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Sitting at some new tables in the academic cafeteria

Randall F. Clemens

As Murray Milner documents in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, teenagers often order themselves using status symbols. Take a stroll around a high school cafeteria. With few exceptions, students clump neatly into groups: cool kids, jocks, band geeks, drama nerds, emos (not to be confused with emus), and any number of other categories. Each group has unique norms, values, and symbols. While monumental decisions loom—like what to do for the rest of their lives—teenagers spend inordinate amounts of time wondering about very different questions, like what to wear, where to sit, and with whom to talk.

Fast-forward to academic life. How different are scholars? What do we wear? Where do we sit? And, with whom do we talk? Cliques and status symbols—albeit drastically different—are very much part of the daily experiences of graduate students and faculty members. However, instead of figuring out what to do on Friday night, we talk about epistemologies.

A few weeks ago, I was named as an Emerging Education Policy Scholar (EEPS). The program, a collaboration between The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, two conservative organizations, provides the opportunity for young, policy-minded scholars to collaborate with and learn from a range of key policy players. I know colleagues who have participated in previous cohorts, and I know some of my cohort-mates. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity. 

As an early career faculty member, I didn’t think too much about how others would react. Why would I? I have the opportunity to talk to really smart people about critical issues. Even more, while no one would mistake Bill as a neocon, as an advisor, he has always encouraged me to communicate with and learn from individuals from all perspectives, even if they belong to a different political party or tax bracket. That’s part of being a reasoned, thoughtful scholar, right?

Reactions have been interesting. One university colleague congratulated me and also provided a few tips for “talking to the other side.” Another stood speechless. I saw the wheels turning in her head: Is Randy a liberal or conservative? To diffuse, I made a joke about brushing up on supply-side economics. Both people were sincerely congratulatory and well meaning. But, the interactions revealed the ways in which politics—among other factors—act as a sorting mechanism among academics.

Most will agree that improving education is important. And yet, our actions do not always demonstrate the same joint commitment. I skim vitriolic, all-or-nothing arguments from both liberal and conservative scholars on Twitter. I then read supposedly objective and rigorous research and wonder how to separate reality from ideology, research from propaganda. A methods section—if there even is one—can only do so much; social media is turning out to be just as telling for the trustworthiness of a researcher. 

Some seem most concerned about being right. “We know what works,” they argue and then provide a checklist of reforms in which the research is decidedly mixed. Likewise, intransigent liberals attack and vilify corporate reformers and then, in the same breath, argue for deliberative democracy and social justice. If people scream and yell long enough, others—even if they share similar beliefs—start to wonder about things like credibility, ulterior motives, and a true desire to have a cooperative and mutually beneficial discussion.

I’m going to sit at some new tables in the academic cafeteria. For the few worried liberals or qualitative researchers out there, I still support universal pre-k programs, neighborhood schools, and more inclusive standards for government-funded research. But, we place too much emphasis on who’s sitting where. I’m interested in discussing innovative solutions and improving education. Our problems are far too complex to be solved by anchoring to a set of ideals and then yelling louder than the other person.