Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Course Puts Research, Learning on New Path

Originally published December 19, 2014

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Two University of Texas at El Paso professors from different colleges were impressed enough with the knowledge and skills displayed by the other’s students that they decided more than a year ago to develop a new course that could put teaching and learning on a different path.

“Literacy/Biliteracy: The Case Study” launched during the fall 2014 semester for Ph.D. students from the Teaching, Learning and Culture (TLC), and Rhetoric and Writing Studies (RWS) programs. It was created by Char Ullman, Ph.D., associate professor of Sociocultural Foundations of Education, and Kate Mangelsdorf, Ph.D., professor of English and director of Rhetoric and Writing Studies.

Kate Mangelsdorf, Ph.D., left, and Char Ullman, Ph.D., successfully launched a new doctoral course this fall that combines the theory of Mangelsdorf’s Rhetoric and Writing Studies with the ethnographic research in Ullman’s Teaching, Learning and Culture program. Photo by Daniel Perez / UTEP News Service
Kate Mangelsdorf, Ph.D., left, and Char Ullman, Ph.D., successfully launched a new doctoral course this fall that combines the theory of Mangelsdorf’s Rhetoric and Writing Studies with the ethnographic research in Ullman’s Teaching, Learning and Culture program. Photo by Daniel Perez / UTEP News Service

Small teams made up of members from both programs focused their ethnographic research – the observation of people in their own environment – in six of UTEP’s First-Year Composition courses. That program is taken by most of the University’s new students and is considered a barometer of their future retention and success.

The doctoral students observed how the undergraduates spoke to each other and their instructors in and out of the classrooms in English, Spanish or “Spanglish,” an urban American blending of English and Spanish. The researchers also conducted interviews with their subjects to better understand how they decided what to say and when to say it, and their changing attitudes and identities as they transitioned from high school to college.

“This is important and exciting to them,” Mangelsdorf said.

The interdisciplinary course is exceptional for its ethnographic research and systemic study of the First-Year Composition course, but Katherine Bruna, Ph.D., associate professor of multicultural education at Iowa State University, added that it subverts a number of traditional assumptions about knowledge, teaching and learning.

“A course like this one that has the braided goals of apprenticing students into ethnographic research as a tool for understanding and documenting the complexity of human life – because, make no doubt, that is what this course is about – does away with the tidy compartmentalization that typify most of the rest of what we call higher education,” Bruna said. “For students at UTEP who come from communities historically excluded from higher education, this course is a radical act of inclusion.”

The data gathered by the doctoral students about home, school, and social and gender language was the basis for conference presentations, proposals and drafts of manuscripts for peer-reviewed academic journals. The students will work with Ullman and Mangelsdorf on their papers during a spring 2015 independent study course before sending them to publishers.

Among the course’s 11 doctoral students were Jair Muñoz and Gina Lawrence. Both appreciated the opportunity to collaborate with the faculty on qualitative research, which most students only read about in class. They know this research experience and being published in an academic journal will strengthen their resumes.

Muñoz, a TLC doctoral student, said the course helped him “tremendously” to understand the protocols of ethnographic research. The El Paso native, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP, said there was a purity of language among those he observed and interviewed. They would use Spanish or Spanglish amongst themselves before and after class, but only English during class and for class assignments.

Lawrence, a Los Angeles-area native enrolled as a RWS student, called her experience “awesome.” She observed 12 classes and interviewed seven students and their teacher. She noted how students in the front of class could tune out the louder, more disruptive students in the back. She also logged that the behavior of the students toward their lecturer changed through the course.

On top of their intensive information gathering, the students read texts that delved into racial identities, stereotypes, language socialization, and translanguaging, the ability of multilingual speakers to use their different languages to be understood.

Ullman, Mangelsdorf and their doctoral students will share their research findings during the Ethnography and Qualitative Research Conference (EQRC) in February in Las Vegas. They will be presenting alongside scholars from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and similar institutions.

Michael Firmin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Cedarville (Ohio) University and director of the EQRC, said the UTEP doctoral students will gain critical feedback from experts in the field through their participation at the conference, which is a selective, national, juried event.

“Having strong representation at EQRC shows UTEP to possess rigorous graduate programs whereby students are producing at post-graduate levels,” Firmin said. “Naturally, UTEP faculty can say that their students perform strongly, but having papers accepted at conferences such as EQRC helps provide some objective evidence in terms of outcomes assessment that, indeed, students are producing high quality research.”

Ullman and Mangelsdorf are pleased with how their course’s first semester went and look forward to offering an enhanced course in fall 2015. They would like to see additional faculty teach the course, and are looking for other entities where their students can conduct research such as nonprofit groups, community organizations and community college classes.

“I have colleagues in my department who are excited about this,” Ullman said. “They’ve told me that we really need this kind of course.”