Oct 2 2020

As an educator and anthropologist, Carlos Martínez-Cano is interested in the ways our social learning practices and cultural backgrounds interact in educational contexts.

This fall, Martínez-Cano is joining the UW College of Education as an assistant professor in Learning Sciences and Human Development, focusing on adolescence/youth, identity development and educational justice. Martínez-Cano received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned the Jolley Bruce Christman and Steven S. Goldberg Annual Award for his dissertation on the digital literacy practices of Latino students. 

Martínez-Cano researches historically underrepresented communities and their STEAM -- STEM enhanced with the arts -- learning practices by conducting ethnographic investigations. His approach involves long-term community engagement across schools, homes and other sites where children and families learn. He is particularly interested in how students from non-dominant communities develop their identities and make sense of the world around them.

In the following Q&A, Martínez-Cano discusses his research agenda, what courses he’ll teach and more.

What drew you to education?

My first experience teaching in a formal context was working for the Literacy Volunteers of America. I tutored adults as they prepared to take the GED exam. At the time, I was fresh out of undergrad and despite having a great job working in a museum, I found those tutoring sessions so intrinsically rewarding, I made the decision to pursue a career in education. What keeps me here is what critical pedagogue Paulo Freire refers to as the “unfinished nature of humans”. We never stop learning. Throughout our lives we can remain open to developing ourselves and those around us. 

Describe your research agenda. What makes this work meaningful to you?

I specialize in ethnographic investigations of non-dominant populations and their STEAM-related learning practices. My previous project explored how Mexican-origin middle school boys learned digital literacy practices in a community center tech room. Using analytical approaches from linguistic and cultural anthropology, I examined how their identities shifted from novice to expert due to their work together. This provides evidence that contradicts notions of Latinx boys as being educationally disengaged. 

My ethnographic approach begins with long-term (1 year or more) community engagement, preferably multi-sited across school, home, and third-space contexts. Informal education is especially important to me, because how and what people choose to learn on their own time really speaks to how they agentively develop their identities. With technology being ubiquitous in our daily lives, for me it makes sense to focus on how STEAM learning practices are helping adolescents make sense of their world.

This work is meaningful to me because historically youth from marginalized backgrounds have been framed in a deficit perspective. I am interested in creating a series of projects over the course of my career that provides opportunities for youth to develop their self-directed learning in a way that they feel will improve their lives and realize their full potential. Most researchers will tell you there is a personal connection to their work. As a Latinx male, I have felt the “subtle racism of lowered expectations” that deficit perspectives promote. An asset-based approach counters that mindset.

What attracted you to UW College of Education?

Where to begin? UW’s College of Education has a stellar reputation for what I would call ‘grounded rigor’, which is another way of saying that the students, teachers and scholars developed here understand that themes like social justice and equity require working with communities while connecting that work to intellectual excellence. The ethos of the College is collaborative and cooperative. Faculty here understand that we do best by raising each other up. More broadly, I believe the people of Seattle, King County and Washington State understand the pressing issues of our times and have responded in exemplary fashion by electing leaders willing to support initiatives to address myriad challenges. UW College of Education is at the heart of that response. 

What's a course you're particularly excited to teach?

Well, it’s likely a few quarters into the future, but I can envision a course focused on creating ethnographic films. Returning to the idea of grounded rigor, there are a handful of visual anthropologists who have created films in and with their communities. And these films present compelling narratives that attempt to communicate the complex challenges certain marginalized groups face. Undoubtedly there are talented students at UW interested in creating filmic texts to share such stories with the greater public. Films of this sort are often a foundation for improving social policy.

Tell us about an education-related book or movie that has influenced you.

The cornerstone of my work, and in a lot of ways my entire professional life, has been Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. In it he presents the idea of praxis, the joint endeavor of reflection and action. It is so important to me because it is fundamentally a book about hope and love. Hope for humanity and love for humankind, through education. Many times we associate the word ‘critical’ with being negative, but Freire presents the idea of critical pedagogy as a pedagogy of hope for the future. This is to be differentiated from cynicism, which is a type of criticity that lacks hope. As a former English Language Arts teacher, I should mention “Dead Poets Society” because it reminds me of the power of the written word and the importance of inspiring students. And who didn’t want to stand on a desk after seeing that movie?

What's something that students and colleagues should know about you?

I love a challenge and I’m teachable. Whether running a marathon or preparing to write a book, I really enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with accomplishing something that was initially daunting. And I’m open to constructive criticism. If it improves me as a teacher, researcher or community member, then everyone involved benefits.

Besides your work, what's something that you're passionate about?

Food! For Proust, it was madeleines. For me, coming from the Borderlands, it’s central Texas slow smoked brisket, southern New Mexico roasted Hatch green chiles, and my mom’s northern Mexico style gorditas (which are like fried maize pitas stuffed with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and salsa). And I am looking forward to adding some of Seattle’s gastronomic offerings to that list as well!

Story by Gabriela Tedeschi, marketing and communications student aide.

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