Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Miracle of Harlem?

By Biko Agozino
‘The Harlem Miracle’ as reported by The New York Times in an opinion article by David Brooks on May 7, 2009 is noteworthy if only because a Harvard University Economist, Roland Fryer, claimed that the Harlem Children’s Zone study changed his life by making him hope for more than marginal gains in closing the academic achievement gaps between white and black students. I wonder why the focus is on the gaps between white and black when Asians appear to be the ones setting the achievement standards at the moment. Perhaps it is too much to expect that black students could rival Asian ones.

Education reform programs, according to Brooks, tend to produce small 0.1 to 0.3 standard deviations gains whereas the Harlem Children’s Zone experiment produced 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. The trouble is that standard deviations are double-edged swords; the bigger the standard deviation, the wider the spread or distribution of the population from the mean, positively and also negatively. In other words, standard deviations of 1.3 and 1.4 might also mean that the outliers below the mean are farther away from the mean than standard deviations of 0.1 or 0.3. Before we start celebrating standard deviations, we should also know what are the minimum and maximum scores and what is the measure of central tendency or the mean without which standard deviations are meaningless by themselves.

Dr Fryer is quoted in the article as using the analogy of curing cancer to celebrate the report that Promise Academy ‘eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students’. This might not be the appropriate metaphor to use because it assumes that there is something wrong with the black students or that they were suffering from an illness that the school cured. The problem might lie in the teaching methods or learning methods rather than some disease within the students themselves. Before we try to replicate the ‘cure’ as he urged, we must be careful not to produce iatrogenic repercussions or the creation of a disease in an otherwise healthy student as a side-effect of trying to heal ‘literally and figuratively’.
In the opinion of Mr. Brooks, the disease of Harlem students is that they lack middle class values such as being goal-oriented, exercising self-control and knowing how to work hard and that the experiment inculcated these values in the students by teaching them how to shake hands, how to look people in the eye when talking with them and not to accept excuses. He recommends New York Times articles like ‘Whatever It Takes’ (whatever?) and ‘Sweating the Small Stuff’ (no air-conditioners in the classroom?) to support this opinion but that begs the question whether goal-orientation, self-control and hard work are essentially middle-class values? Some of the hardest working people in the world are not middle class at all and just because poor people do not have the means to live all their dreams is not to say that they have no goal-orientation. Is there any evidence that poor students lack self-control?
Believing that this is the case, the Miracle of Harlem proceeded to detain black students in school double the time that white students spend in school if they are below their grade and one and half the time that their white peers spend at school, if they are performing at their grade level! That is no miracle, it seems punitive and prejudiced. It has always been assumed by black parents that their children would work twice as hard as white children in order to get a fair shake in societies structured in dominance but for the educational system to accept this handicap as the ‘cure’ for the supposed ‘cancer’ afflicting black students is to institutionalize discrimination.
What if there is a different method of learning that would produce even better results without having to detain black children in school for up to twice the time it takes white students to learn their Maths and English? What if school work is not really hard work but smart work which students could master effectively if only they knew how to study smart rather than hard? That method is described in two of my blogs: ‘For a Culture of Learning’ and ‘When the Piranha met the Honey Bee at school’ in http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/ (below) and I would be happy to know if Dr Fryer and his team would also study this method that produces better results for students who work smart and not necessarily hard.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Series Editor Interview by Ashgate Publishers

Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations
Series Editor: Biko Agozino, The University of the West Indies
Selected titles from thisseries
This series brings together research from a range of disciplines including criminology, cultural studies and applied social studies, focusing on experiences of ethnic, gender and class relations. In particular, the series examines the treatment of marginalized groups within the social systems for criminal justice, education, health, employment and welfare (for more information about the series: http://www.ashgate.com/ethnicgenderandclassrelations.

An Interview with the Series Editor, Biko Agozino

What encouraged you to enter academia?
I guess that it was the fact that in the village where I grew up, teachers were the middle class professionals that I had daily contact with and I admired them. My parents were peasant farmers and I laboured with them on the farms for meager returns. I made up my mind early that farming was not for me and focused my attention on book work with the aim of becoming a teacher. Whenever the teachers asked us what we would like to be when we grew up I always wrote about wanting to be a teacher and so it has been.

What made you (decide to) initiate this series?
It was a case of, ‘you can’t put a good book down’. I had my book proposal from my doctoral dissertation rejected again and again. One small progressive publisher appeared promising after the series editorial committee recommended my proposal for acceptance but the publisher rejected the recommendation on the ground that there was no market for a book on black women and the criminal justice system or else there would be a book on the topic already. Some logic. Then I came to Ashgate and two series editors turned the proposal down, claiming that it was too specialized to fit in. Fortunately, a young commissioning editor, Kate Hargreaves, went through the files and decided that she rather liked the proposal and if it would not fit into any existing series, then she would launch a new series with my book. And would I like to be the series editor, she asked. Wow, I was just happy to be getting my first book contract. To be asked to edit a series on the basis of that first book must be one of the highest honours out there in academia land. I jumped at the offer even though some senior colleagues warned me that it would be too much work for one individual and advised that I should recommend an editorial committee to the publishers. Over a decade later, I do not think that it is hard work, it is fun to work with Ashgate.

What are your academic background and research interests?
My first degree was a Bachelor of Science with First Class Honours in Sociology from the University of Calabar, Nigeria, 1985; my Master of Philosophy was in Criminology from the Law Faculty of the University of Cambridge, (Trinity Hall College), England, 1990; and my Doctor of Philosophy was in Law and Society from the Law Faculty of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, 1995. My first tenured appointment was as Assistant Lecturer in the department of Sociology, University of Calabar, 1987-1989. My second tenured appointment was as a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in Criminal Justice, Liverpool John Moores University 1994-1999 and the series started from there in 1997; then I relocated to Indiana University of Pennsylvania as Associate Professor of Criminology, 1999-2003; then to Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the oldest historically black university in the US as Associate Professor of Social Relations, 2003-2006; and from there I relocated to the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago where I served as Professor of Sociology, Acting Head of Department of Behavioural Sciences, Coordinator of the Criminology Unit and Deputy Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, 2006-2009; and from August 2009 I will be relocating to Virginia Tech University as tenured Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Africana Studies Program.

Very briefly, where do you see your discipline going in the future?
I see my discipline (sociology) going more in the direction of critical scholarship, direct community engagement by public intellectuals and the increasing importance of interdisciplinary scholarship. All these could have been predicted from the focus of the Ashgate Publishers Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations that I have had the privilege of editing from the start.

What has been the highlight of your academic career so far?
The highlight of my academic career so far is to hear my peers saying that my work has launched a new paradigm in my field, the decolonization paradigm. This is the sub-title of my first book with Ashgate that launched this series and a colleague who reviewed the book was the first to identify the originality of my emphasis on the decolonization model. Since then, I have elaborated on this theme (especially in my 2003 Pluto Press publication, Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason which was hailed by a reviewer as launching a sub-field of Post-Colonial Criminology). More colleagues are proposing to write books on this theme and a course on Decolonization Criminology has actually been taught by a colleague in Canada. I am honoured by this positive affirmation of my work by colleagues internationally.

Whose achievements would you like to emulate within your own field?
That will have to be the great Stuart Hall. Here is a black man from Jamaica who has only a first degree in English but who transgressed disciplinary boundaries by becoming a Professor of Sociology and in the process helped to create a new discipline, Cultural Studies, while remaining a public intellectual, ever so critical and ever so committed to community engagement. Interestingly, while I was doing the field work for the book on Black Women and the Criminal Justice System, I heard Hall on the Open University television broadcast, deconstructing the poem, Tiger, by Blake and I was transfixed, watching this brother that I had not met but wished that I could meet. Low and behold, the very next morning, who do you think that I bumped into on Kilburn High Road? The great man himself, looking very ordinary and pedestrian. I started to holler as we used to do in Nigeria, Proooof! Prooof! He smiled and asked me what I was doing in London, he must have known from my theatrical accent that I was another Third World native like himself. I told him my research topic and he said, ‘that must be very challenging’. Exactly my own feeling even though some colleagues tried to discourage me on the ground that a man would find it difficult to do research on women. They would ask me to change my topic to black men or to corruption in Nigeria but my guru, Hall, saw where I was headed and he invited me to his home nearby to discuss my research. He asked if I had a pen to write his phone number and I said that I would remember it any day. He gave me the number and walked on and I rushed into the shop nearby to borrow a pen and write it down to be double sure. When I visited his cramped study with books everywhere. He asked me to explain my perspective and as soon as I started to talk about black women facing race, class and gender discrimination in the criminal justice system, he pounced and told me that I was talking about articulation. But, excuse me, from what I know, articulation is about the modes of production and all that. Yes, he said, but you can abstract it and apply it to social relations as well. He gave me a 1980 UNESCO book on race in which he has a chapter on race and class articulation and I have never looked back theoretically.

What book (not from the series, but generally) has most influenced your own work?
That will be The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon which we were made to read and re-read as undergraduate students when we took electives in Political Science with young radical lecturers like Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe. The book remains an inspiration to me that someone could come from the Third World, like myself, and make original contributions to knowledge that will last eternally.

What do you find particularly interesting about your role as series editor?
The most interesting thing is that it is close to being a cross between a genius and a genie. I make wishes come true for authors but not as a servant of the wishful writer since I can be a hard-task critic too. A colleague tells and retells a story of attending my author-meets-critics session at the American Society of Criminology. He approached me timidly afterwards to ask if I could comment on his book proposal before he sent it to publishers. I asked him what the book was about and when he told me, I invited him to submit it to Ashgate and told him that I would like to publish it for him in my Ashgate series. He could not believe that a series editor had that much power to grant wishes. Neither did I but working with Ashgate is empowering.
Any advice for people wanting to publish in your series?

Keep writing and never stop rewriting. Do not write one book and wait until it is published before you start the next one. At any point in time, make sure that you have at least ten projects at different levels of completion and as one gets published, start a new one to take its place. This is the recommendation of Charles Wright Mills in the appendix to The Sociological Imagination where he talked about scholarly craftsmanship. But specifically for my series (oh that sound great, my very own series), make sure that you reflect the wisdom of Stuart Hall by asking how your analysis could be deepened through race-class-gender articulation, disarticulation and re-articulation.

What was the last book you read?
Eric Williams and the Making of the Modern Caribbean by Colin Palmer. This was sent to me recently by Erica, the daughter of Williams, after I confessed that I had not read it and it is thrilling. The chapter on Eric Williams’ engagement with Africa is my favourite. But also interesting is the analysis of how discrimination was experienced within his family and in his schools where skin colour was privileged above contents of character but he escaped much of the discrimination because he had ‘good hair’ and, above all, because he displayed powerful intelligence. Before I read the book, I had visited the Eric Williams Memorial Collection where I discovered to my amazement that I have a lot in common with Dr Williams although I do not have his type of hair – his office desk is as messy as mine; I frown like he did by narrowing the gap between the eyebrows instead of lining the forehead by raising the eyebrows; when not smiling, my lips curl down slightly at the end just like his; I walk like him; I studied on scholarships and got first class honours degree like him; published my doctoral dissertation to critical acclaim a little like him; taught in a historically black college in America just as he did; and relocated to Trinidad and Tobago just as he did. Of course, I am no Eric Williams for there would never be another but I am proud to know that I have traits similar to his and of course he must have had traits that I do not have and may not want to have (tobacco abuse) and traits that he had that I would love to share (statesmanship); that is what makes each of us an individual.
Interview kindly received May 2009.