Q&A with Sam Wineburg, education professor and adviser of multiple Metcalf Award winners

Jan. 9, 2017, 11:32 p.m.

In the past decade, Sam Wineburg Ph.D. ʼ89, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, has advised four doctoral students who have won the prestigious Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). This past October, Maribel Santiago Ph.D. ʼ15  won for her research on the challenges of teaching Latino history in U.S. classrooms. The Daily sat down with Professor Wineburg to talk about the Metcalf Award, his advising philosophy and why so many of his advisees have won.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What is the process for getting nominated and winning the Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award?

Sam Wineburg (SW): First, it’s a very broad category because it is an award that is sponsored by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). So, it is based on all kinds of scholarly work, work on historical understanding to issues of character education to service learning to education about the environment — everything that is under the very broad tent of social studies. And I think that the committee considers the soundness of the empirical work that is done in the study that is completed as well as its potential for having an impact, not just on scholarly journals but actual educational practice, making a difference in schools.

TSD: How were your students nominated?

SW: Each year, the NCSS sends out a call for nominations, and I’ve been incredibly blessed during my time at Stanford to have some extraordinary doctoral students. The Graduate School of Education (GSE) has become extremely competitive in terms of its graduate admissions. We are extremely fortunate to be able to attract some of the most talented students in the nation. When there is a dissertation that I feel has a chance to win this award, I encourage my students to submit a letter of nomination. And then it goes through a whole vetting process by the committee at the NCSS.

TSD: What is your role in the advising process?

SW: I do have a particular philosophy, and its connected to the particular vision that I hold for the role of a Graduate School of Education. Stanford’s GSE is different from the department of classics or even a history department in that it serves a dual role. Its role is to contribute to scholarship, which every single student at a research university is obliged to do, but it also has to matter to practice — it has a responsibility to the practitioners of that particular field. So my philosophy on advising is to help my students recognize that publicizing their work among the finest scholarly journals is necessary, but not sufficient, to meet their obligations to the broader society. [My students have] done work where you can see the direct implications on how teachers teach and how students learn. We can take Maribel’s dissertation: What she does is, she shows how the case of Mendez v. Westminster has been curricularized, and its rough edges have been sanded off, so that many students and many educators consider it to be the Latino version of Brown v. Board. But, if you look carefully at Mendez v. Westminster, you realize that it was a kind of pact with the devil. It substituted racially based segregation with a pernicious form of linguistic segregation which is with us today. And so the materials that she presents can be directly put into the classroom to help students understand that racial and ethnic progress is not just a linear trend in this country. Often structural inequalities assume more invisible, but just as pernicious, forms. And so it is a more realistic and jagged view of history that goes beyond the kind of mythologizing and flagellation that often substitutes for instruction in social studies.

TSD: How do you encourage your students to embody that dual role of a GSE?

SW: One of the things that I focus on is a dogged insistence on the clarity of written expression. If you’ve encountered the writing in scholarly journals, you will find it to be impenetrable, choked with jargon, filled with a lack of constructions that in many cases sounds like the language of an inner cult that speaks only to itself. And so all of my students take a course that I offer called Scholarly Communication and Education in the Social Sciences where, in addition to preparing an article for scholarly publication, they also have to submit an 800-word op-ed, in language intelligible to an ordinary layperson, that they submit to a major publication. It is an incredible training ground for speaking to an audience that is not just other Ph.D.s but to broader society. The last time I taught this course, one of my students, Cathy Sun, had an op-ed published in USA Today, which is the most widely circulated publication in the United States.

TSD: Why have so many of your students won?

SW: It’s a question that pushes me in the direction of immodesty, so I’m going to be cautious. We are very, very fortunate to be a place where the pursuit of excellence is taken for granted. It’s a given at Stanford that one is not satisfied with being a follower, one wants to lead the way. I think that what we’re seeing is a great string of luck. And I’d love to say that it’s because I’m such a fabulous adviser. [But] it’s because we get such great students. I think that it’s really a full package that the GSE, at this point in its history, attracts such wonderful students. We have a great deal of resources, we invest a great deal in our students, unlike our chief competitor, the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We’re much smaller, and we’re much smaller because of a clarity of vision. We don’t believe that we can affect the field of education by sheer number of Ph.D.s or master’s students that we turn out. We’ve selected a very different course, which is to have a smaller number of students and to invest a great deal of resources in them. And I think that what you see with an indicator like that, that four students in the last 10 years from the same institution have won this award, is an indication that there is something about that strategy that is working.

TSD: Anything else to add?

SW: If you are familiar with the work we’ve done that is very much in the news right now — it’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was on NPR last week — you’ll see the way that our survey on young people’s ability to distinguish or fail to distinguish between what is true and what is false in the news has gotten picked up by practically every major newspaper in the world. This research is with one of my current Ph.D. students, Sarah McGrew, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she will be the next winner of the Metcalf Award.

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Josh Wagner is a senior staff writer, studying romantic poetry (and sometimes philosophy). He spends his time navigating the treacherous bike paths near the Main Quad and reciting his favorite George Herbert sonnet to strangers.

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