Claim your curiosity.

Brian Lagotte

Mentor Spotlight | April 2020

Department: Global and International Studies

Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand: As an anthropologist of education, I am currently fascinated by the relationship between undergraduate curriculum design—specifically in the social sciences—and post-graduate success. In our current era of commodified education experiences and a student debt crisis, connecting the contemporary social and political contexts with the specific curriculum we offer students is key to their success once they receive their degree.

 


Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?

A: After I received my BA in anthropology, I went to teach English in Japan as a way to immediately gain cross-cultural experience with my new degree. Almost immediately entering the classroom, I discovered I was a teacher—it felt like home, not a job. When I returned to graduate school, I realized that I could have an impact on individual students in the classroom, but also a broader impact by analyzing, designing, and advocating for wider education policy issues. That idea was the real catalyst to focus on researching education as well as teaching.

 

Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: This is a tougher question because the capstone courses I teach actually consist predominantly of students doing an individualized research project from conception to completed senior thesis. But, at the core, I would say the students learn that in order to be taken seriously, a difference exists between what you want to say about the world and what you can say about the world—the latter consists of abundant evidence to back up their positions. A student’s opinion is not nearly as useful as their argument, but the main difference between the two is just the amount of support you have when you give your opinion. Therefore, forming arguments from opinions requires a research mindset of knowing how to weigh multiple streams of evidence to see what is the most convincing argument to support rather than simply cherry picking our favorite sources to validate our predetermined opinions.

 

Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: For my particular case, the connection between my research and my teaching means I can see immediate impact of what I am discovering for the students in our program. Spending time wading through academic journals to discover the best practices of capstone research curriculum is directly rewarded by being able to shape the curriculum our students receive in powerful ways. Also, by tapping into my qualitative research experience, constantly and transparently discussing with students their impressions and experiences of the benefits of what they are learning for their long-term success basically allows for a real-time synthesis of my research interests and my teaching strategies. Since my real love is the classroom, finding a research agenda that blends with my teaching is easily the most exciting part.

 

Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: First, most broadly, if one is going to study education practice and policy either domestically or internationally, students must realize that the school is a social institution, and the classroom is not a black box isolated from all the trends happening in contemporary society. I would never be able to grasp the complexity of curriculum design, specifically designing an experience to really add value to students’ lives after graduation, if I did not know about their K-12 standardized testing experiences, the political debates about core curriculum, the trends in our job market towards underemployment, the relationship between austerity budgeting and rising tuition (and student debt), and many other influences on what I should do in the classroom for the best interests of my students.

Second, and more technically, always question the “common sense” assumptions swirling around your research topic. For example, “a university degree will get you a good job” seems like a straightforward statement, but that is actually a very complex idea that needs quite a bit of detailed unpacking in our current era. Always question what seems most obvious so you know how the evidence actually bears out your assumptions.

 

Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: Goodness, as the question alludes to, there is not enough space on this website to talk about the problems arising during the research process. I’ll provide an example of a huge glitch to show students that major problems do indeed happen, but it need not cause end-of-the-world panic. For my dissertation project, I was engaging in educational policy with local schools in the city I was studying for my PhD. I had a research design set, I had contacts made, I had interviews started—then life happened.

Our family had to move halfway through my research, no options about it. After a few days of hyperventilating and doomsday prophesizing, I realized that every city has schools, I was working on a federal education policy affecting all those schools, and if I was able to set up a research design in one city I certainly had the ability to do it in another city. Thus, my single-site case study evolved into an interesting multi-site comparison study. Now, in hindsight, my book reads like that is what I intended all along—but it was definitely not nearly the way I had planned.

The most important piece of advice I would offer is to go into the process knowing more things are not going to go as expected than will go to plan—but that is in itself the exciting part of research. This advice is exponentially more important for social scientists often working with real people out in the real world—they will never behave exactly as you need them to behave. If you embrace the research process as an adventure, the stress level will remain low. If you think your research proposal is a blueprint of exactly how every detail must go, the stress level may be a bit high.

 

Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: A lot of time off-campus is spent with my four- and six-year-old boys - even more so now that we are all staying at home. If it's bad weather, you can usually find us with a board game, Legos, or train tracks. Good weather means yard work, bike-riding practice, and backyard soccer sessions. Otherwise, I like to get away from the desk and exercise through sports, which I am looking forward to returning to when normalcy resumes.


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