Episode 6: Khadeidra Billingsley

(Released August 6, 2021)

Show Notes

Thanks for tuning into another episode of Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. This time, we're visited by Khadeidra Billingsley, a third-year PhD student in the Department of English at The University of Alabama focusing on Composition, Rhetoric, and English Studies. Khadeidra talks to us about her dissertation project, which seeks to amplify the professional expertise and knowledge of high school English teachers who are oftentimes blamed for the inadequate writing skills of college-bound student writers. Khadeidra also talks a bit about the historical context behind her project, the impetus for K-16 collaborations, and setting up a long-term research agenda.

Also, before Khadeidra recorded this episode, she had recently won the NCTE Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award for 2020! You can congratulate her and follow her over at her Twitter at @MsK_at_UA. If you'd like to learn more about the show, find links to things we talked about, find transcripts, or sign up to be a guest, please check out tellmemorepod.com. Feel free to follow us on Twitter at @TMM_Pod, too. Until next time!

Links to things discussed in this episode:

Transcript for "Episode 6: Khadeidra Billingsley"

Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.


theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]

W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a singular question: Tell me more!

[music continues]

W: So, let’s get into the episode.

[music continues and then fades out]

Wilfredo: You’re listening to Tell Me More!, a podcast for amplifying the work of graduate students. I’m your host, Wilfredo Flores... or just Wil.

[opening theme song plays, “Metre” by Slow Alarm]

W: This is a show where we ask graduate students a singular question: Tell me more!

[music continues]

W: So, let’s get into the episode.

[music continues and then fades out]

W: Hi there! Welcome to Tell Me More! where we chat with graduate students about their work, ideas, and more! In this episode, I'm chatting with Khadeidra Billingsley, a third-year PhD candidate in English, focusing on rhetoric and composition at the University of Alabama. So welcome, Khadeidra! Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Khadeidra: Thank you, Wil, for that introduction! So as you said, I am Khadeidra Billingsley. I'm currently a third-year at the University of Alabama, which means I am currently dissertating. And so most of my research focuses on composition pedagogy. But even more so than that, focusing on K-16 collaboration between English educators at the post-secondary as well as secondary education level.

W: Awesome, that sounds great. And you're talking to us today about your dissertation itself, which seeks to amplify the professional expertise and knowledge of high school English teachers, who are oftentimes blamed for the inadequate writing skills of college-bound student writers. That sounds great, so please—tell me more!

K: Yes! So, my dissertation, it really came out of this disciplinary conversation that seems to be ongoing, right? And so, when we think about—there seems to be this widespread perception that college-bound students cannot write and that they lack the adequate writing skills that is needed to complete collegiate English instruction and curriculum, right? And so, I really wanted to look more at that conversation and see are all of the parties that are being discussed in this conversation present? Do they all have a voice? And one thing that I noticed is that high school English teachers were being left out of the conversation, but they were the vocal part of that conversation. People were talking about them, but no one was really talking to them to really understand what are the conditions in which they operate as high school English teachers. So, what I wanted to do with my work is to go directly consult high school English teachers and ask them a couple of, couple of questions.

And so, the first thing that I was interested in is, like you said before, amplifying that professional knowledge that they have as educators, that expertise that they have—the pedagogical expertise. And so, I was really interested in how do they perceive academic writings, the process of academic writing? What are their connotations of that process? And then secondly, I was interested in when they're taking that perception and they're, they're going to translate that into pedagogy, what are some of the barriers or the constraints that they have to mediate and negotiate through their practice? And so my dissertation, I use a grounded theory approach in which I really had to go into the conversations that I'm having with them with not much assumptions or, or hypotheses about what it is that they're going to share with me. And I really just let them convey authentically what that experience is like without me telling them, or guiding them towards a particular area. And so, in doing interviews and also doing some course artifact analysis, I've really begun to find that there is a multitude of real-life constraints and barriers that these high school English teachers are dealing with. Not only standards imposed on them at the local level, but also the state level and the national level. They also have to deal—particularly in the COVID era in which we are living—access issues among their students, but also among themselves as educators in their school systems.

They have all of these external pressures coming in, not only from parents and government officials, but even other colleagues in their institutions, right? And so when we think about who within a school system is supposed to be the arbiter of writing skills, right, who was supposed to take on that responsibility? It oftentimes lands on these English teachers who, we have to remember that English language arts curriculum is not solely focused on writing. They also have to balance writing instruction with literature instruction, as well. And so, there are all these different constraints that they're having to negotiate, right? So even having to do that. I've also realized that they are extremely knowledgeable about academic writing in that process and best practices for that type of instruction. But when you take the expertise and then you take all of these other barriers and constraints that they are having to deal with and you put them together, that creates this ball of chaos, right?

W: Right!

K: And my dissertation is really looking at amplifying that, the expertise that they have, to kind of disrupt some of that negative narrative that is perpetuated about how they are the scapegoats for why the students that we get when they come to college—and even more so than college bound, but also career bound, because a lot of my participants, their students, some of them go to college, but some of them go straight into the workforce. And going into the workforce, depending on what position you inhabit, that still requires foundational writing skills, right? And so you have to think about, you know, they have this level of expertise. They have these barriers. They also have to think about these purposes of their instruction, you know, how do they best serve their students? And so my work really looks at kind of the intersectionality of all the different pieces to create a counter negative to the negative narrative that is being perpetuated about them.

W: That's so cool. I have like 20 different things that I can say right now that that correspond to my own teaching right now. One of the things that I frequently encounter, at least in terms with my students, the students that have had in my class, I should say, is that they think that the writing prep work that they've had in high school is invalid and that, in the first-year writing course, they're meant to learn all new writing practices versus just strengthening what they already have.

K: There is—and I'm glad that you brought that point up—because that's, I feel like there's a disconnect in terms of the perception that first-year writing students and their instructors sometimes have about the value of their high school writing instruction. Right? And so, some students, they have this idea that, “Okay, everything I learned in high school is going to be completely different from what I learned in college.” Right? But we want, the system, ideally the educational system should be scaffolded, right? Every level should build on the previous one, and so there should never be a time where you feel like you have to throw entirely everything you learned in the previous, you know, grade level out, but like you said, you want to build on that. But when we're thinking about this blame game that has been perpetuated historically college faculty has been the primary criticizers of high school English teachers.

And so, in my dissertation, you know, I do almost like a historical sketch of this conversation—and it is, you know, it goes all the way back to the 19th Century, where you have these colleges, you know, getting this influx of students who they feel is not have the necessary writing skills that they need and then them putting a lot of pressure on the high schools, because they feel like that is the landscape of preparation. That is the ideal place where these students should have gotten that, you know, those skills and those concepts that they needed to learn. And so that criticism was even more vile back then, I will say, you know, now it's not as prevalent, but as I was talking about with my advisor, I think that the reason that is so is because now we know that professionally, it is not, you know, proper etiquette to publicly criticize another educator. Right? And so, even though these conversations are not being had in public domain, you know, where in previous centuries they used to, you know, there were magazine articles about this this literacy crisis, right? There were reports, the Harvard Reports were published in the 19th century about how the high schools needed to do better. But I think now people are not going to do that more because of, you know, professional etiquette, but these conversations are still being had in, you know, behind closed doors and department lobbies and department lounges. You know, I've heard plenty of them. So...

W: Yeah! Can I ask too, so this idea of being—of amplifying the work that high school teachers are doing are there—well let me not say practical takeaways or strategies, but how do you envision us amplifying their work?

K: Yeah! So this is, this work is pretty much the first step in a long line of interconnected scholarship where the ultimate goal is to use these sketches and these candid portrayals, as I call them, to undergird some partnership efforts. And so my dissertation is solely focused on high school English teachers right now, you know? What perceptions do they have of academic writing? What real life constraints and barriers do they have to negotiate? But my second phase of this research wants to take the exact approach and do that with college writing instructors. And so, then we can get see an authentic depiction of the conditions in which we are teaching writing, right? Because that is al—that context is really important when we're talking about someone's pedagogy. Right? We can say that, you know, they're not giving students what they need, but we need to understand what, what conditions are they operating in? And so once I do, then ultimately I want to bring all of these educators together, the high school writing instructors, as well as the college writing instructors, and say, “Okay, now, based on our individual experience, 1) what, at what point do we see similarities in terms of our experiences and things that we are grappling with? But 2) how can we come together and find a way to make this transition smoother for our student writers so that they don't have those perceptions, like you were saying that everything I learned in high school, isn't valid when I get to college?” But really starting to have those conversations, those direct conversations and those genuine, authentic conversations. Instead of just kind of assuming that we know what our counterparts are dealing with, right? But actually having kind of a tangible portrayals to rephrase them.

W: I like this attention to the specificities of location in this way, and paying attention to that specific context and how it affects pedagogy. Cause even here in Lansing, stuff that I've worked, that I've been able to do with high schoolers—primarily Latino high schoolers and working with them and saying like the stuff you're learning is valid, like you can bring, you can use this in college. And these are the practical ways. And being able to be that kind of connective force between the university and then working with high school teachers and the high schoolers has been very impactful, I think with those students to let them know, like, “Oh, I can do this. Like there's people that got my back, but also the knowledge that I have is valid. Like, I'm seeing how these two people are working together to get me to succeed.” So, yes, like this is to say, I definitely would love to see, like, I'm so excited to see where this goes because this sounds fascinating and it's stuff that I've experienced and I know how good it can be for the students themselves too. So this is great!

K: Yeah! Thank you! I mean, I think the local state is, is important as well, because I know we have organizations, you know, like the National Writing Project who seek to do this work—I mean let me say, they do this work. Right? But yeah. Particularly where I am located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I would call it a collaboration hotspot. And by that, I mean, we have a R1 university. We had a very reputable community college. We have a very well-known HBCU, historically Black college or university. And then we have approximately seven high schools within the city radius. And so there is no reason why these institutions should not have some type of partnership in place because we do not—in Tuscaloosa, we don't have a National Writing Project site. The nearest one is an hour away in the next city. And so I think that, even though we don't have that, you know, national, organizational structure, we as groups of educators who want to better serve our students, right? We can organically create some type of partnership and collaboration effort among ourselves that would help make this transition a little smoother. And then, like you said, the students just seeing that collaboration, no matter if they go from a local high school to University of Alabama, where I am, or the community college in the area, or an out-of-state university, just seeing that kind of connected thread among the educators will kind of help them disrupt some of this idea that, “Okay, this is going to be a totally new learning experience.”

W: Right, yeah. And I think peeling the curtain back a little bit about how higher education, the transition from K through 12 to higher ed works for students helps them succeed a little bit better because so much of it is mystified, particularly for first-gen students. So the more that we can demystify that process and let them know like, “Hey, like, here’s the behind-the-scenes work that's going on,” helps them know like, “Okay, now that I know what's going on, I feel a little bit safer in this process, even going to community college.” Cause I know when I went to community college, I was like what's going on? I have no idea what's going on. So I think this speaks to the broader trends happening in the field, certainly to the direction that it needs to go. So I love this. I'm so excited to see where this goes.

K: Yeah, I thin, I mean, ultimately, and I'm still in the process of data analysis. But I'm pretty sure that one of the you know, central arguments of my paper is that it's not one group of educators. We are all working in a fractured system. Right? And so instead of laying blame on each other, we need to look at what are the components of this system that trumps all of this blame to be put on us at these particular educational levels. And so that is something that this project long-term is really looking to amplify and illustrate that we should stop blaming each other and start trying to figure out how can we change the system in which we are doing, right?

W: Right. That's a good point, yeah!

K: So this project, to be honest, has been in the works for, over—almost 10 years now since I was in undergrad. And so what happened was, I remember my freshman year of college, my first paper that I turned in, I got a C on it, and my professor, you know, she wrote me a letter saying like, “Yeah, I can tell that you were a good writer, but you should have turned in a draft.” Like that was something that she was really particular about: turning in drafts of papers, even though she didn't require us to turn in a draft. But if you turned in a draft to her, then you were going to get a better grade on the paper. But that experience really got me thinking, “How is it that I got a C on my first paper I turned into college, but I've always As, you know, in grade school on papers and I was not turning in drafts?”

And so I initially, fast forward to my junior year, I started the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which is aim to increase the number of minorities going through the academic pipeline, those who want to become tenured professors. And so my research focused on the assessment discrepancies between secondary and post-secondary educators at that point. So the ways, the different ways in which they were assessing student writing, the different conditions that affected the assessment that they were doing. And then after that, as I was engaging with the literature and scholarship, I found that the differences in those two groups, you know, experiences is so much more complex than just assessment differences. And so that's when I started to really get into the literature and see that a lot of the stuff that I was reading was blaming these high school teachers and, and really not talking about, you know, the everyday life of what it means to be a high school English educator.

And so that is where, as I moved through graduate school and then ultimately got to the dissertation point, I really wanted to look primarily at their story. I wanted to help tell their story you know, on a base where it could be widely distributed and understood in conjunction with, “Okay, this is what it really means to be a high school English teacher from a high school English teacher’s perspective.”

W: 10 years in the making! [laughter]

K: Every time, like it's so weird because when people started asking me about like the, what motivates you to do this work? I had to go all the way back. And I was like, oh yeah, I've always been interested in this high school, college relationship in terms of writing instruction. And so I had to scale back on my dissertation, which I'm sure many of us had to do. Because I wanted to do, I wanted to talk to the high school teachers and I want to talk to the college instructors, and then I wanted to bring them together, and my advisor was like, “This is three different projects in one.” And you know, give them all of your attention at that particular moment, and then you have a future research agenda. Because, like I said, all of my scholarships primarily focused on this secondary, post-secondary writing instruction.

W: Yeah, that was the advice given to me too, cause my diss project was two phases. And I was told they were two different dissertations, so I would put the focus on one. So yeah, that's the advice that I was given to like, keep that for your research agenda. When you go on the market, it's going to sound great that you have this long-term plan. So for listeners out there, if you're a graduate student, this is great advice from both of us!

Khadeidra: Yes! Exactly, yes! I had a mentor when I was doing my undergraduate fellowship, and I never forget this advice and I share it with my students all the time and my peers. But I was telling him my plan for my undergraduate fellowship research, and he said, “You should remember that research is like a pie, and you can only eat one piece at a time. You'll eventually get the entire pie, but you can only digest—and enjoy—one at a time.” And so anytime where I feel like I get really ambitious and I'm like, I want to do all of this, you know, so quick, I always go back and rephrase to his advice about just eating one piece of pie at a time.

W: I love that! Yeah, now I'm hungry too. Like let me order a pie! [laughter]

K: So I'm in the midst of data analysis, but again with using a grounded theory approach, always referring back to the data, even during data collection. And so there were a couple of things. One thing that I noticed is that even though my participants all teach in a different location, which means that they would, we would think that they, their context would be different. Right? But they share a lot of similarities in terms of the things that they have to negotiate. And so, when I think about the, when I asked them about their perceptions of academic writing, all of them are referring to the same, you know, key components and characteristics of what would align with academic writing. And so, you know, this processing experience rather than focusing on product. And so, they really want their students to enjoy, but also fully experienced writing as a process and not just a linear process but a recursive process. They all talk about the importance of the critical thinking, the importance of getting their students to do some form of research, even if it cannot be as extensive of a research endeavor as they do at the college level. But that exposure, that, that is one of the key things that really stands out in terms of my data and, and the goals that teachers have for their students is exposing them to these different components of academic writing that they feel that they would encounter in a fuller, more extensive basis at the college level. And then in terms of their restraints and constraints and barriers that they have to negotiate, like I said, access is a big deal for a lot of the students at this moment. And not even just access, like material access, but one of the things that I was kinda surprised that came up was in terms of time time—time access among the students.

And by that, I mean, a lot of the students are working part-time jobs because they have enhanced roles in their family dynamics. And so, the teachers that, that is something that, you know, for me as a college instructor, I know that my students, you know, work and I know that my students, you know, participate in extra curriculars. But I more so expect students to kind of make that work among themselves in terms of how they balance that with their schoolwork, but at the high school level, a lot of my, a lot of my colleagues were saying that that is something that they have to consider heavily when they are developing their curriculum. Like, will the student have enough time to do this assignment at home because of all the other factors and responsibilities that they have? So that was, that was something that made me think more like, wow, you know, I, I know that that exists among my students, but it's not really something that I consider in terms of my curricular development.

W: Hmm, yeah. That attention to time is pretty critical now more than— well, I hate that phrase “now more than ever.” [laughter] But like, I know you mean like anonymous surveys with my students to let them know like check in, like, how are you doing? What's going on? A lot of them are working part-time jobs right now and trying to like help out their families. So like even later, like spoiler, hopefully none of my supervisors are listening. Even today, like I'm about to cancel—make class optional for them—because as they're just going through it right now, so. Yeah. Even beyond a pandemic and everything going on around that, I think it's so vital for us to pay attention to that. So yeah, your work is speaking again to very real needs.

K: Yeah! And I mean just, you know, bringing it altogether. I think that is my ultimate goal for this research. I think that no matter what level of education you teach at in terms of, right, pedagogy. This work is important to consider, because, like I said, there should be a relationship among all of us, especially if, you know, as a system we are saying that we should build on the previous level from which our students come. And so I think this work, really kind of giving a authentic portrayal of the experience of high school English teachers will, will make us, hopefully, you know, as a discipline, still more understanding of the conditions that they have to work in and how those conditions differ from ours, but even more so how those conditions are similar to ours.

W: Right!

K: And how we can use that, you know, similarities to foster future partnerships and collaboration. And I will say, I am not by any means advocating for a standardization of writing instruction among groups. You know, I am not advocating for more labor on the behalf of the high school English teacher. But the, the ultimate goal of this work is really just to prompt understanding on both sides.

Wilfredo: Hmm. Well, thank you again for sharing about your dissertation work! This sounds incredibly important and very much in line with, I think the kind of teaching praxis that I'm trying to develop. So, I can't wait to read this and learn from it and maybe start making those connections wherever I end up in the future. So to wrap up, do you have any social media or website that you would like to share with our audience?

K: Yes, I can be found on Twitter. My, excuse me, my Twitter handle is at Ms. K underscore At—the word A-T—underscore UA. So it is the at sign, Ms. K underscore the word “at” underscore U-A

W: I'll have that linked in the show notes. And again, thank you so much for your time. This has bene great!

K: Yeah, thank you so much for having me on!

[outro music plays]

W: Thanks for listening! You can find out more about this and other episodes at tellmemorepod.com, where you’ll also find transcripts for each episode. The opening and closing theme song is “Metre'' by Slow Alarm. Music licensed under an Attribution, Non-commercial, Share Alike License, and special thanks to Slow Alarm for providing the music free of charge. You can learn more about Slow Alarm at nultielrecords.blogspot.com. Be well!