New Faculty: Randi Dickson
New faculty member Randi Dickson had two questions when she began her dissertation “Confirming Testimonies: Conversations with Three Women Educators” back in 1999 at Teachers College. Those questions were, “In what ways does the teaching inform the living and in what ways does the living inform the teaching?” With the help of three mentors and friends Ellen, Sue, and Lil she thinks she found the answer.
“I think it’s both, it goes both ways,” said Dickson. “In order to teach, you have to have a full and interesting life, and I was so interested in learning more about these women through my work because I really do believe they had that. They all had remarkable lives, both personal and professional.”
After writing her dissertation, Dickson needed an outlet to vet her own research process so she decided to write an article about it. That article, “A Partial Telling: Dilemmas of Narrating Self and Others,” which was published in the journal English Education in April 2003, details her writing process and some of the dilemmas she encountered along the way.
“I felt that the actual research was important, but I couldn’t put the tensions I was encountering in the dissertation, so I needed another outlet for them,” Dickson said. “I wrote the article as a cautionary tale. There’s this big move in research now for an emphasis on participatory research involving participants and I was reading a bunch of books, at the time, that were supporting that, but what they didn’t tell me was that I had to be very clear about what that meant, very clear of boundaries. I wanted to say that, “Yes, I do support participatory research, but that there is a danger—I was exploring the downside.”
Dickson adds that she remembers a time during her writing when one of her mentors got upset because she was quoted using her authentic speaking style and not “proper English.”
“Ellen told me that if she had read what I wrote about her fifty years earlier, she would have quit teaching. I wanted to retain her speech because I thought it was more authentic, more her, but she wouldn’t let me. I was worried that I’d never be able to do these women justice. I had made some naive assumptions about the research process and the emotional and ethical issues involved.”
Dickson believes that although the process may have been painful for the study participants, none of the women were necessarily harmed; she still has a strong connection to each of them, so much so that she carries their philosophies into her own teaching.
“Ellen always believed that [teachers] had to find the god hiding in everyone, that everyone has a spirit inside them that guides them,” Dickson said. “She was all about developing relationships with genuine openness.”
Dickson adds, “Lil believed that if you go deep enough, you go everywhere. She believed that students should have a lot of choice and that teachers should follow students’ passions more. She was really about developing peripheral vision—putting conflicting things side by side so that we can develop multiple perspectives. And Sara was always an inspiration to me because she believed in taking the bull by the horns. She had a background in cultural anthropology and was comfortable with History and English, but she made herself learn everything about math. She taught me that you can’t shy away from things in your teaching practice that you feel less competent teaching because you are doing a disservice to someone who wants it.”
Dickson, who holds the position of Visiting Associate Professor for the coming year at Teachers College, says that she is most excited to be working more deeply with doctoral students and supporting their research initiatives. Prior to her current position, she was co-director of the English Ed program at Queens College/CUNY for twelve years, but has also served as a full time instructor at TC as well as a visiting professor in 2007-2008 . She says she is thrilled to be at Teachers College.
“I’ve always felt very much a part of things here,” Dickson said. “There are great students and great colleagues, and it’s a really fun place to work. Every time I come back it feels like coming home.”