Q&A with Stanton Wortham

Stanton Wortham

Peter Tobia

Stanton Wortham’s grandmother was unhappy and wanted a simple answer. She was proud of her grandson and knew he was an accomplished scholar and professor—having graduated with highest honors from Swarthmore College and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago—but she still wasn’t quite sure what in the world he did. She knew he used aspects of anthropology, but wasn’t merely an anthropologist, and that he did linguistic and psychological work as well, but neither term sufficed to capture his work.

Her girlfriends would brag about their grandson the lawyer, or their granddaughter the cardiologist, and she wanted to brag too, but she didn’t have a clear way to describe her grandson’s profession.

To please his grandmother—as any loving grandson would do—Wortham devised a phrase that captures the diverse fields involved in his research: linguistic anthropology of education.

“I’m not sure that really helped her with her friends,” he says.

Wortham, the Judy & Howard Berkowitz Professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School of Education (GSE), says linguistic anthropology of education uses tools from anthropology, education, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and sociology to study how language use can influence social action in a sociocultural context, facilitating learning, development, and other processes that are central to human life.

“Children do not develop in isolation,” he says. “People develop in context, and the other people they interact with, the kinds of social beliefs and practices that they find around them, make crucial contributions. Some of those external factors become integral to who they are. I’ve always been interested in how it is that people are partly built up from the outside in.”

The Current sat down with Wortham to discuss linguistic anthropology of education in more detail, the importance of choosing classroom words wisely, his award-winning teaching style, and his work as a filmmaker.

Q: You have written that linguistic anthropology of education studies ‘language in use,’ not linguistic structure for its own sake. Can you explain the difference between what you study and what a linguist studies?
A: Linguists are interested in how language is organized, what structures allow language to communicate information. For instance, in English, word order is important to distinguish the subject and the object in a sentence—’Joe hit Bill’ means something different than ‘Bill hit Joe.’ In other languages, word order isn’t so important, but other grammatical structures are. Linguists study these structural differences. For somebody who does what I do, it’s useful to know facts about these types of grammatical categories, as well as facts about phonology, about how sounds are structured in language. All of that provides crucial tools, but my primary goal isn’t to understand how those structures or patterns work. My primary goal is to use knowledge of the systematic organization of language in order to study how language does social work, how language performs social action.

Q: Can you give a specific example?
A: I spent a lot of time in classrooms studying classroom discourse, and I was interested in looking closely at the language that the teachers and the students used with each other, not for the sake of understanding language’s structure, but for the sake of understanding how people use that kind of linguistic structure to build relationships and perform social acts in everyday life. A simple example involves what nonspecialists call personal pronouns. It’s clear that the meaning of personal pronouns depends on things that you can only determine from the context. If I say, ‘We like that,’ or ‘We like Bill Clinton,’ you, as the person who hears me, has to figure out what group I mean by ‘we.’ Grammatically, we know in English that ‘we’ means the speaker plus at least one other person. ‘We’ could mean the entire human race, or it could mean just me and you, or me and somebody else, or me and some larger group of people. The only way to figure out who constitutes ‘we’ is by inference from background information. You have to know something about me and something about what I’m talking about, as well as things about the social world. Often, the information you need to figure that out is social and political information, especially if I’m talking about something politically charged. In English we distinguish between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ This distinction can be important when you’re having a conversation. Who’s a part of ‘we’ and who’s a part of ‘they?’ If we’re in a room and some of us are ‘we’ and others of us are ‘they,’ then that makes a relational or political difference. We can figure something out about who the speaker thinks is part of a social group, who the speaker is trying to present in solidarity with each other, as opposed to other people who are being excluded.

Q: Is this something that occurs often in classrooms?
A: In classrooms, this sort of stuff happens all the time—who’s the ‘in’ group and who’s the ‘out’ group? Who’s on the teacher’s side? Who’s likely to succeed, who’s actually becoming an educated person, and who’s thought of as not particularly educable, who’s outside the group of the students who are cooperative, collaborative, likely to succeed, likely to get ahead in life? It’s an important distinction in schools and, unfortunately, it gets made a lot between different kinds of kids. Looking at who gets described as ‘we’ and who gets described as ‘they’ is a very simple illustration of how you can study speech to figure out who is being excluded in the classroom. Who’s being given a chance and who isn’t being given a chance? It gets a lot more subtle as you look more carefully at the kind of language that’s used. I spent time in classrooms trying to figure out what sort of social actions teachers and students were performing. Who was being offered an opportunity or encouraged and supported to do well, and who was being left to their own devices? In a lot of schools, teachers make these kinds of distinctions, students themselves make these kinds of distinctions, schools as institutions make these kinds of distinctions, and normally it’s not overtly nasty. It’s not like the teacher says, ‘I hate that kid and so I’m not going to do anything with him.’ Normally people’s intentions are good, they want to help the kid succeed, but there are nonetheless patterns and processes that systematically disadvantage certain kids or systematically push certain kids to the side, and the trick is to figure out how that is happening. If it’s just overt nastiness on the part of somebody, then it’s easier to explain. But if it’s more subtle, then you need a mechanism to explain what’s accomplishing it. When students begin school, pretty much everybody is smart enough to do relatively well. Why is it that by the end of high school, some people have dropped out or some people have done really poorly and other people are going on to four-year colleges? One answer to that is some kids work hard and other kids don’t. But another answer is that the institution provides sorting mechanisms. Usually there are more subtle ways that, over time, kids get systematically pushed toward being seen as less and less likely to succeed.

Q: Are these ‘subtle ways’ related to language?
A: My book ‘Learning Identity,’ which was published seven years ago, is the culmination of that line of work, where I was trying to make sense of why it is that individual kids end up on upward trajectories or downward trajectories in school. The book focuses on a type of speech event that I call participant examples. Put simply, a participant example is an example where a person in the room is also a character in the example. One of the cases that I study has to do with a girl—the girl’s name is Tyisha—and the subject matter that the class is talking about is the distinction between humans and animals. They’ve read a text from Aristotle and they’re trying to figure out what Aristotle thinks is the criterion for distinguishing between a human and an animal. The teacher proposes an answer, ‘Well how about this, how about humans have goals and animals don’t.’ And Tyisha pops up with an example and  says, ‘Wait a second, I have a cat and she has a goal, she wants to jump up on the counter. That’s a goal, right?’ And the teacher says, ‘I guess you’re right, maybe your cat does have goals, so maybe having goals is not a good enough criterion to distinguish between humans and animals.’ But then the teacher goes on to say, ‘Well, what’s different between you and your cat? You have goals and your cat has goals, but your goals are different, aren’t they? There’s something about your goals that makes them distinctively human.’ And they continue to talk about Tyisha and her cat, and what’s different about them. They’re trying to understand the academic question about Aristotle and human nature. But as they discuss Tyisha and her cat, the structure of the speech event means that there are two Tyishas, two students. One of them is the girl sitting in the classroom talking. The second one is the character in the example. What’s interesting to me is that in the course of discussing Tyisha and her cat, they’re not just talking about Tyisha hypothetically; they’re talking about the real student in the classroom. In other words, what they talk about in the example can help assign a social identity to the actual girl herself. I’m answering your question by saying, yes, in the ways that people talk, sometimes they systematically can position other people. This example is one illustration of how it happens. We give an example about somebody who’s sitting right here with us. We talk about the example, and in the course of talking about the example, it turns out we’re not just talking about an example, we’re actually talking about them. Depending on what we say, that talk can have positive or negative implications for how students feel about themselves and others and, ultimately, for whether students succeed in school.

Q: Are teachers aware of the potential negativity of using participant examples?
A: I’ve written papers and given presentations to teachers about this. The difficulty is that you might say participant examples are dangerous because they have this potential for spilling over. You could say, ‘Don’t use them at all,’ but they’re a very good teaching tool. The teachers that I wrote about in that book were good teachers. The students learned a lot, and in part they learned a lot because the teacher used participant examples. So my advice is not to give up these examples, but to use them in such a way that you recognize the potential dangers. The difficulty is that a lot of times this stuff is beneath awareness. Often you’re talking in these ways to people and even though at some level you’re reacting to the tacit implications, you’re not consciously aware that it’s happening.

Stanton Wortham

Peter Tobia

Q: Recently, you have been studying New Latino Diaspora communities. Can you talk about your work?
A: For the last eight years or so, I’ve been doing work with Mexican immigrants in Norristown, a local community that has received many Mexican newcomers over the last 15 years. If you look at the 1990 census, there were just 100 or so people of Mexican origin in Norristown. Now, there has to be at least 8,000, so there’s been this massive growth. Latinos as a group have gone from 2 percent to 28 percent of the population between 1990-2010, and the 28 percent is undoubtedly an undercount. So all of a sudden, the town has experienced this rapid influx of people that they are not familiar with. It’s going on all over the country—Georgia, North Carolina, Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas—areas that have not traditionally had Latinos all of a sudden have Latinos moving in and settling down. People have moved to Norristown because it has relatively cheap housing, and it’s located close to a lot of  opportunities for restaurant, retail, construction, and landscaping jobs. This town is interesting to me because, say you’re a 15-year-old Mexican kid and you move from Mexico to the United States. If you move to Los Angeles, everybody knows what they think of you. It might be good, it might be bad, but you’re not unusual. When you move to a place like Norristown or rural Kansas or Georgia or Maine, people don’t know what to expect from you. There are nationally circulating stereotypes about Mexicans, but they are much less entrenched in a place like Norristown because people have had such limited experience with Latinos. As a result, it’s an interesting social experiment. How does a community react to people they really have no categories or models for? How do the immigrants themselves navigate in this environment?

Q: What have you found?
A: From the perspective of that 15-year-old kid or the generic Mexican immigrant, there’s more flexibility in a place like Norristown or Maine or North Carolina than there is in L.A. In L.A., in a lot of ways, you have two choices: You can be ‘good’ Mexican or ‘bad’ Mexican. If you’re a kid in school, you can get with the program, study hard, act like an immigrant—the classic immigrant narrative—or you can act resistant and join a gang and drop out of school. These are the two dominant models that circulate out there. In a place like Norristown, you have a lot more flexibility. People know those two models, but they’re not as entrenched, so as a Mexican kid you can do different kinds of things, you can position yourself in more kinds of ways. From the immigrant point of view, there’s more flexibility in terms of how other people are going to think of you, how you can think of yourself, how you can behave. I’ve been studying for these eight years what’s happening as this community grows. The community has changed dramatically, even just in my time there. Ten years ago, the modal, or most common, Mexican immigrant there was a single man, a bachelor. Now, the modal Mexican immigrant there is part of a young family with children. That shift has been important both in terms of the characteristic experiences of Mexican people themselves and of other people’s impressions of who they are and what they’re likely to do.

Q: You mentioned that there is a social aspect to your work. Where did your societal interest come from?
A: I think of myself as an anthropologist, so I’m interested in the social context that we all operate in. These social contexts both facilitate and constrain the sorts of ideologies or beliefs about different kinds of people, who they are and what they’re like. They facilitate and constrain.

Q: You received Penn’s 2012-2013 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, one of the highest accolades a faculty member can receive. A graduate student credited you with ‘expanding not only my professional understanding, but my ability to critically examine that which I previously accepted as truth.’ Do you have a specific teaching philosophy or approach to teaching?
A: I teach three kinds of classes. One kind focuses on cutting-edge research. In that kind of class, the purpose is to get the students up-to-speed with the latest things that are happening, to introduce the terminology, the research findings. The pedagogy can be didactic, plus discussion. The second kind of class I teach involves more coaching. When I teach research methods, ethnographic research methods, or discourse analysis, I use more of a coaching process to introduce how to do an interview, how to do participant observations,  how to participate in an event and learn about what people are experiencing there. I describe some material didactically, but I also use a lot of practice and coaching. The third kind of class I teach is about uncovering deeper assumptions, exploring essentially contestable questions central to various fields. It’s fun to teach a course where you teach Plato or John Dewey or Maxine Greene and other thinkers who opened up some of the essentially contestable questions about, for instance, why we educate people. It’s not like some expert, some professor has an answer to the question. There are various plausible accounts of why we should educate people. What a student has to learn in order to start addressing that question is, first, what are the plausible answers that people have given. Primarily, my goal in a class like that is to help students see that they’re making assumptions when they answer an essentially contestable question. What are the assumptions that they’re making and that people typically make, and what kind of arguments could they give in order to support or refute those different assumptions? Pedagogically, this requires listening hard and asking good questions. The teacher’s job is not primarily to explain, but instead to hear what students are saying, what kinds of assumptions they’re making, to help draw out the kinds of arguments they’re making, to help them see that there are alternative arguments and alternative assumptions, and to force them to examine the fact that their way of thinking might not be right. Not because I know the right way, but because I can see that theirs isn’t the only way, and I know other plausible accounts.

Q: Was there a person or place that influenced your teaching style?
A: I went to the University of Chicago, and they have a history of teaching ‘great books’—texts that have more than one plausible interpretation. Chicago has a tradition of teaching such texts in ‘great books seminars,’ where the leader of the discussion is not allowed to make any declarative statements; you’re only allowed to ask questions of the students. I was taught how to do that when I was a graduate student, and I offered workshops on this pedagogical style for teachers in the Chicago public schools. I have been in conversations where we discuss ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ spending 45 engaging minutes with adults asking questions like, ‘Why did Jack go up the beanstalk the third time? He already got the gold, then he got the hen that laid the golden eggs, but then he went up again. The hen was going to keep laying golden eggs, he didn’t need the money, so why did he go up the third time? It was dangerous up there; there was a giant.’ You can spend a lot of time discussing that question, even for such an apparently simple story. The great books teaching technique helps you as a leader draw out people’s questions, encouraging them to consider evidence in the text and more adequately defend their positions. I’ve applied this approach to a whole range of topics and questions, across various courses.

Q: What other projects are you working on? I understand you are also a filmmaker.
A: I teach ‘Documentary, Ethnography, and Research: Communicating Scholarship through Film’ with [Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor] John Jackson, who has appointments in the Annenberg School and the Department of Anthropology and a secondary appointment at GSE, and Amit Das, [director of GSE Films and a senior fellow at GSE]. The three of us co-taught a couple of courses asking the following question: Can you make a movie as a way of representing your academic research? Instead of writing a book, could you make a movie? That’s the simplest way to put the question. We had considerable debate, because it’s a hard question and there are differences of opinion. There’s a tradition of filmmaking in anthropology so we explored a bunch of existing visual work. There’s been an explosion of visual work in academia recently. There’s the digital humanities, which includes not just film but also multimedia projects. In the social sciences, such work is less developed, so we have doctoral students who have created a research center, CAMRA, devoted to understanding and advancing multimedia scholarship in the social sciences. The doctoral students are trying to, for example, develop criteria for what would count as a good academic film. Some of them are asking, could you do a film for your dissertation? Is that allowed? The answer at the moment is no; there has to be some writing, too. You could do a film as long as it’s supplemented with something else. We have been trying to figure out what standards you might apply in order to evaluate such an academic product. If a student does something like that, or if an assistant professor makes a film, how do you judge it? The group has also been talking about techniques. What makes a film good and how do we learn the basic techniques for doing it? Amit Das and I are in the middle of making a film about the Mexican community in Norristown. Noam Osband, a Penn doctoral student, and I have just finished another one about relationships between the local Catholic church and the Mexican community. I’ve also made a professional development film for teachers, introducing them to the voices of Spanish-speaking parents in places like Norristown.

Originally published on December 12, 2013