AFRICA IN OUR LIVES: CHRISTOPHER KIRCHGASLER

Christopher Kirchgasler is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Global Studies, Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research examines the historical and comparative qualities of schooling, particularly as they relate to notions of inclusion, equity, and justice. His work directs attention to how contemporary school reforms are haunted by colonial residues that animate what are seen and acted on as the “problems” of individual and social development. Chris teaches courses in Curriculum and Instruction at the graduate and undergraduate levels, specializing in post-structural theories and methodologies in education. He is affiliated with the African Studies Program and the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies. Prior to joining the department, Chris was Assistant Professor of Curriculum Studies at the University of Kansas.

What brought you to Madison?

Before graduate school, I taught English as a foreign language in Guinea as a Peace Corps Volunteer and 5th grade English for four years in a Boston charter school. It was in the charter school where I met my partner, Katie Kirchgasler (also a new faculty member at UW). Over time, we grew concerned by the school’s emphasis on test scores and discipline and wanted to explore alternatives to the status quo. We considered many graduate schools of education, including Stanford and Harvard, but after visiting we found that UW’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction was at the cutting edge of scholarship challenging common sense notions of inclusion, diversity, and equity. We moved here to pursue our doctorates almost a decade ago and were most recently faculty at the University of Kansas before getting the invitation to “come home” to UW as faculty members last fall.

Can you tell us briefly about your background and your work as it relates to Africa?

My dissertation analyzed how curriculum and pedagogical reforms targeting children living on less than $2 USD a day in Sub-Saharan Africa carry in them unexamined colonial assumptions about difference. This research took me to Kenya, where I studied the rapid expansion of a private school franchise (Bridge International Academies) that was founded by Americans and fueled by development aid and venture capital. It claimed to think about education the same way Starbucks thinks about coffee. It justified this model in the name of improving educational quality as measured by Kenya’s national high-stakes standardized test system.

While I found this privatized model of educational reform deeply concerning, my research ultimately sought to understand how Bridge’s curriculum and pedagogy drew upon recommendations from established research for purportedly “at-risk” children, which included three-week teacher training courses focused on classroom management, heavily scripted curriculum developed in the U.S, and a focus on phonics and basic numeracy. These practices were justified on the premise that Bridge children were dangerously “behind” their global peers. As I explored this, I found that education targeting the “at-risk” child had, in fact, a hundred-year history that was often part and parcel of paternalistic justifications for the expansion of colonialism in Kenya and elsewhere in the global South. Moreover, I found that these curricular and pedagogical prescriptions were present both in the curriculum and pedagogy of for-profit schools, as well as in reforms for public schools.

Today, my research continues to focus on how educational research is entangled in the naming and justifying of “crises” that have labeled children in Sub-Saharan Africa as uniquely “behind” and have justified reforms testing “what works” as a form of educational triage. These claims not only justify the expansion of standardized testing, but also reductive curricula, and high-stakes accountability for teachers and students—all in the name of promoting equity and inclusion. I have termed these the “colonial residues” of schooling and they are the focus on my book manuscript in progress.

What first sparked your interest in Africa as a researcher?

I lived and worked for two years in Guinea as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2004–06. This was both my first experience living anywhere in Africa and with confronting the pedagogical and curricular issues of teaching. Like many first-year teachers, I often failed my Guinean students. I didn’t know how to prepare meaningful lessons, struggled to relate my teaching to their lives and experiences, and had no clear conceptualization of an educational philosophy beyond a desire to improve test scores.

I often blamed myself for these failings. However, the absurdity of the situation also occurred to me. For example, all volunteers were required to carry “Cartes d’Expert” [Expertise IDs], should anyone question our presence. On the one hand, the card made me feel slightly more official; on the other, it felt like a degree of fakery. I had never visited Guinea before; I didn’t speak any of its languages with any proficiency; and, I had almost no practical prior teaching experience. And I was supposed to call myself an expert? Based on what knowledge or experience?

The value of my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have since come to realize, has less to do with what I “accomplished” than with unlearning much of what I had assumed about myself, my culture, and about the interrelations of knowledge and power. The questions the experience provoked have stuck with me: How have notions of who is and isn’t “educated” been historically constituted? How have our notions of educational expertise been conceptualized? What has this knowledge ethically authorized in the name of closing gaps, catching children up, or addressing so-called crises? In that sense, my experiences living and teaching in Guinea continue to inform my research today.

If you could bring one piece of your life in Kenya back to Wisconsin, what would it be?

I was fortunate to get to know several teachers and families well where I was conducting my dissertation research. My favorite memories were visits to my friends’ homes, cooking together (well, me watching and cutting a few odd vegetables), and the laughter and lively debates we had about Kenyan and American politics. We still maintain a WhatsApp group where we share photos and keep one another updated on our families’ newborns and other life events, but it’s not quite the same. I’m looking forward to the day (soon, I hope), when my daughter can accompany her mom and me to Kenya to meet our friends and their children.

What advice would you give students who are interested in studying Africa?

I hope that anyone at UW–Madison interested in Africa is aware that our African Studies program, and its affiliated courses and programming, is one of the nation’s finest. I say this both as a current faculty affiliate, but also with the memories of a student who took full advantage of its offerings—whether it was studying Kiswahili on a FLAS fellowship with Anne Waliaula, African history with Emily Callaci, Neil Kodesh, and Jim Sweet, or educational policy with Nancy Kendall. The quality of the scholars, graduate students, and intellectual milieu at UW is unmatched.

I also recommend the Peace Corps to those considering it—with a single caveat: the value of the experience has much less to do with what you might “accomplish” than with what it teaches you about yourself and the world. For me, it offered someone who’d grown up in a racially, socioeconomically, religiously, and culturally homogenous corner of Utah the opportunity to reflect on my own assumptions, background, and privileges as an American and to do so with a group of Americans who found themselves in much the same circumstances. The Americans and Guineans I met during those two years remain some of my closest friends today.

What is your favorite activity or go-to place in Madison?

I have loved all that Madison has had to offer, so to narrow down a favorite activity or place is a challenge. I do love the Capital City Trail for bike rides and for lakeshore runs. In the end, though, I’ll be uncreative and say that beer at sunset on the Terrace is hard to top.