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Chapter 7: how doctoral mentoring supported a cultural transformation from peripheral observer to active learner: learning to teach and research from Suzanne Wilson.

In their book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Lave and Wenger (1991) wrote that learning is a process of participation in communities of practice; participation that is at first legitimately peripheral but that increases gradually in engagement and complexity. This has certainly been the case of me as I have been transformed from a South Korean graduate student to a teacher educator in the United States. I grew up and was educated in South Korea. When I entered the graduate school in the United States, not only did I have to learn about university teaching and research, I also had to learn the norms, values, and expectation of teacher educators and educational researchers--especially those related to "active participation in one's own learning" as Lave and Wenger note. In this article, I will document my own journey to become an educational researcher and teacher educator in the United States, and how I crossed linguistic and cultural borders with mentoring assistance from Suzanne Wilson. I will explain the community of researchers in South Korea and how I learn to socialize and belong to the communities of educational researchers and teacher educators in the United States. I will also describe and explain how Suzanne Wilson, as my academic advisor, challenged and supported me to become a better educational researcher and teacher educator.


I first met Suzanne Wilson through her writing in the spring of 1995 when I started my master's degree in South Korea. At that time my professor asked us to read research articles about teaching social studies and history which had been published in the United States and England. That assignment introduced me to Suzanne's early work on history teachers and their subject matter knowledge: "Peering at history through different lenses: The role of disciplinary perspectives in teaching history" (Wilson & Wineburg, 1988). It was a study of four novice social studies teachers with different undergraduate majors, and Suzanne and her colleague wanted to know how the teachers' different disciplinary backgrounds influenced their teaching. To answer this question, they followed these teachers for 3 years, from their entry into the teacher education program to the first year of teaching. They interviewed the four teachers 14 times and observed them on several occasions. Using the data from both interviews and field observations, they reported that teachers brought different disciplinary perspectives to teaching, and those different perspectives affected how they view history, and what and how they chose to teach in history.

At the time I was first reading Suzanne's work, there were two research traditions of history education in South Korea (Song, 1999): It was either theoretical work or quantitative studies based on small-scale surveys. Researchers in the first school did extensive literature reviews, and based on their analysis of previous researchers' findings, proposed new teaching strategies. Those in the second school designed a survey to answer their research questions, conducted the surveys once or twice in a classroom of 30 or 40 students, used SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) to analyze their data, and reported their results. It appeared that neither researchers in the first school nor in the second school captured what was really going in the classrooms.

I was not the exception. I belonged to the first school. As a middle school social studies teacher and a student of history, I was interested in how secondary history teachers can use artwork such as paintings, photographs, and music created during an historical period to teach students about the history of that time period. Like most master's students at that time in South Korea, for my master's thesis I reviewed both history and history education literature, and tried to rationalize how artwork could serve as a good pedagogical tool in history. However, by the time I finished the thesis, I started to wonder whether or not my rationale was the same as other practicing teachers'. As a teacher, I used artwork when I taught history and had my own rationales for doing so. But that was only one person's experience. I wondered if other teachers of history used artwork, and, if so, why. What kinds of artwork did they use, and how did they use it? What did they teach using artwork? Questions came one after another, but I did not know how to answer them.

Suzanne and her colleague's work appeared to give me a way to answer my questions. Their study was based on theory, and yet documented what was going on in teachers' thinking and in their classrooms. What I loved about her work was the way in which she wrote about the four first-year teachers, Cathy, Fred, Jane, and Bill. Because of her vivid and thick description of these teachers, I felt I was listening to them talk in the teacher's lounge. Cathy, an anthropology major, and Fred, a political science major, suffered from the lack of historical content knowledge. They saw history as a collection of facts and presented history without any contextual knowledge and from only a single perspective. In contrast, Jane, an American history major, and Bill, an American studies major, believed that history is a construction of human interpretation, and taught the same event from multiple perspectives including political, social and cultural perspectives. Jane and Bill also used a variety of sources such as music, novels, and graphs to represent the atmosphere of the given historical period. With all these descriptions, Suzanne explained the complexities of teacher knowledge that is necessary to become a good teacher of history. Teachers' content knowledge is not only about teachers' knowledge of facts and interpretation. It is also about the teachers' beliefs and knowledge involving how knowledge in the discipline is created, refuted and revised.

Her work left me with a desire to know more about how Suzanne and her colleague conducted their research. I soon decided to come to the United States to study with Suzanne. Later, while working on my PhD, I learned that Suzanne's work was from the Knowledge Growth in Teaching Project with Lee Shulman, and that Suzanne and her colleagues conducted research on teacher knowledge across multiple content areas (Ball, 1991; Carlsen, 1991; Grossman, 1990). Later I also learned that she used a case study as her research method for the study (Yin, 1989/2003), but I did not know any of these things back then. In the fall of 1998, I applied for and was accepted into the graduate program at Michigan State University. The acceptance letter informed me that Suzanne would be my temporary advisor. Almost instantly after receiving the letter, I received an e-mail from her. "Hi Yonghee, I am Suzanne Wilson, your temporary advisor. Is there anything that I can help you with?"


In her review of Larry Cuban's book, How Scholars Trumped Teachers, Suzanne (Wilson, 2003b) agrees with a current reform effort that calls for the scholarship of teaching, and argues that the tension between teaching and research does not have to be inevitable. She makes the case that teaching and research should be complementary especially at the university level; in other words, what one does as an educational researcher should inform one's teaching practices, and vice versa. She also documented the cultural clash she experienced while working with a professional development school as a teacher-researcher. Teaching is personal and private, often lacking critical professional discourses between group members. In contrast, research is public and grounded in critical professional discourses such as the peer-review process of research. She concludes that teaching and research inform each other, and that's what she taught me while I was at Michigan State University as her advisee. In the graduate program at Michigan State University, Suzanne emphasizes the importance of teaching to doctoral students' careers, often noting that PhD means doctor of philosophy or teacher of philosophy.


I met Suzanne 2 days after I arrived in East Lansing. I remember the night before I met her for the first time. I stayed awake until midnight writing down what I would say to her: How I would introduce myself to her, what my master's thesis was about and my plans for my doctoral dissertation. I thought Suzanne would ask me to talk about my research interest and my plan for research.

Unlike my expectation, Suzanne did not ask even one question about my plan of study. Instead, she asked me where I would be living, whether I had any family members in the United States, and what exercises I would do in my leisure time. I told her I would be living in the graduate students' dormitory for one year, and would then like to move to an off campus apartment. I also told her I had distant relatives in Los Angeles and New York but I had not seen them in more than 10 years. I also told her that I like swimming. While listening to me, she started to draw a campus map on white paper. She showed me where I could find two Korean restaurants and the swimming pools on campus, as well as telling me which swimming pool was the best. She also gave me the e-mail address of her Taiwanese advisee, Phone-Mei, the kindest person I met at East Lansing. Suzanne wanted me to contact her, and ask her what international graduate students' lives were like. She then told me we would meet every other week to talk about my new life at Michigan State University. I left her office, puzzled by why she did not ask me anything about my research interests.

Several years later, I ran into another of Suzanne's graduate student advisees who was also puzzled for the same reason. Suzanne had asked him what exercises he would do when he had time, and told him where to go to play tennis, his favorite sport. She, however, did not ask him what he wanted to do for his research. I smiled. By then I understood why Suzanne had asked me about the exercise I liked instead of my research interests. I knew that doing a PhD is like running a marathon. You do not want to burn out at the beginning or in the middle of the race. To finish it successfully, you have to create a support system that allows you to breathe. Most of all, although I came to the United State as a graduate student who completely focused on my PhD, Suzanne wanted me to learn to live a life beyond my academic studies.

Suzanne also helped me understand another important facet of American academic culture. In addition to emphasizing the importance of teaching in her research, she also supported graduate students in their efforts to learn to teach at the university level. She offered a seminar where graduate students learned how to create a teaching portfolio for future job interviews, and often co-taught with graduate students, something unknown in South Korean graduate school. When I taught an undergraduate course--elementary social studies methods course--in the fall of 2004, Suzanne volunteered to work with me as my supervisor. Suzanne and I spent the summer planning the course. As a peripheral observer, I began by reading as many articles as possible about how to teach social studies methods courses. I collected all the previous syllabi and met with previous instructors. That fall, while I taught, Suzanne observed me teaching from the back corner of the room. Once a week we would meet and discuss what happened in class, and plan the next class.

My teaching, however, did not seem to work. All the tips and prescriptive strategies were not working for me because of something that I had not considered before. The problem was not about what I knew about social studies but the cultural gap between students and me. In South Korea where I grew up, I was not expected to look straight into the eyes of a senior, including teachers. During class, we were not prompted to ask questions. Teachers do not compliment students often, either. Even though I was always a good student, I do not remember my teachers praising me in public or in private. Rather I heard from my mom that I was doing well in school when she came back from once a semester teacher-parent conferences.

My students grew up in a totally different culture. If they were confused about anything, they raised their hands and asked questions. Some of them would also stay after the class to talk about what was going on in their field. They asked questions that, had I been in their place, would have been answered by looking in books rather than asking the teacher. They would sometimes stay simply to chat about what they did over the weekend, and I did not know exactly how to respond. Not surprisingly, I reacted to students as my teachers in South Korea had reacted to me. I did not compliment their work until they did really well. At times I scolded them when their work did not meet my expectation. My students felt my evaluations of their work were harsh, and seemed to be hurt by my straightforward comments on their assignments. Students and I were experiencing a cultural clash. This caused me to become an active participant in my own learning and to relearn the relationship between the teacher and students. To resolve this cultural clash, I had to learn how to interact with students and how to create learning opportunities such as small group and whole group discussion in addition to more traditional lectures.

Although I believed that "classroom discussion and debate--social endeavors--more closely match the ways in which individuals learn or construct their understanding" in their real life situations (Ball & Wilson, 1996), and I wanted students to learn from each other through the discussion, it was not easy for me to learn how to lead a good class discussion. I tended to either let students talk too much or to fish for right answers instead of synthesizing students' responses, finding patterns, relating these patterns to a larger context so that students would learn from each other and from me. Helping students become active participants rather than peripheral observers was new to me.

In his analysis of mathematics teaching, Cohen (1990) wrote that even if the teacher believes she incorporates reform efforts, her teaching practice does not appear to be that different from the traditional practice. He suggested that it was difficult for the teacher to teach in a new way because she had never experienced the new teaching practice that she was trying to implement. To teach as the reform efforts suggest, the teacher needs to relearn from experience. As a novice teacher educator, I was like the teacher in Cohen's study. While I was committed and enthusiastic about learning theories of situated learning and communities of practice, I did not know how to teach given those theories.

After watching me teaching, Suzanne suggested that I needed an alternative tool to communicate with students and new ways to listen to what they thought about the course. She suggested I conduct a mid-term teaching evaluation to identify the students' difficulties and challenges of the class. After gathering students' responses, Suzanne and I created an action plan. We listed ways I would address students' concerns and shared that action plan with them. The first part of the plan was that students and I would develop a system to communicate in and out of the class. I also used ANGEL, an online pedagogical tool, on a regular basis. I followed up the class discussion by summarizing the points we discussed and raising new questions. When my directions were not clear I would ask one or two students to rephrase to make sure we were on the same page. Whenever students were not sure what was going on, they needed to raise their hands and ask me questions. If I made any insensitive comments, they were to raise their hands, and tell me. I told them I would not take it personally. I also told them I have high standards, and I wanted to maintain my standards as they were. However, I would give students an opportunity to rework their assignments. I reminded students that we grew up in different cultures, and because of that, we needed to be proactive in understanding and communicating with each other. I was beginning to learn that effective teaching requires the active participation of both the teacher and her students.

Because open discussion was not part of my "cultural capital" (Bourdieu, 1970/1990), Suzanne also modeled how to lead class discussions. At times we facilitated the class discussion together, and at other times she gave me a signal when students and I talked too much about one topic, so that we moved on to another topic. My responses to students' feedback seemed to work. When I told them I would give them my comments by the end of that week, one female student, who often asked me questions with a frowned look up on her face, raised her hand and responded, "We know you have other things to do, too. Wouldn't it be fair if we give you at least two weeks to return our papers?" By becoming of an active participant in my own learning, I began to learn how to transform my classroom from a teacher-centered one into a more student-centered one and communicate with students.


Similarly, I also had to relearn how to read, write, think, and eventually take ownership of my own learning from Suzanne during my doctoral program. My years at East Lansing were both exciting and challenging. They were exciting because the courses I took offered me a broad, new perspective with which to look at educational issues such as the purposes of public schooling, and the history of teaching and teacher education in the United States. This, in turn, allowed me to look back and rethink my educational experience in South Korea. I learned that South Korea and American public schooling started as a great equalizer, and yet both public school systems now face the dilemma that it has served to increase inequalities in society (Labaree, 1997). I also learned there are reform initiative cycles, and it is teachers who determine whether or not the reform would be successful. Teachers are the gatekeepers who make decisions about whether the reform will be accepted at the classroom level (Tyack & Cuban, 1997). I also learned that a good research method should be chosen to answer a research question rather than the preference for a certain methodology (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Most importantly, I learned that the field of education is so complex that no one theory can explain all. I felt empowered with this knowledge.

Among the many courses I took, Suzanne's courses were the most fun and challenging. For instance, she taught a required introductory course for all doctoral students in which she reminded us that reading widely is one of the critical components of being a good educational researcher. My classmates and I were required to read a wide variety of texts, including those inside and outside of education, primary and secondary sources, as well as progressive and conservative ones. We read John Dewey's (1902/ 1991) Child and the Curriculum and Jerome Bruner's (1960/1999) The Process of Education and at the same time watched an episode of The Simpson's and the British movie, Educating Rita. We read Horace Mann's (1841/ 1891) Fifth Annual Report of the Secretary to the Board of Education of Massachusetts, and the conference paper Sarah Lubienski presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, based on her recently completed dissertation. Suzanne repeatedly asked us to identify the complexities of the purposes of education, and the intended or unintended consequences of these purposes on knowledge, teaching and learning represented in those sources.

In addition, Suzanne taught us that building a learning community with cohorts is as important as reading and writing articles. Learning happens when you work together rather than when you work in isolation. She used to tell us, "I am speaking from my own experience. You will learn from your cohort much more than you will learn from me." She had us read each other's paper. She constantly encouraged us to work in small groups, partnering with someone who shared similar interest such as English or social studies instruction. Outside of the class, she facilitated this by introducing graduate students with similar interests to each other, and encouraging us to learn from one another. She invited the class to her house after my classmates and I finished major writing assignments. The class seemed to continue in her living room, kitchen, and backyard. Over meals Suzanne cooked for us, we discussed issues that we had puzzled over in class. We often found ourselves talking to each other about where we came from, how we met our husbands, wives or partners, and the kinds of research and work we hoped to do after we graduated.

I also relearned how to make an argument and write. In the South Korean culture where I grew up, I was expected to write about the most important parts at the end. I was taught to develop my ideas throughout the paper, and finally end with the main points. Yet what I learned in the United States was the opposite. You state your main points immediately. You write your point as a topic sentence, elaborate and support it with reliable evidence. Then you conclude by restating it (Weston, 1992). In the United States, if you do not state what you want to say upfront, within the first two pages, your reader will be lost. Perhaps no one will even read your paper to the end where you make your key statements. In South Korea, I was trained to read and understand the text rather than to be critical of it. It was easy for me to summarize and discuss the strengths of the author's points. However, it was not easy for me to identify and critique the weaknesses. In doing so, I felt I was rude.

All the courses I took, however, kept pushing me to develop my own thoughts on the readings and to write my own ideas in a logical way. As always, Suzanne was the person who asked graduate students to write more rigorously and to think more critically than anyone else, but she was also the person who gave graduate students the most generous support. In addition to two full pages of comments on the assignments, she encouraged us to read books on writing. They are at times rule books such as A Rulebook for Arguments (Weston, 1992), and books on writing such as Stephen King's (2002) On Writing and William Zinsser's On Writing Well (1976/1998) in which writers make their reasoning visible, illustrating what they are struggling with when they write, and how they resolve those struggles. Suzanne also taught us that to be critical is to respect one's work while at the same time being honest and straightforward about it. She emphasized that as a colleague and as a teacher, you must be generous and kind in offering your support.

When I took Suzanne's introductory course, one of the assignments was to find out about a historical artifact from nineteenth century schooling along with a contemporary counterpart. With these artifacts in hand, we were to identify the purposes of teaching the subject matter, what teachers needed to know to teach it, and what it meant to be a teacher at the time when the two artifacts were created. For this assignment, I took a look at U.S. history textbooks from the early 1900s and from the present. I spent quite a bit of time writing the paper, and by the time I turned it in, I was proud of what I had written. I thought Suzanne would like it, too. And then I received Suzanne's comments:
   You did a good job describing what the textbooks are about but your
   analysis of the textbooks is not nuanced or complicated. Most of
   all, I do not really see your thinking in this piece. You need to
   make your own argument given the reading you did in class and
   analysis of the artifacts you chose.

I still have that paper and the pages of her comments. Whenever I get stuck in writing, I remind myself of these comments. What do you think about this topic? What are your arguments?

Writing a dissertation was another task of learning to trust my own judgment to answer these questions. For my dissertation, I did a case study of the three secondary high school history teachers in the United States who used artwork in their teaching of history (Suh, 2006). I began writing the dissertation proposal, doubting myself. Unlike my experience in the early years of the doctoral program, Suzanne did not give me specific directions or suggestions on how to write a dissertation. Instead, she asked me questions, including questions about the logic of every single interview question and every argument I made throughout the chapters. Suzanne also gave me comments to guide my analysis of the data and writing my arguments. For instance, there were two things Suzanne always emphasized. First, as a researcher, I should be generous in listening to and understanding participants (Wilson, 2003b). I still remember a conversation with Suzanne one afternoon in her office. I was reporting what I had found out about the three teachers I was studying. Mark, one of the teachers, was nice and wanted to be supportive of my work, but his teaching simply did not look appealing to me. I told Suzanne that I was not sure if I really liked the way he taught history. Listening to me, Suzanne responded, "Whether you like him or not does not matter. Your job as a researcher is to explain why Mark teaches in such way. Although his teaching may not make sense to you, it must make sense to him." Therefore, my job as a researcher was to listen to the teacher and understand his logic that makes such pedagogical decisions.

In addition, Suzanne taught me that I must use theories to guide my data analysis but to be cautious and not use theories blindly to categorize the teachers and judge their work (Wilson, 2003b). In analyzing the data, I used theories from three perspectives including those of cultural historians, social historians, and postmodern historians. Theories from these discipline of history guided me to see things I would not have seen if I had not used those theories as my theoretical framework. However, using these perspectives was also dangerous. I often found myself trying to fit each of my teachers into one of the three perspectives. Whenever I tended to match the teachers to one of the three, Suzanne would ask me to look for the counter evidence. She would tell me, "It seems you have little boxes in your mind and you are trying to put your teachers in those little boxes." To avoid it, I would need to go back and forth between the theories and data, and again understand the teachers' reasoning behind their decision of what and how to teach history using artwork.

Writing my dissertation was a real test to prove to myself that I was no longer a peripheral observer, but an active participant in my own learning. It showed me that I could use what I had learned from both my coursework and Suzanne to create and answer my own research questions. Because of the cultural differences between me and the teachers, and the language barrier, I worried that there might be subtleties and nuances in the teachers' words and behaviors that either I might miss or misinterpret. My experiences in the doctoral program, however, taught me that when there is a problem, there is always some way to solve it. One way to solve the problem is to ask questions, critically look at your problem, and solve it strategically. Suzanne used to tell me that I should be the one who knows about my own work best, and knows the strengths and weaknesses of it.

Therefore, I developed several strategies to compensate for my weakness as an international researcher who speaks English as a second language and has limited experience in U.S. schools. I interviewed the three teachers and observed them teaching using the arts. First, I designed semistructured interviews so that I could be both flexible and yet have some structure. I learned from the pilot study that when I was focusing on listening, I tended to lose a chance to prompt the teachers to get back to the topic when they were off the topic. By using the semistructured interview, I was able to keep the interview focused on the topic. At the same time, by asking general questions (e.g., Can you tell me what you believed is important to teach in your unit?), I was able to let the teachers talk about their teaching so they could explain what they knew and believe about the content they were teaching.

Second, with the teachers' permission, I audio taped every lesson. While my command of English was competent, there were other times when I wished I could slow down conversations between the teacher and students when I observed. Audiotapes complemented my field notes by recapturing conversations and scenes. They helped me revisit events and discussions, and fleshed out my field notes. As a result, I collected data that I might not have been able to collect otherwise.

Third, I made a promise to myself that I would not take any single incident for granted, and ask questions. I would use literature instead of experience to educate myself about the context. For example, Katie and Mark, teachers in my study, teach interdisciplinary courses following block schedules, thus it might be natural for them to teach art and history together. For me, however, a block schedule was not something with which I was familiar. In South Korea, we do not have block schedules. After learning this, I read every article I could find to learn more about interdisciplinary courses. This eventually helped me figure out why Katie and Ray were comfortable using the arts in their classrooms while Mark worried about time constraints and colleagues' indifference.

Lave and Wenger (1991) note "The mastery of knowledge and skill requires new comers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community" (p. 29), and for new comers, learning is something that allows them to ask questions and answer those questions in their own contexts rather than to acquire knowledge that is abstract and general without a context. In that sense, by writing the dissertation, I learned to develop my own knowledge and skills that enabled me to make sense of the teachers and their teaching.


When I was asked to write about the influence of Suzanne's work on my profession, I automatically thought I would write about how her research--the articles she wrote about teacher knowledge or her book, California Dreaming, where she wrote about reform effort in teaching mathematics in California--influenced me. While drafting this paper, I changed my mind. As Suzanne (Wilson, 1995, 2003a, 2006) notes over the years, her work includes teaching as well as research. She continues to do research on teachers' growth from the novice teachers to the experienced teachers, and at the same time she mentors graduate students and junior faculty members to grow to become effective teacher educators and researchers.

I end this article by referring to a painting that always reminds me of Suzanne. It is the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's (1935) The Flower Carrier. This painting has three parts: A man, a woman, and a huge basket of pink flowers. The man is carrying a basket of flowers with his two hands grounded on the land. The flowers look beautiful in pink but heavy. He appears to be trying to stand up. The woman stands behind him, helping him load the basket. She supports him with her firm hands and looks at him with calm and grace. Like the woman in Rivera's painting, I know Suzanne stands by the novice teacher educators-researchers to nurture their intellectual and professional growth as they struggle to lift their heavy loads of learning to become active participants rather than simple peripheral observers in their own learning to teach and research.


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Title Annotation:PART I
Author:Suh, Yonghee
Publication:Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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