Margaret Perrow loves words. She loves the way they feel as they tumble around on her tongue. She loves word games and puns. She loves how words can create private, imaginary worlds we can secretly enter both individually and as a community of readers. She even loves how the typographical characters appear on a letterpress-printed page. For Perrow, words and literature are windows into our personal and cultural identities, and she has devoted her life to savoring the medium of language and its power to transform our lives.
Perrow is no stranger to Southern Oregon University. She not only completed her Oregon Initial Teaching License requirements here, but she also spent the past five years teaching in SOU’s School of Education. Now she is stepping into a slightly different pair of shoes as Assistant Professor English Education in the Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department’s English and Writing Program. In addition to tackling new courses such as Grammar and Style in Writing, Perrow will continue to teach many of the English education courses she has taught in the past, including Language Arts Methods for middle and high school teachers.
She earned her PhD and MA in education (language, literacy, and culture) from UC Berkeley. Both the American Educational Research Association and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education gave Perrow Outstanding Dissertation Awards for “Learning in Transition: Youth Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Her research documented the intersection of historically shifting macro discourses about learning and identity in South Africa through the individual trajectories of the young adults in an NGO youth development program. Perrow also spent time in Johannesburg as a Visiting Fulbright Researcher for the Joint Enrichment Project.
Perrow’s interest in French was first piqued by the French folk songs she and her Canadian mother sang during car drives. She was dreaming in Proustian sentences by the time she was completing her BA in French language and literature at Yale, where she was awarded the Montaigne Prize for Proficiency in Oral and Written French. Perrow also speaks basic Spanish and a little bit of isiZulu.
Her areas of expertise include critical literacy and equity in education; sociocultural and historical contexts of education, learning, and literacy; discourse analysis; ethnographic methods; English in international development contexts; language and identity; and young adults in transition. Perrow applied this expertise to her role as a research associate for the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools in Oakland, California. She also taught GED preparation to at-risk young adults and writing and reading through San Francisco Conservation Corps. Perrow has been a consulting research editor for the National Writing Project since 2005.
In a previous life, Perrow was director of marketing and sales for NeoScribe International, for which she launched a line of desktop publishing typefaces. At Yale, she won the Lohmann Prize for Excellence in Letterpress Printing.
Today, she focuses on the signified more than the signifier, but as someone who loves cycling between the abstract and the concrete, the macro and the micro, Perrow will continue to spread her passion for words at all levels to her students and future teachers.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in October 2011
MM: What indicators were there in your childhood that you would later develop a passion for language and literature?
MP: I think the passion developed early, rather than emerging later! I learned to read early, partly because my mother was busy with twins who were two years behind me, and partly because I simply loved the sensation of entering a book, a world, so different from my own. And my mother read to us all together every night.
I’ve recently been reading Robert MacNeil’s memoir Wordstruck, and I find so many parallels with my own early years. He talks about the pleasure in gaining “a feeling for the weight of words,” words spoken and read, words in action in different contexts, words as they jostle and nestle against each other in expected and unexpected ways, and this really resonates with me.
My father wasn’t much of a reader, but he did tell me stories at night: long, ongoing, chapter stories that came somewhere out of his dreams and memories. Stories about a girl named Prudence (with whom I identified deeply), who lived on a farm with her Aunt Methuselah and uncle. Like books, these stories connected me with imaginary worlds that could absorb and hold me. They created a special, private world that my dad and I entered together. So stories and books have always had positive emotional connotations for me.
My dad, though a taciturn guy, loved word games and puns. We’d play endless rounds of rhymers at the dinner table (Create a two-part clue for a two-word rhyme; guess it first, and it’s your turn. “What’s a wagon tale?” “A lorry story!”). These could get pretty tricky.
They say it’s about 50-50 nature-nurture, so I guess I was lucky to be in a family that drew out my aptitude for language and literature from an early age!
Sharing books with LLP colleague Ariel Tumbaga (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: When it came to choosing a foreign language to study, what was it about French in particular that attracted you?
MP: I guess a confluence of factors that came into play well before I had made a conscious choice about it. I had learned French folk songs on long car trips from my mother. Although she was Canadian (as am I), her family was English-speaking. But she had majored in French and had been a French teacher, and we had records of kids’ songs in French at home. In seventh grade, French was the only foreign language offered at our school. I jumped at the chance, and despite Miss Fortier’s rigid adherence to making us recite verb conjugations and her attempts to make me feel badly about my enthusiasm (she once asked me disparagingly, “Do you have your hand on a spring?”), I loved learning to speak another language. At that point, it could have been any language; I just liked the sensation of finding my way in a new set of words.
At college, I gravitated toward French as a major fairly quickly, much to the dismay of my engineer father, who thought it was an utterly impractical course of study. At the same time, I was encouraged by professors whom I admired and liked. I was good at it (that “flow” thing has a lot going for it!), and it was just plain fun. I loved dreaming in Proustian sentences, as weird as that probably sounds.
At her wedding celebration with friends from the youth development program in Soweto, South Africa (courtesy of Margaret Perrow)
MM: You earned your PhD and MA in education (language, literacy, and culture) from UC Berkeley as well as a BA in French language and literature from Yale, where you were awarded the Montaigne Prize for Proficiency in Oral and Written French. You also completed your Oregon Initial Teaching License requirements through SOU. That shows quite a bit of breadth and depth. Do you find that you enjoy thinking at both the macro and micro levels? Do you tend to see the forest and the trees?
MP: Interesting question. I think I struggle to see the forest sometimes. I can easily get caught up in the intricacies of the trees. I’m something of a perfectionist, which exacerbates this tendency. On the other hand, yes, I do like thinking on both micro and macro levels—and seeing how they connect to each other. That’s what my dissertation was about, really, the intersection of historically shifting macro discourses about learning and identity in South Africa, with the individual trajectories and discourses of the young adults in an NGO youth-development program. The zooming in and out, from micro to macro and back, made the research fascinating. Too many details, though—my fascination with the trees, so to speak, made it an inordinately long process!
Giving a grammar lesson to colleagues Ariel Tumbaga and John Taylor (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: You’ve taught in SOU’s School of Education since 2006, so you will be transitioning from teaching pedagogy to teaching language and literature. Are you excited about putting into practice the principles you’ve been demonstrating to future educators at a meta level?
MP: Some of the classes I teach will in fact remain the same: language arts methods for middle and high school teachers, for instance. Others will be new and not specifically focused on education or pedagogy.
One of the things I love about teaching pre-service teachers is the necessity of thinking on several levels at once: the content of the class, the connections between that content and other important “text” of student-teachers’ experience in their field placements, and the pedagogical lens. This last one means you have an opportunity (an obligation!) to be as transparent as possible about what you are doing as a teacher—and why. It keeps you thinking, keeps you moving, and keeps things interesting! I expect that in my undergraduate classes, I’ll do less of this explicit unpacking of my own pedagogy, but I’m delighted to have the mix of both undergraduate and graduate students now.
MM: What role does language play in individual and cultural identity?
MP: Wow, that’s a big question! Language is, in my opinion, at the heart of our identities, both individual and cultural. We aren’t always conscious of it, but our language both reflects our realities (the world as we see it) and creates those realities in the processes of speaking, writing, and interacting. Language is central to how we construct our relationships, and our relationships are central to our identities—we are who we are in large part through our alliances and our distances, our friendships and our discomforts. And we do all of that largely with language.
Professor of Education William Greene sings along with Professor of Education Younghee Kim (top), master of arts in teaching students, and schoolchildren (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: One of your areas of research is critical literacy and equity in education. What can we as a society do to promote more equity in education?
MP: Interestingly, this ties well to your previous question. A step that individual teachers and schools can take is to promote language awareness in schools: a critical awareness of how language functions in relation to power and control, an empathetic awareness of language diversity and the connection between language and identity, and a functional focus on building language skills that develop empathy and respect.
I had a very privileged education as a young adult, but when I think about what fundamentally constituted the “privilege,” it was the relationships I was afforded with caring, competent teachers and mentors who knew me and therefore were able to support and challenge me. So we need to ask: What are the environmental conditions that support such relationships between young people and adults who hold the highest expectations for their students—and have the resources to hold them to those expectations in a caring way?
So it wouldn’t hurt to put teachers’ salaries up there with other highly respected professionals. Teaching is an inherently inequitable occupation in our current system, yet teachers are expected to be the agents of equity in our society. Simultaneously reducing class size (rather than increasing it, as has been steadily happening in Oregon and elsewhere in the past few years) would go a long way toward allowing teachers to differentiate instruction effectively and to develop strong personal relationships with all of their individual students, as relationships are at the heart of learning.
San Francisco Conservations Corps (courtesy of San Francisco Conservations Corps)
MM: You’ve taught GED preparation to at-risk young adults as well as writing and reading through San Francisco Conservation Corps. What have you found are some of the best ways to keep young adults in transition out of trouble and on a path toward success?
MP: Engage them in writing that expresses their realities and reading that connects to their realities and then expands them a bit. Actually, your question contains a bit of the answer: When people realize they are “in transition,” they can become excited about the adventure. If they think they are “stuck” or “going nowhere” (or if they have reason to believe this), it’s much harder to engage them. This is where writing and reading have a huge role to play, connecting young adults who feel “stuck” with people who have been there before and helping them find a way to get back into motion.
MM: You have been a consulting research editor for the National Writing Project since 2005. Tell me about that project and what your role entails.
MP: This project is a multi-year research program involving National Writing Project sites around the country. Sites designed and implemented longitudinal research studies and were required to submit annual reports documenting their findings. These studies are all available on the NWP website. The project was tricky because of the post-NCLB requirements that federally funded studies be based on control and comparison groups as well as including quantitative analysis. Much strong writing research, on the other hand, is based on qualitative data and analysis. So my role as research editor has been a fascinating process of supporting the site directors and research assistants in documenting their work.
(left to right) Young adults Perrow worked with at Youth Work Scheme (a job training and youth development project run by the Joint Enrichment Program) in Johannesburg; children in Soweto (courtesy of Margaret Perrow)
MM: Both the American Educational Research Association and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education gave you Outstanding Dissertation Awards for “Learning in Transition: Youth Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” You also served as a visiting Fulbright researcher for the Joint Enrichment Project in Johannesburg, South Africa. What is your assessment of the education system in South Africa, and how did participants respond to the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP)?
MP: South Africa continues to face enormous educational challenges, not the least of which is the relationship among their eleven national languages. Another factor is that while apartheid is legally a thing of the past, for many people pragmatically it is still the daily reality. You may be legally able to move freely in your country but not have the financial means (or even the motivation) to do so. That said, there have been incredible positive developments in South African education in the past fifteen years.
Participants responded with incredible enthusiasm to the JEP, in large part because it let them tap into a country that was in transition. It let them become young adults in transition, people who were in motion along with the rest of the country (or such was the perception).
MM: In a previous life, you were director of marketing and sales for NeoScribe International, for which you launched a line of computer typefaces for desktop publishing. You also won the Lohmann Prize for Excellence in Letterpress Printing at Yale. As a typophile, I couldn’t resist asking about this phase of your life. Did you actually design the typefaces yourself, and do you still keep a hand in the graphic design and letterpress world?
MP: I didn’t design fonts myself, but I do love them. I loved letterpress printing: the smell of the ink and the grease late at night, the feel of the imprinted letters on soft paper, the thrill of getting something aligned just right, the tedium and black fingers after hours of resorting type into a job case. But no, besides the letterpress prints that I have at my office, I don’t have anything to do with the graphic design/letterpress world any more. I still love typefaces, though, and the way they can communicate in concert with words.
MM: You speak fluent French, basic Spanish, and a little bit of isiZulu. How do Latin languages like French and Spanish compare with the Zulu language?
MP: Well, isiZulu is nothing at all like Latin or Germanic languages in many ways. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s concatenative: the parts of the words all attach together and accumulate into this “pile” of lovely syllables. The way verbs operate is also different—what changes most is the pronoun or noun at the head of the verb. And of course, there are the clicks (three kinds, each in different parts of the mouth).
MM: What are some of the courses you’re most looking forward to teaching?
MP: I’m excited to be teaching Grammar and Style in Writing this fall. Not everyone would find that a glamorous course to teach (let alone take!), but it turns out that grammar and glamour are closely related. When the invading Normans brought French to Great Britain with all of its Latin influences, grammaire referred to all of intellectual knowledge—and especially to magic and the occult (which was a specialized and secretive domain of knowledge). The Scots adopted the word but, since they had no formal written grammar to apply it to, “cast the glamaire” came to mean “cast a spell.”
I haven’t taught undergraduates since 1999 at UC Berkeley, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m also excited about designing some of my own classes. I’m working on an idea for a writing class revolving around educational memoir, and I’d love to teach a class in critical language awareness.
SOU student Mark Butterfield has an “aha” moment in a creative writing course with Associate Professor of English and Writing Program K. Silem Mohammad (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What do you love most about teaching?
MP: Being a fortunate witness to people’s growth and discovery—both of themselves and the world—and constantly thinking of ways to facilitate that growth and discovery!
I view learning as a process of becoming, not merely of acquiring knowledge. At its best, education helps students realize their full potential as human beings in community with others. This means education “points” in two directions simultaneously: 1) inward, to help students discover their talents and pleasures—that is, to help them connect to their inner selves, and to help those selves take flight; and 2) outward, connecting students in meaningful ways to the new, the different, the unexpected. In this sense, teaching is fundamentally about helping students actively make connections—to their own inner qualities and talents as well as to the world they live in, resulting in an expanded sense of self, of the world, and of the possibilities for agency. That kind of becoming is an exciting process to be a part of!