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Tasha Austin.

Published April 18, 2024


UB researcher receives grant to study oral histories of Black world language teachers

Tasha Austin, assistant professor of learning and instruction in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, was awarded a prestigious Spencer Foundation Small Research Grant in the amount of $47,124. Beginning in February 2024, the two-year project will allow Austin to continue researching the intersection of Blackness and bi/multilingualism for professionals who have become world language (WL) teachers.

Her project, “Excavating the Oral Histories of Black World Language Teachers,” will conduct oral history interviews to help fill the gap in research through discrepant case sampling to learn what compels Black teachers to persist towards becoming WL professionals.

“Tasha Austin is rapidly earning a reputation for her insightful and compelling scholarship. This Spencer Foundation grant is a reflection of her strength as a researcher and the novel ways she chooses to conduct her research. I am so excited to see the outcomes of this project,” said GSE Dean and Professor Suzanne Rosenblith.

After joining GSE’s faculty in 2022, Austin had the opportunity to discuss her research interests with Rosenblith, prompting her to explore grant opportunities.

“We were talking about some of the courses that folks are taking to become teachers, and how when they get to the point of trying to figure out how to overcome some of these systemic inequities, it can be demoralizing, because once you realize that they exist, it's almost like they're everywhere,” Austin said. “And so, I was sharing with Dean Rosenblith that what frustrates me is that it's not that they've not been able to overcome before, and it's not that Black folks aren't always navigating these systems and finding ways to do it successfully.

“I just felt like all of the stories about that success are kind of reduced to these superhero kind of stories—like it has to be particular people, like MLK. When we talked about the commonplace efforts of Black educators, I began to bring up world language teachers and how, for all intents and purposes, it's really a negligible amount of Black world language teachers,” Austin continued. “Last time I checked, 2.5% of teachers are Black world language teachers. And so, together, we were thinking about the power of having those stories really nuanced and talked about.”

The main goal of Austin’s research is to learn how this group of Black WL teachers can be supported and increased. This is especially important now since, according to Austin’s research, there has been a 44% drop in conferred WL degrees over the last decade.

With this absence of Black WL teachers, students lose African American traditions and principles in the classroom. Austin reports that the cultural mismatch between educators and students, largely along racial lines, negatively affects students’ performance in school. Although racial and cultural overlap doesn’t automatically mean a good academic standing, Black educators do bring a tradition of teaching excellence and their knowledge of navigating anti-Blackness.

A secondary goal for Austin is bringing to light that this type of research is not simply done by one person. “The entirety of the process is rooted in this desire to draw together these kinds of everyday Black folks. Now, these are scholars, but I still say they’re ‘everyday’ because having a degree doesn't make you a scholar, right? But I could not have done it without them,” she said. “And my plan is to continue to draw together these folks who have these capacities and these insights. I definitely don't see it as something that I can do alone.”

Austin expresses gratitude for those who have helped uplift her as she has pursued her research endeavors, including Betina Hsieh, associate professor at California State University, Long Beach’s College of Education; Dawnavyn James, GSE PhD student; Aminah Raysor, GSE PhD student; Uju Anya, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University; Aris Clemons, assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Anne Charity Hudley, associate dean of educational affairs and professor at Stanford University; Jamie Thomas, dean of social sciences at Cypress University; LJ Randolph, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Ryuko Kubota, professor at the University of British Columbia; Theresa Austin, professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst; Geneva Smitherman, professor at Michigan State University; April Baker Bell, associate professor at the University of Michigan; Marcelle Haddix, dean and professor at Syracuse University; Cheryl McLean, associate professor at Rutgers University; Michéle Foster, professor of urban education at the University of Louisville; and Nelson Flores, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Without these folks, I wouldn't be able to make such an intervention because I draw on their work to substantiate the value that my work might bring,” Austin said. “And I'm missing 1000 names, right? But it feels important to not ever get any kind of recognition or elevation of what I'm doing without bringing in the folks in the room that make it possible.”