S4E28-29: Engineering Education Research Briefs with Dr. Ruth Streveler

Event Date: September 28, 2020
What does it mean to be an anti-racist engineering education researcher? To help us think about that question, Dr. Ruth Streveler interviews Dr. James Holly, Jr., Assistant Professor of Urban Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education at Wayne State University in Detroit MI.

Transcript Below


This is an encore presentation of the 2018 interview with Dr. James Holly, Jr. James discusses his use of critical autoethnography in his dissertation, “A Critical Autoethnography of Teaching Engineering to Black Boys as a Black Man.”


Of the Coming of James Holly, Jr., PhD, ENE News, December 4, 2018

Episode Transcript

Ø  Dr. Streveler:  Welcome to Season 4 of the Research Briefs Podcast. I’m your host, Ruth Streveler, Professor of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering at Purdue University. 

In Research Briefs, we’ll speak with engineering education researchers about what their lives are like, what they are finding out, and how their research is being used. 

I am pleased to welcome back Dr. James Holly, Jr., to Research Briefs.  James was featured on episode 10 of this podcast when he was a freshly graduated PhD and we spoke about his use of autoethnography for his dissertation “The Coming of James, A Critical Autoethnography of Teaching Engineering to Black Boys as a Black Man.” 

James is now an Assistant Professor of Urban Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown.  We’ve asked him to let us know what the last couple of years have been like for him and particularly to help us think about what it means to be an anti-racist researcher.

I’m particularly happy to have you at this time because the civil rights icon, John Lewis, has just passed on and I see you as a new generation of people carrying on his mission.  So, it’s heartwarming to have this particular timing as we’re recording this in late July 2020.  

So, again, James thanks for joining us again, I appreciate that.  

v You’re welcome.  It’s an extreme pleasure to not only have been on once but twice.  So, thank you for having me back and today my perspective and story are valuable to share with others.

Ø  Well you’re very, very welcome.

During Episode 10 you spoke in detail about your research and we’ll be reposting that original episode as a bonus feature this month.  So, there’s not need to go into detail about that now.  But can you give the listeners a bit of context about your passion for working with black and urban youth, particularly in your hometown of Detroit?

v Absolutely.  And I would say even much has changed in my research since then given my position but also just life experiences and just thinking about some of those core things differently.  

So, primarily being a black man growing up in Detroit, even when I left to go to school, I knew that I wanted to return to use whatever skills into like I had to be of service.  So, now that I’ve developed this scholarly perspective of the experience of black people in urban spaces, as well as other non-black folks, it’s matured my understanding of what needs to be done shaped different ways.  But also, I’ve realized my own limitations in some ways; and just the need to be focused in various ways.  And so, things have shifted.

But, primarily, in my current role as a teacher educator, I focus on developing critically conscious STEM educators.  And what that means to me is helping teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics see the social and political dynamics that influence our understandings and doing of STEM.  

So, historically primarily science and math have been seen as these objective disciplines where your identity, your cultural influences, your perspective individually does not influence the nature of science and math; and with our core problems and how we go about it.  And slowly, but surely, we’ve been as a society realizing that that’s not true, and being more honest about what particular ways our identity and our culture influences those things.  And so, I’m looking at not necessarily acknowledging that, but how do we then teach the disciplines in light of that?  But also, in light of the experiences of the learners that we’re teaching.  So, what racism do they have to navigate?  What classes and disadvantages in their social context they have to navigate when they come into the classroom and when they exit our classroom?  How can we be supportive in the way that we teach as well as the context of the environment that we develop?

Ø  Now when we first spoke with you, you were working as a resource person for one of the high schools, I believe it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School.

v Correct. 

Ø  Can you say a bit about where you are now, we just mentioned your title?  And what you’ve been doing since your last podcast appearance? 

v Yes, so I’ve been trying to figure out how I ended up here.

As you may recall, and many others at Purdue who I’ve been in communication with at my four years at Purdue, I explicitly said I’d never be a professor.  So, all the preparatory experiences, pre-faculty this, I didn’t even consider because that was not within my paradigm to pursue that.  And so, while that came in the school I was at prior to, what I realized is:

1.    Having not been trained in the educational field.  So, at Purdue in my doctoral degree I gained some familiarity with education from a scholarly perspective but having not been trained I realized there were many limitations on how I could see myself useful to the educational space.

2.    But also, I saw that just the historic disinvestment in public schools in Detroit, and just the nature of the turmoil living in urban impoverished place, me bringing a research perspective there was too much on the ground to adequately address and really process what the research says.

And like I said at the surface level I was coming from an engineering background, and engineering is growing in the K-12, P-12 arena but it’s not fully realized there and it’s not common.  And so, there was also like, all right can you handle the math, can you handle the science, but there was an explicit connection point to engineering.  And so, I think that some of the folks were struggling to see well how can you be relevant to this space really.  You know, as a doctoral we respect your intellect but trying to figure that out personally it was a match faster pace.  Like there were multiple fires that were being put out on a consistent basis.  There are various perspectives on what the best way to serve urban black students is; many different things.  And then the political struggles.  And so, I realized that I was not able to do what I really wanted to do.  

And so, in the process of exploring different jobs Chanel Beebe, who was also currently a student at Purdue in the engineering education doctoral program, she informed me about the current job opening.  And she learned about it from Donovan Colquitt, who the three of us along with DeLe, DeLean Tolbert, were on a panel at ASEE talking about our experiences as black folks being in engineering.  And so, through those folks, that network, I found out about this position.  And when I read it, I was like, even Chanel said, “This seems perfect for you.”

And so, there was this personal wrestling with do I want to go into the academy ‘cause I’d be successful, or would it take away.  And what I had to realize was I had such a negative view of the academy, tenure track being very stressful, most people being unhappy, research being limited in terms of its impact of actually serving people on the ground and practitioners that it really prevented me from seeing the other side of it; like what positives were there, what opportunities were there.

And so, through circumstances of needing a job and having these skills tested there and trying two other positions that didn’t work out, I was forced to really reckon with, and think through, could this be a possibility?  Through that process I realized that my background involved a lot of direct service, working with students directly, but I can kind of move, I guess it would be upstream, and work with the teachers and educators of students.  How can I replicate ideas that I have, and perspectives I have that I think are unique and different or are just lacking being a black male; how could I replicate that through future educators?  And so, taking that viewpoint, I saw a lot of opportunity; it really changed the way I saw the potential of being a professor.  

I went through the process and earned the opportunity and I’m grateful to be in this position to utilize scholarship, and to teach students, and to figure out ways to navigate this juggling process of research, service, and teaching.  That I’m still trying to figure out.

Ø  And you’ve just finished your first academic year.

v Just finishing my first academic year.  I taught a couple of courses, dove into the grant writing process, and researching and trying to navigate all of those.  So, I’m a professor now, and I’m dealing with the capital reputation of what that carries and being seen differently.  But also, just learning the academy from a different viewpoint.

So being a student, I had my lens and things I thought were wrong or not right or messed up.  So, now being on the other side, I have a whole different viewpoint of what’s messed up, what’s wrong, and what to navigate.  Particularly, being in the midst of a global pandemic where it has significantly changed everything really, but in particular, the transmission or methods of delivery at a higher level, and budget concerns, and just so many different things.  So, it has been a huge learning process from many angles.

Ø  Have they made a decision at Wayne State about what is going to happen as far as online or not? 

v Yeah.  So, they didn’t really make a decision.  What they did is they asked professors how they preferred to offer instruction and then reported out what professors decided.  And so, I forget the percentages, but there’s still a level of traditional, a certain number of traditional courses.  There are some restrictions in terms of the number of students you have in your course.  If you’re over 30, I believe, you have to do online learning.  Then there’s some hybrid between face-to-face and online.  And then you have the online which is broken up between remote where you’re doing synchronous, or you’re both on at the same time, and then asynchronous which is considered online.

So, they just reported those numbers and talked about different procedures for folks who do come online, the training you have to do, forms you have to fill out and things like that.  But they did not make a university-wide decision that we’re going to be this or that.  

Which is, we do some interesting responses because students, we did some surveys within our department and we saw that many students still want to be in-person.  And so it creates the situation where you can have students that since the university gives the opportunity for you to be in-person, it seems that us as professors, we’re keeping them out of an experience, and so they can be disgruntled and they think that we’re the barrier as opposed to like health concerns and precautions and various other limitations.  

Ø  So, in addition to the pandemic, the whole world has woken up to the reality of systemic racism and the need to dismantle racism which is sometimes called being “anti-racist.”  That has become very apparent to people.  I know you have thoughts about how to promote anti-racism in engineering education research.  And I would very, very much like to hear what your thoughts are about that.

v Yeah, so I would even say that the pandemic itself kind of laid the groundwork for this recent awakening because data showed that black people were disproportionately dying as a result of contracting the virus.  And, not only black people, but other non-white people.  And so, when they dug a little further, they saw that it was due to these underlying conditions that could be tied and linked to racist practices that either limited the quality of health service, limited the quality of nutritional services and opportunities.  And so, all of these income dynamics, all these things that many folks would generally describe as systemic racism, provide these conditions that made people more susceptible to dying, specifically black people, as a result of this.  And so, I think that caught a lot of people’s attention.  The folks who paid attention to those things prior to, it wasn’t a surprise, it was actually further depressing and distressing to see like, “Man, just another thing that we have to navigate and deal with.”  So, I think that was a precursor.

And then there was a string of public black murders, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, I think were the three that really launched the recent movement.  And so, some of those were videotaped, some either by police or former police citizen vigilantes.  And so, I think that all of this culminated to create this current movement.

And then even when people began to protest and respond, public killings of black folks by police and others continued.  And so, we definitely have a different level of attention.  And many folks within their respective careers have asked how do we be anti-racist, as you’ve said.

So, I think the first thing that comes to mind to me is this is a big step, let me start there.  So, America historically, before America was America engaged in racist practices and had racist policies in their culture.  So, it’s been a country, longer than, that’s been embedded in the nation.  

And so, for many folks who are just coming into this to jump to anti-racism without fully identifying, acknowledging, and reckoning with past racism is a huge jump.  And so, I think my first recommendation is just like take it slow.  Just absorb and embrace what you haven’t been seeing, and then ask questions why.  

I think that really drives me to encourage folks to use some critical self-reflection of what was your understanding of these issues prior to even this year?  How is that changing?  How is that shifting?  And then think about what you want to do forward.  And so, before we even think about ourselves as researchers and engineers and educators, I think just as James, as Ruth, what does that mean?  As a citizen what does it mean because just prior to this is a lot of folks even who do research, like their work focuses on cultural issues, diversity, and inclusion, but it’s not as strong as it could be because their life is not lived around those same principles and ideas.

And so, I think, since we’re in the new moment, is it would be helpful if folks absorb these principles and adapt practices in their personal life and then allow that to shape and inform their work life or their career.  

Moving from there, I think it requires a few things like people are asking are we willing to do away with engineering as we know it?  Because just as the country and the nation was shaped by racist practices, engineering, how it’s defined and practiced and how we understand it, also is shaped by very racist practices and norms, and things like that.  So, to truly reform and then become anti-racist means to work against our conception of what engineering is and how it’s practiced.

Then when we think about research, things like what questions we ask, what frameworks we use, what methods we use, citation practices, who do we cite, like those things have to be transformed.  Not even reformed but transformed or restructure the language we use.

There’s a couple of papers I read recently I think kind of give a perspective about this.  So, Alex Majia, and other authors, I forget their names, but Majia et. al, in 2018, wrote a paper about looking at the critical theoretical frameworks that were used in engineering education and really doing a systematic review of the frameworks started with a people using these frameworks and were they using asset-based approaches to talk about their research?  Or were deficit-based approaches used?  And so, they were trying to see how these theories framed the questions that people explored and studied in terms of power, privilege, and oppression. 

That work was very helpful in showing that even though folks have adopted critical theories, they’re not utilizing them in effective ways to transform the ways that we see who we study and how we study.  

Another example I think of is recently at this past ASEE convention, Lisa Benson had a Distinguished Lecture talking about the language and the taxonomy we use in engineering education.  And so, just causing attention at the top 25-cited papers did not have words like racism, ethnicity, things like diversity were used suddenly.  And so, these folks are recent examples but I think historically it meant the work of folks like Kelly Cross, Ebony McGee, Brian Burke are some researchers who show how to do research from a lens that is not only not racist, as Ibram Kendi and Angela Davis says but is anti-racist.  

Ø  This made me think of the podcast with Julie Martin about her research and how she was realized that the methods she was really were colonialist.  And this big difference between I am the august researcher with the knowledge and you are my subject.  And really beginning to see her what used to be called participants as really co-researchers.  And just the shock when you realize, “Oh my, I’ve never thought of it that way before.”  

So, I wanted to ask how are the people in Detroit doing?  How are the young people that you work with and that you touch, how are they doing with all of this craziness in the world?

v That’s a tough question because there’s this mix of folks who are trying to prepare for the upcoming school semester and just like the Fall in general, all that that brings since the summer’s in its end.  You know, there’s a lot of conversation around the public-school system and will they open, should they open?  There’s a lot of back and forth there.  

While still navigating the ongoing pandemic.  So, that overlaps; ‘cause that’s what informs their anxiety about what’s coming as well as this racial tumult.  

What I mean is there’s different aspects of it.  There’s the watching people are seeing the promotion or the constant replaying of black people being killed and not knowing whether the perpetrators will be held accountable.  But in the middle of that, then you watch people who dialogue and argue around whether the killing was justified.  And then you see the reaction.  And so, folks are protesting the things that are happening.  

So, recently in Detroit, I think about a week-and-a-half ago, there was a gentleman who was killed in front of a house where police showed up at the house, they were arresting someone, and he came out to defend his friend, and it was alleged that he shot at the police officer and then the police fired back and killed him.  And so, there’s a lot of unrest around that in Detroit with different protests.

And so, you have protest on top of protest.  Like the protests that were initiated following the murder of George Floyd have been going on for probably about a month now, now connected to a protest of a recent incident.  And there were other incidents where the local police department officer ran over protestors with his vehicle.  The response of the chief was unsatisfactory.  And so, there’s just a lot of frustration, a lot of exhaustion, a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.  

And then you still have people who are grieving from deaths, people who have died as a result of the pandemic.  People who are ill and changing dynamics of who are adhering to the social guidelines around physical distancing.  It’s just a lot, I don’t know how to capture what is really going on with the city, but there’s certainly a lot of activity.  A lot of frustration.  A lot of anger.  A lot of hurt.  And people are just trying to figure out how to move forward in the midst of already present harsh realities that have been compounded and exacerbated.

Ø  So, what’s next for you as well as you can tell during all of this? 

v And so, I’ll connect this to the question around anti-racist engineering education, like for me, I’m trying to figure well how then does that inform how I do my work?  How do I, in trying to prepare urban teachers, just thinking through how do you teach science and mathematics while students are navigating the pandemic?  Whether that has perhaps taken some of their family members, taken some of their friends, it has changed the way they socialize with friends and family members.  And again, the pre-existing conditions due to racism, like the pre-existing racism has not changed, or has not improved.  And so, they have these new ways in which they have to navigate things.  How do you teach math in that context?  How do you research best practices for engineering identity development and the consideration of engineering epistemologies and things like that?  

So, for me, it’s really trying to figure out what I can retain from my previous research trajectory and what needs to shift.  And I think that’s part of the process is always shifting and being willing to adapt due to what we learn in the circumstances.  For me, it’s really been trying to connect with local communities; so, outside of the academic community.  Connect with people who are in schools, community organizations that serve residential areas.  So that what I’m doing doesn’t have this kind of superficial impact where it serves the academy, and it gives me tenure, and I can do research, but it’s actually a connection to the youth who are in the local communities who are Detroiters, and the adults and families as well.

So, that’s really what I’m trying to do is write up my dissertation, so get that out and published because I think it has a lot to say about this concept.  But also, and then develop a new trajectory in a post-pandemic context what this serving black students and families look like. 

Ø  One thing that I think this kind of absolute turmoil provides is an opportunity because things get shaken up so much.  And so many injustices have become even more apparent to people.  There is an opportunity for new behaviors and new systems to now be adopted.  And we’ll hope that we can help push things into a useful trajectory.  

v Well I definitely feel like we can hope.  But I also feel like we can take action and hold people accountable. 

Ø  Yes.

v I think that one of the things that came out is there were a lot of statements that people, institutions, and organizations were making.  So, now that gives an opportunity to hold folks accountable to what someone else has verbalized is important.  That happened across engineering education, and it happened within my institution.  And so, I think there’s definitely the mental and emotional aspiration and hope for greater things.  But there’s also the practical work within ourselves doing the work to make it a reality, but also holding others accountable to actualize certain things.  

One thing I didn’t mention yet is also we have this political context of the upcoming presidential election.  What does that mean then?  And that’s why I talk about individual, like there needs to be some individual work.  So we see, not just within the world of engineering, but our broader nation and world, what work do I need to do to see anti-racism actualized?  

And so, that is where I aspire, and I do have the hope.  But also, there’s plenty of work to be done.  And I think also, for me, that means trying to not to get over-joyed or under-joyed.  Not being too excited just ‘cause historically there have been moments like these where the next month, or the next year, or the next five years, or the next ten years things are radically different.  But also, not being so cynical and pessimistic that I cannot see the value of what is happening in this moment.  

There are people legitimately paying attention.  There are people legitimately trying to figure out how not just to do better but to do different and transform their existence as citizens, as researchers.  And so, it’s good to have conversations like these and be able to observe the transformations that people are making as well as myself.  I still have work to do in particular areas.  So, that’s where I am is trying to maintain this kind of balance; this level-headedness.
Ø  I would like to invite you to tell us what you keep doing.  I know that you are a person who is really courageous and wanting to make sure that the things you do make a difference to the community.  And to bridge that ivory tower research world with having somebody really have their life be bettered.

v Exactly.  Absolutely.  

Ø  Would you want to have any closing comments or advice or words of wisdom to help us through this next year or so?  

v I would say two things.  One, for those who are interested, I will say that, and I tried to name some names earlier, but a lot of work that can be useful has been done.  So, within our engineering education research community, I think folks looking at old papers whether from conferences or published papers of different talks and conversations to see what has already been said that we were blinded to, or other folks were blinded to, that they didn’t see but it was there.  Specifically, non-white people, folks who are in disenfranchised and marginalized communities, I think it would be very helpful to go back and look at their works within engineering education and just broader commentary.  

And then secondly, I’ll share a quote from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

And so, I want to also encourage folks to realize that if this is what you want to do it’s going to require an ongoing battle internally and externally.  You need to fight, and there may not be an end within your lifetime.  There has to be an ongoing wrestling with the ways in which racism pervades around society.  Again, within and even much far beyond, engineering education.

Ø  Well those are wonderful closing words, James.  And again, thank you and I’m curious to know what life will bring you.

v Yes, you’re welcome.  And again, it’s my pleasure.  It’s always a pleasure to connect with you.  

Research Briefs is produced by the School of Engineering Education at Purdue.  

·       Thank you to Patrick Vogt for composing our theme music.  The transcript of this podcast can be found by Googling “Purdue Engineering Education Podcast.”  And please check out my blog, RuthStreveler.Wordpress.com