Alumni Feature: Advocating Beyond the Academy with Dr. Jill Koyama

Jill Koyama is an Associate Professor in Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona. Dr. Koyama earned her PhD in Anthropology and Education from Teachers College. Her book, Making Failure Pay: For-Profit Tutoring, High-Stakes Testing, and Public Schools is based on research that she completed while a doctoral student in the Anthropology Program. Recently, we here at the “Anthro Blog” caught up with Dr. Koyama, learning a bit more about the work she completed as a student at TC, as well as her post-doctoral path and current research projects. The following feature is based on an extensive conversation I had with Dr. Koyama a few weeks ago, in which she shared some advice and insights from her time in the academy.


Before coming to Teachers College, Dr. Koyama earned her undergraduate degree in Botany. A self-described “science nerd,” she began her professional career working as an ethnobotanist for Native American tribes on the Olympic Peninsula. She then moved on to work for (and eventually direct) a “Headstart-style” program at a local community college. The students she encountered through this work inspired her to pursue a Masters in education. It was through her first graduate program that she came to Anthropology, and she points to courses and conversations with Professor Patricia Phelan as a key intellectual turning point. “Through that experience, I knew that I wanted to study more Anthropology. At the time, there were only about six programs that were teaching Anthropology and Education together; there are even fewer now.”


Looking to continue her studies, Dr. Koyama enrolled in the doctoral program at Teachers College, explaining, “I felt at the time that there were more anthropologists there doing interesting work than anywhere else.” While she initially intended to pursue questions related to the Asian American community, she was inspired to change her trajectory after completing summer field work with Greta Gibson, who, at the time, was conducting research in California on migrant Mexican students. It was this research, as well as courses completed with Lesley Bartlett and Ofelia García, that set her on a path toward a career as a “public intellectual,” a philosophy that guides her work at the University of Arizona today. Over the course of our conversation, she described mentors who encouraged her to “be engaged with the world” and pursue projects beyond gathering data.


Dr. Koyama’s current scholarship, which continues her work with migrant populations, is intimately linked to this kind of public engagement. She is currently concerned with “How people in really seemingly desperate situations…create and access and utilize social networks that are really resource rich.” Dr. Koyama relishes activity, saying she looks for “What people do and what students do, rather than what they don’t do… In the most constrained situations, people still do things. They make sense of things. They remake things.” In addition to her teaching and research responsibilities, Dr. Koyama writes opinion editorials for various media outlets as a Public Voices Fellow and serves as a volunteer ESL teacher in Tuscon, Arizona. She encourages current students to find similar ways of combining research and practice, saying, “We constantly complain that we’re never at the table, that we’re never at the decision policy making table. One of the things that I’m committed to and that I encourage for emerging scholars is to insert ourselves more in the public conversation.” She praises the University of Arizona, which she says has been immensely supportive of her dedication to advocacy beyond the academy.


Near the end of our conversation, Dr. Koyama gestured toward what she sees as some of the most exciting developments in the field of anthropology, which are informed by the way researchers are able to inhabit new multimodal versions of public space: “Rather than looking at objects or material things as kind of cultural artifacts, which is of the past, [we are now] able to see them as social actors that are making us do things. That’s where my work is going, and I think the field is much more open to that. I also just love all the new ways we look at what kind of data we can have…a lot of my data now is capturing entire threads of Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or Instagram, and it just allows for a much more visual experience, but also different kinds of data collection, which changes what we can do with time. We don’t often capture data over long periods of time, but we can capture threads for a year, you know, in a Facebook group. That kind of stuff is exciting for me.”


Jill Koyama’s book, Making Failure Pay, is available for purchase on Amazon and through the University of Chicago Press. You can access her op eds online through the Public Voices Fellowship project, or find more of her scholarly writing via ResearchGate and Google Scholar. More information on her current research and advocacy can be found through the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona.  


*Corinne Kentor is a first year PhD student in Anthropology and Education.


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