Resources around things like know your rights were really helpful.

In terms of readings, I keep a number of books with me throughout writing. Leigh Patel’s Youth Held at the Border uses youth narratives to challenge the labels used to confine and exclude immigrant youth. The book balances intimate storytelling with a thorough critique of structural issues surrounding immigration in the United States. Whenever I feel a sense of futility creeping in, I turn to Saidiya Hartman’s work as well as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons. This kind of writing shows the creative and productive possibilities of rigorous academic work. It offers both the dominating ways that people are governed and controlled and the many strategies people take up to resist that kind of governance. Moten and Harney also show how intellectual labor comes from all over, be it be chatting on the front porch or on the factory floor at work. Furthermore, they really flip the script and show how educational institutions like universities so often act to regulate thought and codify knowledge. Finally, Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster illustrated how equality is not simply some future possibility towards which we work but a starting point.

Of course, as lonely as writing can be, colleagues and mentors have always been great resources for bouncing ideas off of, sharing readings, or reining me in. I guess when it comes down to it, I’ve been a very small part of these research projects.

IEN: What’s next for your work? What problems and issues are you/will you be working on? What are your hopes for that work – what do you envision for the future?

JC: I’m just starting out as a professor, so what’s next for my work is a lot of learning how to live within and balance the varying demands of academic life. That certainly means supporting a lot of first gen folks as they become teachers. Trying to stay true to my research focus, I’ve tried to balance supporting the development of their craft with some critical questions regarding the privatized, credentialing nature of things like the edTPA.

From these research projects, I’ve been preparing manuscripts for journals and beginning the process of converting my dissertation into a book. I hope and know both the work in Tepito and the dissertation project will be with me for some time, so it’s a bit difficult to think of what’s next beyond trying to share that work. I do know the demands of academia have so far suggested I be the sole author of something like a dissertation. Going forward, I want to seek out more collaborative research that builds on collective knowledge.

Which is a more radical view of the future of schools? Is it a world with AI everywhere and floating desks? Or, is it a world in which equality is a fundamental principle applied to everyone that enters the school?

Looking ahead, one project about which I’m increasingly interested is the role of the future in education. When I started teaching last year, I inherited a class called Schools of the Future. In building the syllabus, I found a lot of institutional projections and probabilities of what schools would be like in the future, including lots of images of limitless technology. On the first day of class, I asked everyone to find or create a media image of what schools might look like in 25 years. I asked everyone to really push at the boundaries of possibility, thinking about the wildest images of schools of the future. The most common vision we came up with seemed to be like an episode of the Jetsons. In order to consider the future, we’ve also been looking at a lot of images of the past. How have schools been constructed (and why) and how have they changed over time and place? One example we looked at was some of the education work of the Black Panther Party. As we looked at the actual curriculum and explored some of the pedagogy, there wasn’t anything all that futuristic about it. In some ways, it involves some recitation and rote learning. But, that leads to a question of which is a more radical view of the future of schools? Is it a world with AI everywhere and floating desks? Or, is it a world in which equality is a fundamental principle applied to everyone that enters the school? These questions, once more, return to this fundamental issue of who and what counts in education. But, any kind of new project is somewhat down the line. For now, I’m just really happy to continue writing and working with some awesome students who I still haven’t met face to face.

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