Stanlie James on rights for women, people of color and her journey to higher education

Former vice provost to speak at School of Social Transformation webinar March 30

March 22, 2022

Stanlie James, a professor emeritus and former vice provost of inclusion and community engagement at Arizona State University, is a lifelong learner and advocate for women’s and Black issues in the U.S. and beyond. 

In preparation for the March 30 webinar "Black Women in Higher Education: A Conversation with Stanlie James," the School of Social Transformation sat down with James to talk about her career milestones, academic passions, research and more. Portrait of Stanlie James, the keynote speaker for the ASU School of Social Transformation's webinar "Black Women in Higher Education." Stanlie James, professor emeritus and former vice provost of inclusion and community engagement, was the third generation to attend college in her family. "I've mentioned that because people are a little shocked to hear that," she said. "Sometimes assumptions are made about who is a first-generation college student." Download Full Image

Question: Can you please introduce yourself?

Answer: I’m Dr. Stanlie James, I’m a professor and for the last four years of my career, I was vice provost for inclusion and community engagement at ASU. On a personal note, I'm from Des Moines, Iowa, and I'm a fourth-generation Black Iowan, which is unusual. There are fourth-generation Iowans, but they're much younger … very few are my age. Other than that, I'm the third generation to have gone to college in my family.

Q: That’s a great accomplishment.

A: Both of my parents graduated from the University of Iowa: my mother with a bachelor’s degree there and my father received his DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery). My maternal grandmother attended UI as well. I've mentioned that because people are a little shocked to hear that. Sometimes assumptions are made about who is a first-generation college student.

Q: Where’d you go to school?

A: I did not go to the University of Iowa because by the time I graduated from high school, I was ready to leave Iowa. I attended what was then considered the “best high school” in the state. Iowa was "integrated" throughout the 20th century and even before. We didn't have a large population of Black people, so we did not have segregated public schools or segregated public accommodations. The high school that I attended only had 12 Blacks out of several thousand students, so, in a way, we were integrating that school, and it was not always a comfortable situation.

Anyway, I left Iowa and went to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, which is one of only two Black women’s colleges in the country. It was a member of the Atlanta University Center, which was comprised of six Black colleges, or HBCUsHistorically Black colleges and universities, as we now call them. I majored in sociology and history. There was open enrollment across all those campuses for the students. While I was there, I encountered Professor Anna Grant at Morehouse College. … She was a very tough teacher.

Q: A lot of work, I'm guessing?

A: I took her “Black Families” class. We were assigned to read every important book available on Black families at the time. We had to write papers on every single one of them, and then we had to write a final paper. I didn't realize we had to write a paper on all the books until near the end. I missed the first day of class … so now I tell my students never to miss the first day of class because you might miss some very important information about the class!

Q: Sounds like you learned a lot from that experience.

A:  Yes. I nearly had a nervous breakdown, but I finally completed all the work for that class, and when the grades came out — I received the only A!

Q: That’s motivating after all of that work.

A: It certainly was. After that, she wanted to see me, so I went to her office and she sat me down and asked me, "What do you want to do with your life?" I said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'll be a teacher or social worker or something like that." That's what women did in those days. She said, "Oh no, that's a waste of your talent." She told me that I needed to be a college professor.

Q: So that moment changed your whole trajectory?

A: Absolutely. Even though she was a Black woman college professor, it did not occur to me that this was something that I might consider. And I didn't even know how you did it. I was in shock, and I had to go home and mull over whether or not that was a possibility. It opened up a new way of looking at things. I went on to apply for the junior year abroad scholarship offered at Spelman College. I decided that I wanted to attend Makerere University in Uganda. I applied, but they did not respond in a timely fashion. And when I finally did hear from them that summer, my application was rejected because they did not accept American undergraduate students. By then, of course, it was too late to apply elsewhere.

Q: That’s so frustrating.

A: I thought, "Well, now what? I'm too late to apply to go someplace else to do this year abroad." But the scholarship was funded by the man who at that time was the president of the Spelman board of trustees. One of my classmates told he that he was a friend of her parents, and she encouraged me to write him a letter, explain my situation and ask if he might help me. So, I sent him a message and he told me to make an appointment to meet with him when he was in town for the next board of trustees meeting. I made the appointment, and we took a 15-minute walk around Spelman's campus as I told him what happened to me. He understood and agreed to give me the money for graduate study instead. So, that is how after I graduated from Spelman, I was able to go to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to get my first master's degree.

Q: Some good news!

A: It was. The educational system is different. We chose three areas of concentration and took the same seminars across the three (what we would call) trimesters. One of my areas was social change in sub-Saharan Africa, and another one was in religions of sub-Saharan Africa. We took only one exam for each seminar at the end of the year. Exams were given in certain rooms throughout the University of London system, and the exam proctors were dressed in academic regalia. It was all quite formal. And by the way, if you missed that exam, regardless of the reason, you either had to retake it the following year (at the same time) or if they allowed you to graduate, your diploma would say that you had not taken the exam! The exams were then sent to readers who could be anywhere in the Commonwealth, so it took a while before you were formally informed about whether or not you passed.

After I wrote my master's thesis and got my degree, I came back to the states and was trying to figure out what to do. I got a job working at Central State University, which is an HBCU in Ohio. I taught there in the sociology department for four years and then married and went back to Iowa. We lived in Iowa for a while, and I had my daughter but the marriage did not last … so I was trying to figure out what to do. By that time, I was teaching in the community college in Des Moines, and I knew I did not want to do that for the rest of my life.

Q: Then what happened?

A: I met a man who was a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and he became my mentor. He encouraged me to think about going back to get my PhD and becoming a college professor. We decided that the University of Denver had the program that I wanted. I applied to what was then called the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) but is now known as the Korbel School for International Studies. That’s where I got a second master's degree and my PhD.

Q: During your education and career journey, what’s something that surprised you or changed your perspective on life?

A: There are so many things. One is about being in England in the early '70s; there was an Africa Center there. I had an opportunity to meet so many Africans from all over the continent, as political colonialism was ending. I'm saying that specifically because we continue with what I would call “economic colonialism” to this day. But back then, countries were attaining their freedom and setting up their governments. So many of the Africans I was meeting at the time were from different countries around the continent. And because they were being educated, I knew they were returning to their country to be involved in establishing their country after colonialism. It was really exciting to get to know those people. It’s like they had a mission. They were getting their education, but it wasn’t so much about, “Oh, I’m going to stay in England and make a lot of money, or I’m going to go to America and make a lot of money.” It was, “How can I take this knowledge back to help my country?"

At the same time, England was going through a period where racism was becoming quite prevalent and quite open, but the racism was focused on Asians and particularly East Indians. It was at this time that Uganda was expelling all Asians from their country, and those people that they expelled held British passports and could legally immigrate to England. There was just so much hatred against these people. Since I grew up in the United States, I was quite familiar with racism, but somehow we had always been taught to believe that Europe was where you could escape racism. So, to go to England and discover that that wasn’t the case was eye-opening. It was a rude awakening to learn that racism was (and continues to be) an international phenomenon.

Q: Can you tell us about your book, "Practical Audacity: Black Women and International Human Rights"?

A: All of my books have been labors of love, but this is the first one that I've written as sole authorship. The others were anthologies, and while they were very important and did important things, this is the book that I have been working on for decades. It is the culmination of all of my work. One of the areas of concentration for my PhD was international human rights, and that's important because most people who were involved in this field of study were studying it in law schools. Yet, I was not in a law school but I got a PhD with a concentration in it. With this book, I wanted to bring human rights out of law school and make them available to everybody. Because unless you are in law school or you're involved in the United Nations, you may or may not know anything about it. Also, I have always worked on Black and women’s issues. So "Practical Audacity" is a culmination of my research in all those areas.

I was aware that in the past, there were Black women who had decided to pursue work in international human rights. Now, we spent the latter part of the 20th century unearthing the work that Black women have done in the American civil rights movement. Some women had come to the conclusion that civil rights could not adequately address their experiences of multiple oppression. They sought something beyond civil rights. As they became cognizant of the field of international human rights, they considered pursuing their agendas in this more comprehensive field.

What I wanted to do with this book was to identify some of those women. I wanted to share their stories through this book because women are doing important and unsung work that we need to know about. I'm trying to present these untold stories to inspire people to figure out what they can do to support international human rights work, to make a difference in the world.

Q: What are some of the social problems that you're concerned about? Why do you think that these problems are important to address?

A: I call them the “family of -isms”: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia and ableism. Those things are all deeply intertwined. They're all intersectional. They all have had an impact on the way that we are able to live our lives and what we're able to do. It's important for us to understand them, but also to figure out how we can effectively counteract those -isms. And the interesting thing is that they shape-shift: You think you may have solved the problem, and then it comes back differently.

Q: What you just said about the “-isms” — that’s brilliant. Why do you think that these problems exist at their core?

A: I thought about that a lot because the problem seems illogical and stupid. You can say all kinds of negative things, but I think it's fear. At the very bottom, it is fear of the unknown. It's fear and it's an effort to figure out how one can be important, or how one can be better than someone else.

Similarly, I was recently listening to Robin Kelley — a very important historian. He observed that we talk about capitalism and we talk about racism, but separately. He argues that racism is an integral part of capitalism. He says that there is no capitalism without racism. Racism feeds capitalism. So we had slavery, which fed capitalism, then we abolished slavery but proceeded to establish Jim Crow to replace it. But what was important, at least if we’re talking about this only as a Black-and-white issue, is that it’s also applicable to other groups of people of color. The specific history varies, but the main point is that all forms of racism have fed capitalism, so to speak.

Q: Can you tell us a few of the topics that you'll be covering during the "Black Women in Higher Education" talk March 30?

A: We will be discussing women of color — and particularly Black women — in higher education. Many people are pursuing higher education, but I want to discuss the fact that just because you get a PhD doesn't mean that you're going to become a professor or that you're going to remain in education. And part of that is because pursuing a PhD is a difficult process under the best of circumstances. Then when you mix in sexism and racism, sometimes people decide, "OK, I've had enough of this, and I'm not going to subject myself to the tenure process." So they choose to do something else with their education.

I also want to touch on one of the things that I see that is so important. … It is the fact that we have attained degrees in a wide array of areas. For example, before, we could only be an educator in sociology or history or English. But now, you have people in astronomical sciences, mathematics or engineering. Black people are doing those kinds of things — that's exciting.

Q: Given how difficult pursuing higher education can be, what’s your advice for students, whether they're an undergrad or grad, in the School of Social Transformation or any other school at ASU?

A: I tell people that you are going to meet challenges. I don't know how to say this because I don't want to denigrate people who don't reach success, but ultimately, if you are going to make it, you have to overcome setbacks. And those setbacks can be a lot of things. Maybe you pass your tests, but you struggle with your dissertation — maybe it's not approved, etc. We all have our struggles and hurdles to overcome. We may not talk about it, but sometimes I think we should, because the capacity to meet adversity and move beyond it is what it takes to survive and ultimately to thrive.

"Black Women in Higher Education: A Conversation with Stanlie James" will be held via Zoom at 6 p.m. on March 30. Register here or visit the ASU Events listing for more information.

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Study explores balance of Spanish and English in bilingual picture books

March 22, 2022

Editor's note: A Spanish version of this story is available at the end of this article. Click here to go there directly. // Al final de este artículo hay una versión en español de esta historia. Haga clic aquí para ir directamente allí.

How many books children have access to at home predicts how well they learn language and even how long they stay in school.   A father reads out loud to his baby. Picture books are crucial to how children learn language. A new study published in the journal Languages has shown that bilingual picture books are predominantly written in English and offer opportunities for children to learn Spanish vocabulary words. Photo by Picsea/Unsplash // Los libros ilustrados son fundamentales para adquirir el lenguaje. En un nuevo estudio publicado en la revista Languages se muestra que en los libros infantiles ilustrados bilingües predomina el inglés y también se ofrecen oportunidades para que los niños aprendan vocablos en español. Foto de Picsea/Unsplash Download Full Image

Children’s picture books might seem simple, but they are crucial to learning language. Picture books contain words and sentence structures beyond what babies and toddlers might encounter in speech or song.

For children being raised bilingual, who are learning two languages at the same time, reading with parents and caregivers is crucial because these children must learn twice as many words. There are more than 12 million American children growing up bilingual, and over 8 million of these children speak Spanish at home.  

study from Arizona State University and the University of Texas at El Paso has analyzed how bilingual picture books geared toward young children balance the English and Spanish languages. The study shows that the picture books are predominantly written in English and offer opportunities for children to learn Spanish vocabulary words. 

“Children being raised bilingual are learning words in two languages while facing different amounts of exposure in each language, and we want to understand how bilingual picture books contribute to their language experiences. This study is a first step and evaluates the quality and quantity of both English and Spanish together in bilingual picture books,” said Viridiana Benitez, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the study. “The quality of the Spanish words in the books is important given Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the United States, but it is also important to look at English, as these books provide unique opportunities to learn about both languages together.” 

Benitez, who grew up bilingual, has wanted to understand more about the bilingual reading environment because children might encounter the two languages in different ways during reading. They might hear more of one language than the other, or they may encounter the two languages in combination.  

Another motivation for the study happened outside the lab, when Benitez was reading to her son, who is being raised bilingual.

“One of the first books in his little library was 'Besos for Baby,'” she said. “I remember reading it to him and thinking the language exposure he’s getting from this book is interesting. From there, I started wondering how the two languages are presented together in other bilingual picture books.”

Spanish and English 

The 45 bilingual picture books included in the study are all for sale in the U.S. and are marketed to babies and children up to age 9. These books contain both English and Spanish, switching between the two languages.  

For both English and Spanish, the research team counted the total number of words and how many times each word was used. They also counted the number of phrases and how long, or complex, each phrase was in both languages. The English phrases and sentences were more complex than for Spanish, but the books included more unique Spanish words.  

“The proportion of language in the books was overwhelmingly English, and often the Spanish included in the text was just one word in an English sentence,” said Marissa Castellana, a psychology graduate student and second author on the paper. “This finding suggests that these books might be beneficial to English-speaking families who are trying to incorporate some Spanish language into their child’s environment, and to Spanish-learning children as well.” 

Mamá, or mom, was one of the most common Spanish words in the books. Other Spanish words that showed up frequently in the books were related to family, while English was much less commonly used to talk about family members and more often used to talk about daily routines.  

“These books are predominantly in English with a sprinkling of Spanish, which could support Spanish vocabulary learning. But the books also present complex English phrases, which could also benefit English language development,” Benitez said. “In many communities in the U.S., Spanish is very significant. To better serve children who come from a large variety of language experiences, it is important to consider what kinds of books are available for them to read." 

Bilingual ad-libbing 

An important way children learn language from reading books is by listening when parents, caregivers and teachers ad-lib or expand on what is in the book. The child might be asked what they think will happen next or if they notice a detail of the picture. This type of conversation is called extra-textual talk.

This study provides a foundation for the research team to assess how the content of bilingual picture books influences whether parents and caregivers speak one or more languages when engaging in extra-textual talk with their children. The study findings will also allow the researchers to examine how extra-textual talk in different languages impacts how children learn new words, which will ultimately help parents make informed decisions about the books that they read with their children.

Families interested in participating in studies of how children learn language can find information here.

Christine Potter of the University of Texas El Paso also contributed to the study.

The Spanish version of the article follows.

En un estudio se investiga la proporción de español e inglés en libros de cuentos ilustrados bilingües

La cantidad de libros que los niños tienen a su disposición predice la facilidad con que aprenden el lenguaje e incluso hasta que año estudiarán en la escuela.

Los libros infantiles ilustrados al parecer son sencillos, pero son fundamentales para la adquisición del lenguaje. Los libros ilustrados contienen palabras y sintaxis más complejas de lo que un bebé o un niño chiquito encuentra en el lenguaje hablado o en las canciones.

Para los niños que se crían bilingües, los que están aprendiendo dos idiomas a la vez, la lectura con los padres y otros cuidadores es clave porque estos niños tienen que aprender el doble del número de palabras. En Estados Unidos, son más de 12 millones de niños que crecen bilingües, y de ellos, más de 8 millones hablan español en casa.

En un estudio realizado en la Universidad Estatal de Arizona (ASU) y en la Universidad de Texas en El Paso se analiza la distribución proporcional de los idiomas inglés y español en los libros de cuentos ilustrados destinados para niños pequeños. En el estudio se comprueba que el inglés predomina y que también se ofrecen oportunidades para que los niños aprendan palabras nuevas en español.

“Los niños que se crían bilingües aprenden palabras en dos idiomas, a la vez que se encuentran expuestos a cada idioma en grados diferentes. Nos interesa entender cómo los libros ilustrados bilingües contribuyen a sus experiencias lingüísticas. Este estudio es un primer paso en el que se evalúa la calidad y la cantidad del inglés y del español juntos en los libros ilustrados bilingües” comentó Viridiana Benítez, catedrática adjunta de psicología en ASU y autora principal del estudio. “También reviste importancia la calidad de las palabras en español que se ven en los libros, dado que el español es el segundo idioma que más se habla en Estados Unidos. Pero también es importante observar el inglés, ya que estos libros brindan oportunidades singulares para aprender sobre los dos idiomas juntos.”

A Benítez, que se crió en un entorno bilingüe, le interesaba aprender más acerca del ámbito de la lectura bilingüe, porque se preguntaba si al leer, el encuentro de los niños con cada uno de los dos idiomas es diferente. Puede ser que escuchen un idioma más que el otro, o puede que encuentren los dos idiomas en combinación.

Otro motivo para dirigir el estudio surgió de fuera del laboratorio, cuando Benítez le estaba leyendo a su hijo, a quien está criando bilingüe.

“Uno de los primeros libros que tenía en su pequeña biblioteca era Besos for Baby” contó. “Recuerdo que cuando se lo leía, pensaba que la exposición al lenguaje que él recibe en este libro es interesante. De ahí empecé a preguntarme cómo se presentan los dos idiomas juntos en otros libros ilustrados bilingües”.

El español y el inglés

Los 45 libros ilustrados incluidos en el estudio están a la venta en Estados Unidos y se promocionan para leerles a bebés y niños hasta los 9 años de edad. Estos libros están escritos en ambos idiomas y pasan del uno al otro sin dificultad.

El equipo de investigadores contó el número total de palabras en cada idioma y cuántas veces se usó cada palabra. También contaron el número de frases, así como también la longitud y complejidad de cada frase. Las frases y oraciones en inglés resultaron más complejas que las de español, pero el número de palabras diferentes fue mayor en español.

“El idioma con mayor proporción en los libros, y por mucho, era el inglés, y muchas veces el español que se incluía en el texto era una sola palabra incluida dentro de una oración en inglés”, explicó Marissa Castellana, estudiante de posgrado en psicología y segunda autora del artículo. “Este resultado sugiere que estos libros pueden beneficiar a las familias de habla inglesa que quieren incorporar algo del idioma español en la vida de sus hijos, y también para los niños que están aprendiendo español en casa”.

“Mamá” es una de las palabras en español que más se ve en los libros. Otras palabras en español que aparecen con frecuencia tienen que ver con la familia, mientras que el inglés se usa mucho menos para hablar de la familia y más para hablar de quehaceres cotidianos.

“Estos libros están predominantemente en inglés con una que otra palabra en español, lo cual podría apoyar el aprendizaje de vocabulario en español. Pero los libros también presentan frases complejas en inglés, lo cual podría promover el desarrollo del lenguaje en inglés también”, aclaró Benítez. “En muchas comunidades en Estados Unidos, el español es muy importante. Para servir mejor a los niños que vienen de experiencias lingüísticas muy diversas, es importante considerar qué tipos de libros están a su disposición para leer”.

La improvisación bilingüe

Una manera importante de cómo los niños aprenden el lenguaje es cuando escuchan que los padres, cuidadores y maestros hablan de forma improvisada o profundizan de manera extemporánea sobre algo en el libro. Pueden preguntar al niño que qué piensa que va a pasar después o si se da cuenta de algún detalle en la ilustración. Este tipo de conversación de llama diálogo extra-textual.

Este estudio establece la base para que un equipo investigador evalúe cómo el contenido de los libros ilustrados bilingües influye en si los padres y cuidadores hablan en un idioma o el otro cuando usan el diálogo extra-textual con sus hijos. Los resultados del estudio también les permitirán a los investigadores examinar cómo el diálogo extra-textual en diferentes idiomas afecta la manera en que los niños aprenden palabras nuevas, lo cual a la postre les ayudará a los padres a tomar decisiones informadas sobre qué libros quieren leer con sus hijos.

Las familias a quienes les interese participar en estudios sobre cómo los niños aprenden el lenguaje pueden encontrar información aquí.

Christine Potter de la Universidad de Texas en El Paso también contribuyó a este estudio. 

Science writer, Psychology Department