Education PhD Candidate, Ethan Chang, Receives Dissertation Fellowship

April 25, 2018

Doctoral candidate, Ethan Chang, will use the fellowship to deepen work studying educational equity. [Photo by Keri Chang]

Ethan Chang, a doctoral candidate in the Education Department, recently received the 2018-2019 American Educational Research Association’s Minority Dissertation Fellowship. This nationally prestigious and highly competitive award serves to advance education research by outstanding graduate students and to improve the quality and diversity of university faculties.

Ethan’s research examines the intersection of social inequities and education policy and centers on three interwoven strands: the politics of digital technologies and youth; the role of market- and community-based advocacy organizations in shaping education; and socially just educational leadership and neighborhood change. We spoke with Ethan about his dissertation, his work on campus, and his goals for the dissertation year.

In a few sentences, how would you describe what your dissertation is about?

I’m finishing my data collection and don’t want to pigeon-hole my conclusions in advance. But my dissertation attempts to situate current school reform struggles over digital technologies within a much longer history of top-down education reform movements. In the mid-19th century, industrialists and reformers instituted a factory model of schooling on shoemakers and farmers. Today, we see a similar phenomenon where high-tech entrepreneurs influence digital reforms for predominantly working-class, communities of color. The primary players have shifted but there’s continuity in the reproduction of exclusionary educational reform processes.

Beyond documenting recurring exclusions, my dissertation also troubles the idea that reforms are simply “imposed” and that communities just roll over and aren’t actively organizing. I always wondered about the shoemakers and farmers historians wrote about. So my study is historical, but it’s also comparative.

Where are you conducting your field work?

I conducted a year of fieldwork at two distinct technology nonprofit organizations; one in Silicon Valley and another in Oakland. Doing fieldwork with the Oakland organization has allowed me to explore how community experts and neighborhood organizers re-articulate prevailing top-down reform agendas and use tech to engage youth from disinvested communities. Their projects center youth in the process of imagining and materializing the kinds of neighborhood changes they articulate as worth wanting.  

What do you hope to get out of this fellowship?

I study sociological questions about the reproduction and transformation of social structures, and I use technology as a case for thinking through these processes. I’m looking forward to deepening this inquiry and getting to know other colleagues and mentors who do related work and who can push my thinking. I have really good friends and mentors here at UC Santa Cruz. My adviser, Ron Glass, has opened his home to many of us and facilitated ongoing critical dialogues about our work. I’ve benefited from participating in these conversations, and this fellowship is one way to extend these kinds of relationships and affording new lenses to reconsider my own work. 

How does your dissertation relate to the work you do on campus?

I’m currently a graduate student researcher with the Student Success and Evaluation Research Center (SSERC). Working for SSERC has allowed me to use some of these sociological tools and collaborative research methods and sensibilities to lift up student and staff voices and organizing for campus changes.

As one example, I partnered with the Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) to evaluate their efforts and advising practices aimed at supporting students who’ve been historically excluded from higher education. I’ve worked with several colleagues to make meaning of this data, including Priscilla Sung, a friend and colleague in Psychology, and Malik Douglas, an EOP counselor, who invited me to co-facilitate a workshop for advisers across campus. In institutional research jargon, we’re trying to “close the loop” on evaluation studies by beginning with and responding to practitioners’ needs. We’re inviting those intimately working with students to critique and explore what value, if any, our work as researchers might have for their everyday work.

What are your major goals for your final year at UC Santa Cruz?

I’m looking forward to writing the dissertation. On a practical level, I’m hoping to get a job at the end of this year and pay off debt I’ve accrued over the past five years… Beyond that, I’m looking to better practice what I write about in terms of local activism and organizing and having more congruence between some of the insights I’m writing about and my own everyday practices. I have friends who are genuine exemplars of this kind of work.

Outside academia, two of my closest friends are getting married, and I get to officiate one of their weddings. So come August, I’m looking to not mess that up too much for him and his wonderful fiancé. It’s an exciting and uncertain time for my wife and me too, and we’re trying to be patient and value the good people in our lives right now. We don’t necessarily know where we’ll be in a year, but we have a lot to be grateful for in the moment and in the year ahead.