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ASU postdoctoral research fellow wins 2020 Knowledge Mobilization Award

Victoria Theisen-Homer headshot

Victoria Theisen-Homer, a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Social Transformation and winner in the "Postdoctoral, Research Completed" category.

March 12, 2020

On March 3, the Graduate College hosted its annual Knowledge Mobilization Awards, a celebration of the scholarly achievement and impact of Arizona State University's graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

In this year's award ceremony, the School of Social Transformation had two finalists selected from all the applicants: Emily Nuñez-Eddy, graduate student, selected in the category "Master's: Research in progress;" and Victoria Theisen-Homer, postdoctoral research fellow, selected in the "Postdoctoral: Research completed" category. 

Theisen-Homer was one of the winners with her research, "Learning to Connect: Relationships, Race, and Teacher Residencies." Here, she talks about her research and experience, as well as what motivated her to present her candidacy for the awards.

Question: What was your primary motivation to apply for these awards?

Answer: Research can be so powerful, especially if we can find ways to translate and mobilize it beyond the walls of academia. However, what is usually recognized and rewarded within academic institutions is the work geared toward other academics. The Knowledge Mobilization Awards recognize other manifestations of research, and I felt it aligned really well with my efforts. So far, I have translated my research in some conventional ways — conference presentations and a journal article — but I am passionate about pushing this work beyond the academy. Since I focus on education, meaningful mobilization to me means getting this work into the hands of those who have a direct impact on the classroom: teachers and teacher educators. I published an op-ed last year in a major education periodical and continue to blog about the work. I also have a book on my research coming out in the next few months that is geared toward a broad range of educators. And now I am working on a grant to help translate this work into action. When I read about the Knowledge Mobilization Awards, it just called to me. 

Q: Could you tell the ASU community a little bit more about your research?

A: My research really lies at the nexus of relationships, race and teacher education. The work I presented at the awards is based on a two-year ethnography of two very different teacher residency programs, exploring how they attempt to prepare teachers for meaningful relationships with students, especially across racial and cultural differences, and how program graduates enact this learning.

I found that both residency programs in my study were highly influential in new teachers' pedagogical and relational practice, a finding that really speaks to the power of the residency model for teacher education. But the two programs were not relationally equivalent. The first program prepared teachers to form instrumental and superficial relationships with students as a means of advancing their behavior and effort in class; these relationships were top-down and stressed compliance — if students resisted directives, they received demerits or were removed from class. The second program centralized holistic and reciprocal relationships with students that valued them as "whole people"; teachers here learned to co-construct learning with students, who were never removed from class. Clearly different approaches, right? But here's the problem: The graduates from the first program went on to serve mostly students of color in low-income schools, while graduates from the second program chose to enter independent schools and affluent suburban public schools serving primarily white students. I argue that this imbalance is profound because low-income students and students of color were being conditioned into relationships of subservience with mostly white authority figures, while affluent white students benefitted from relationships with teachers that reaffirmed their inherent value and their agency in their educational, and life, experiences, potentially preparing them for positions of leadership. Essentially, I was observing social reproduction through teacher-student relationships. 

Q: What has been the biggest motivation to work on this research?

A: Before entering academia, I was a high school English teacher in Los Angeles. I loved teaching, but my favorite part was connecting with the incredible human beings entrusted in my care. Research also confirms the importance of meaningful teacher-student relationships for a range of student outcomes, but suggests such relationships are by no means guaranteed, especially when most teachers are white women like me and most students are not. As I reflected on my own experience, I realized that a lot of my success in teaching was due to the teacher preparation I received at UCLA, in a program that centralized authentic care and racial competence. But when I began reviewing the scholarship around this, I found that most of the empirical research on teacher education focused on the so-called "cognitive" sides of the profession, with much less attention paid to the relational work of teaching. So I wanted to know how different programs might be preparing teachers for relationships, particularly across racial and cultural differences. I was also really interested in teacher residency programs because this recent addition to the teacher education landscape borrows a structure from medical residencies, in that the bulk of the learning occurs within the field through a yearlong apprenticeship with a highly-qualified expert teacher and the coursework really revolves around this experience. Although they are generally partnered with local universities (who grant a master's degree for the program), these programs are often anchored in nonprofit organizations grounded in specific cities, districts, or even schools, which allows them to be coherent and nimble. I am now convinced that such programs are really promising, if done well. But we have to approach the relational side of teaching very intentionally within all teacher education programs to ensure meaningful outcomes for all students.  

Q: How did the School of Social Transformation and The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences help prepare you for success?

A: I cannot begin to stress how grateful I am to the School of Social Transformation (SST) for giving me a home for the two years of this postdoc. I am a Phoenix native and had moved back to the Valley after nearly a decade and a half away to care for my mom, who had pancreatic cancer. When I was hired as a postdoc in SST, a weight was lifted, because it allowed me to stay close by. My mom passed away about six weeks into this position and I was devastated. So I was fortunate to have a safe place at SST, where the faculty were all kind and supportive. This position also allowed me the opportunity to teach and connect with some fantastic undergrad and grad students, who brought me back to my purpose here. And the position gave me the time and space I needed to mobilize my research in a variety of ways, including writing my first book. I have also really been inspired by my colleagues in SST. There are so many brilliant, incisive, caring and passionate scholars here who are dedicated to helping improve the world with their work. Some do so by uplifting the voices of those who have been silenced, others by calling attention to critical issues the mainstream has overlooked or misunderstood. Many of my colleagues have also found meaningful ways to mobilize their research in ways that genuinely help people. I think SST is a school that practices what it preaches, and in so doing, truly fulfills all the tenets of ASU's charter. I am proud to be a part of this school.

Q: What was the first thought that came to your mind when you realized you were one of the winners?

A: To be honest, I was somewhat surprised. The other finalists are doing incredible and vital work. And in academia, we are constantly fighting this imposter syndrome that tells us we are never good enough. But I also felt a lot of gratitude to everyone who has supported me to get here, including Elsie Moorewho hired me, and Bryan Brayboywho advised me, from SST. In both research and life, I feel like I am simply standing on the shoulders of giants. 

Q: What advice would you give to future graduate students and postdoctoral scholars that wish to apply for next year's Knowledge Mobilization Awards?

A: Do it. Your work is important and deserves to be shared. It doesn't hurt to apply; in fact, applying for it will help you regardless of whether you win an award because the process forces you to synthesize your thinking around your research, which is always a useful process. And for finalists, it is a wonderful experience to be able to share your work with colleagues across departments and schools, to escape our traditional silos and connect with new human beings. It's worth it. 

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