Aligning my PER Identity to my institution and my institution’s culture

posted by Mel Sabella, Chicago State on November 24, 2019 at 6:32

My identity in PER and my identity as a physics teacher have changed quite a bit during along my physics path.  I completed my bachelors degree at a teaching focused university then went to large research universities for my PhD and Postdoc, then began my position as a professor  at Chicago State University (CSU), a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) focused on teaching. Different institutional strengths, identity, and culture means that PER looks different at different institutions and it is  important that the community values the different kinds of ways that we all engage in PER. 

I found Physics Education Research (PER) while in graduate school at the University of Maryland.   I had the opportunity to teach a bit as an undergraduate and knew I really enjoyed it. Once I got to Maryland in 1994, I sought out Joe Redish and started doing volunteer work for the Physics Education Research Group (PERG).  I really enjoyed the work and the idea that research needs to accompany instructional material development just made so much sense! I decided to get my PhD in PER. For me, there was not really any physics topic that really excited me - it was more about the critical thinking, the problem solving, the getting stuck - doing a bunch of work - and then having a breakthrough - that was what I loved and continue to love about physics.  I also really liked working with students and being creative in thinking about instructional material development. PER really aligned well with the aspects of physics I loved the most.   

After Maryland, I went to the University of Washington for a postdoc with the Physics Education Group.  Both the groups at Maryland and Washington were wonderful and doing PER work with large research groups, where you were always bouncing ideas off of others shaped the way I engaged in the research. After my postdoc, I was fairly sure that I wanted to be at a smaller school that focused more on teaching - but I didn't want to give up research.  I also wanted to work in a big city, so applied to positions in New York, Washington DC, and Chicago. I was excited to get an offer to become an Assistant Professor at CSU. 

Chicago State is a small Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) on the southside of Chicago.  Doing PER at a university that puts teaching above research and doing it at an institution that had a very different population and culture than Maryland and Washington took some time for me to figure out.  I also didn’t have a large research group to collaborate with. Each of these differences meant that the PER work I began at CSU looked quite different to what I had done in the past. I think there is a tendency in research fields to use the way research is done at R1 institutions as something for all to emulate and strive for  - where multiple faculty, post docs, graduate and undergraduate students work together to build extensive projects with extensive research methodologies. While this is essential and necessary work in our field, it is not the only way to play contribute to PER. 

At Chicago State, I have a different set of resources than I had at Maryland and Washington.  I have an awesome community who share common values around supporting student learning. I get to work with awesome undergraduate researchers who keep me excited about the work, get us moving in cool research directions that I would not have thought of, and do great work. I have awesome collaborators in STEM Education and a group of colleagues that put student support and success first. So, with different resources, my PER work and approach looks different than it looks at R1 universities.   

The focus of my research also changed to place more value on the culture of my institution. When I first got to Chicago State, I worked on setting up an education research lab and began focusing on assessing student understanding of various physics topics, following the implementation of the Tutorials in Introductory Physics.  This was an extension of what I had done for graduate and postdoc work. I started to recognize that my students were really using the resource of community in the classroom - they were excited to do group work from the start of class.  The work began to focus on the strengths and resources my students were bringing to the classroom and this remains the central focus of our work. While I still consider my field to be PER, I dont have the specific resources to do extensive R1-style studies- but Im very happy using the tools of Physics Education research to do small focused studies and tell stories of leveraging student strengths to create better classroom spaces.  The Physics Teacher and the PER Conference Proceedings have been great venues for the dissemination of our work - these avenues of publication fit best for the type of work we do. CSU undergraduate researchers have accompanied me at AAPT and PERC since I started at CSU and my research students often present their education research work in these spaces.  

My PER identity has shifted quite a bit from when I was a graduate student to now, both in terms of scope and focus. I really enjoy the research narratives I am co-constructing with undergraduate researchers and colleagues at Chicago State University.  While it may not be the type of extensive studies of large research groups with more person-power, I think the work we do is important. I also think that as a PER Community, it’s important to value the diverse types of work that different institutions are doing - and keep thinking about broad approaches to share research and explore diverse measures for evaluating research success. I think this is especially important as the PER community, that largely started at R1 institutions,  is now at many types of institutions. There is great PER work coming out of a variety of institutions, from K-12 to Colleges and Universities, that we sometimes don’t see. Sometimes we don't see this work because of the differences in institutional status - sometimes it’s because the traditional, recognized, dissemination avenues don't align with particular work or don't align with the different reward structures at different institutions. It’s important that we are open and attentive to these differences and create spaces for all to share their specific flavor of PER. 

Tags: History  identity  institution type  

Mel Sabella,, Chicago State University - Professor of Physics

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