By now the reactions to Nicholas Kristof’s piece at the New York Times are circulating the Internet. There are good arguments in favor and against blaming professors or the public or both. Rather than take one side or the other I thought it would make sense to give a couple of anecdotes that provide insight into this issue.
I am a full professor of psychology at the University of Houston interested in the brain bases of bilingualism. The divide between my interests and the public’s interest became very apparent to me when I sought to publish a book on the bilingual brain. At first, I thought I could become the next Steve Pinker or Dan Gilbert writing to the masses about the intricacies of the bilingual brain to an ever attentive audience. My dreams crashed into reality quite quickly. Agent after agent took the time to read my early proposals, but eventually turned me down. One even made it clear to me that I was “small potatoes” and that most publishers were looking for a Sarah Palin who had a name that would sell books. So I was nothing compared to Sarah Palin, at least in the book-selling world.
Eventually, I found Oxford University Press, which published an academic-trade book that could sell to both the professional and lay audience. The struggle was real as I wrote this book. It was hard to wring the academic out of me. Communicating complex ideas in more palatable ways was a difficult lesson to learn. Having taught undergraduate classes helped me to write better and vice-versa. But at most large recent research universities communicating to undergraduates is not the primary goal. Evaluations of our progress are based to a much greater extent on publications in academically reputable journals and on the research dollars we might obtain to do so. So teaching the public even the one we see on a daily basis can often take a back seat to the many other tasks that we have to complete in order to be successful.
More recently, I was reminded of the complexity of communicating what it means to be a professor to a very different audience. The Televisa Foundation asked me to present at an event at Burbank Middle School which is part of the Houston Independent School District. The foundation has established a new initiative to improve the academic success of English language learners. One of these initiatives is to have Live The Dream events at various schools in which public leaders come out and give motivational speeches to children who come from Spanish-speaking homes. I arrived early one morning on the assigned day. There I met the Mayor Pro-Tem of Houston, Ed Gonzalez, the principal of the school, Rosa E. Hernandez, and Dulce Maria, a Mexican actress and singer.
It is fair to say that Dulce Maria stole the show. The children lined up to take pictures with her and listened carefully as she talked about achieving her dream. She talked about how she always wanted to sing and that how her role model was Alejandra Guzman, another Mexican singer. The funny thing is that everyone else there had a clear sense that they had found their life’s purpose in childhood. The mayor pro-tem talked about how he always wanted to make people’s lives better. The principal talked about how she used to play school when she was young.
What did I say? Well, in fact, I never dreamed of being a professor. When I was a little boy my biggest dream was to be an astronaut and my biggest concern was to look at my mom and ask, “Mom, can astronaut’s moms go up in the rocket ship with them when they go to the moon.”
Today, I am a professor, and I love what I do. But telling the narrative that brought me from a child interested in the stars to an adult interested in language in the brain is not straightforward. Most professors hope to inspire undergraduates and work regularly to inspire our graduate students to join academia. Maybe more of us should try to find a way to inspire children as well.
Arturo Hernandez is currently Professor of Psychology and Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston. He is the author of The Bilingual Brain. His major research interest is in the neural underpinnings of bilingual language processing and second language acquisition in children and adults. He has used a variety of neuroimaging methods as well as behavioral techniques to investigate these phenomena which have been published in a number of peer reviewed journal articles. His research is currently funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development. Follow him on Twitter @DrAEHernandez.
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Image credit: Group of students in class paying attention to the teacher. © andresrimaging via iStockphoto.