Interview with the 2021 Dissertation Award Winner
Dr. Brittany Frieson
University of North Texas
Dr. Brittany Frieson is an assistant professor of literacy and anti-racist education at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX. She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose works traverses applied linguistics, literacy, and bilingual education. Her primary research interests center on exploring the language and literacy practices of young Black American children in dual-language bilingual education programs from critical perspectives. She currently teaches language and literacy courses on culturally and linguistically diverse youth in the undergraduate and graduate programs at UNT. She is a 2020-2022 NCTE Cultivating New Voices Scholar Fellow and her dissertation was recently honored with the 2021 AAAL Dissertation Award (1st place) and the 2020 ILA Outstanding Dissertation Award (3rd place). Her work is published in Race Ethnicity and Education, Understanding Critical Race Research Methods and Methodologies: Lessons from the Field, and Multimodal Literacies in Young Emergent Bilinguals: Speaking Back to Print-Centric Practices edited volumes.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m an interdisciplinary scholar whose critical research traverses across multiple disciplines, including applied linguistics, literacy, and bilingual education. My work is primarily reflective of an intersectional lens on race, language, identity, and power. As a Black woman and a Black language speaker, I am particularly interested in the multilayered and intersectional relationships between Black language, race, identity, and power in various social contexts with young children in bilingual settings. In my scholarship, I primarily utilize critical race theory and raciolinguistics as entry points into critical dialogue about equity concerns in bilingual education.
Why/how did you pursue a Ph.D.?
Pursuing a Ph.D. was never in the plans until I was a little over halfway through my Master’s program at North Carolina State University. For my Master’s, I completed a thesis where I explored a topic that deeply resonated with me, African American teacher burnout. My main sources of data were interviews, and it was through hearing my participants’ stories about their experiences with racism and microaggressions in the workplace that I knew I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. This is also where I started to take a deeper look at critical race theory. I loved digging into the literature, talking with my participants, analyzing data, and even writing it up—I loved conducting research! From there, I had a conversation with my advisor at the time, Dr. Jessica DeCuir-Gunby, who wholeheartedly supported my plans to get a Ph.D. She mentored me throughout the application process, encouraged me to apply to several Ph.D programs, and put me in contact with scholars at various institutions. After an extended campus visit at the University of Illinois through a program for scholars of Color called Community of Scholars, I knew for sure that this is what I wanted to do for my career. I haven’t looked back since, and without Dr. D-G’s support and guidance, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Why/how did you decide to focus on the literacy practices of African American Language speakers in your dissertation? How did you decide on method, design,
From very early on in the program, it was a given that I would always focus on the language and literacy practices of Black Language/African American Language speakers in my dissertation. As a Black language speaker who had a lot of Black teachers who encouraged and used Black language in the classroom, Black language has always connected me to my family, my community, and my identity as a Black woman. It wasn’t until I did a few observations in a dual-language bilingual education classroom where Black children were using their language repertoires in complex ways while resisting languaging norms of the program that I knew I wanted to further explore this topic in bilingual contexts.
Prior to collecting data for the dissertation, I completed a pilot study where my advisor and committee members made suggestions for methods and design. Collaboratively, we decided that ethnographic methods worked best for this study due to the need for examining structural factors related to race, language, and power that further needed to be unpacked. It was through this process that I learned a great deal about my participants and the situated contexts they were in, the community, the school, their families, etc.
What was rewarding about your dissertation and the process of writing it?
There were a lot of rewarding things about writing my dissertation. I am one of those quirky people who couldn’t wait to get started with the write up because the topic was (and still is!) so personal for me. Some of my favorite memories would be trekking through the snow-filled roads in Illinois to get to my favorite coffee shop. I would always order a coffee, put on my headphones, and would stay there until it was dark out just writing and reading. I loved the sereneness of just sitting with my work and trying to make sense of it.
Another part that was really rewarding is when I would have a breakthrough with data analysis. In my apartment, I had several pieces of chart paper on my walls with chunks of many transcripts and analytic memos. As a result of working with several theoretical frameworks, sometimes it was a challenging task to construct assertions from an interdisciplinary lens. However, once I wrapped my mind around the complexity of it all, it was an honor to be able to share the ‘straight brilliance’ of Black children’s ways of knowing and being in bilingual programs with their teachers and the field.
What would you say were the biggest challenges you encountered while working on your dissertation? Could you tell us a little bit about how you built resilience throughout the process (e.g., support system, self-care practices)?
The biggest challenge that I encountered while writing my dissertation was deciding how to disseminate the data into various findings chapters. I remember at some point being so overwhelmed because my project could have gone in various directions as a result of the enormous amount of data collected. It was very overwhelming at times, and there were many moments where I just wanted to pack up my bags and go back home to North Carolina. However, every time I would call my mama with that idea, she would tell me to quit that foolishness and that moving back home with her was not an option...so I had to finish (thanks mama!). Throughout this time, I was enrolled in an advanced qualitative methods course with Dr. Anne Dyson, and a big part of that class was sharing our work. It didn’t matter if your draft was halfway done or if you wanted to think through a theoretical framework or if you needed help with analyzing a vignette, you had to present something. It was in that class where I shared the struggles of deciding on which pieces of data to include in each chapter, and a classmate said to me, ”Brittany, what story do you want to tell? What excites you the most about your project?” I remember taking a deep breath and saying to the class, “I want to share stories about the children.” And boom...the chapter about the biliteracy practices of African American Language speakers was born. Once I started writing that one, the rest just flowed on to the pages.
I built resilience through the support system of that same group, my family, and group fitness. In the methods group, we trusted each other with our work. So we would show up every week, completely vulnerable, and would provide helpful feedback to one another. This group was also the place where my confidence as a scholar was nurtured. I noticed that each time I presented, my anxiety decreased and my ability to accept critical feedback increased. I think what was most important to me is that I knew that everyone in our group wanted to see the next person succeed. It was truly a magical and uplifting space. As for my family, I relied on my mama and my granny a lot. I would call them and share pieces of my project and ask them if it made sense. Most of the time when they said no, I knew it was time to go back to the drawing board and strengthen my argument. Other times, I would call my mama when I had a bad day and asked her to tell me a funny story. Those moments are ones that I look back on and cherish the most. In addition, I also made sure to never skip a workout if I could help it. I always took classes at 6am so once I got my workout in, it provided me with a nice start to the day.
What has been the impact of your dissertation project on you as a scholar (e.g., your views, commitments, priorities), the participants in your study, and/or the research contexts that you navigated?
My work has always been and always will be for my community, the Black community. Pursuing this work is very personal for me and went much deeper than the culminating milestone of getting a Ph.D. I once heard a senior scholar say, “Justice is personal. It’s a praxis that is full of liberatory action, truth tellin’, “living love,” and reflective of the totality of personhood.” For me, that is exactly what the impact of my work is for myself, my community, the participants, and the research contexts that I navigated throughout this process. Historically speaking, institutions have always had somethin’ negative to say about the way Black folks spoke and I noticed how Black children were being overlooked in bilingual education programs. From my perspective, that was adding to the chorus of the dominant narrative about Black language, so I made it my business to disrupt that narrative with my scholarship.
How did you hear about the AAAL dissertation award? What was that process of applying like?
My advisor, Luz Murillo, told me about the AAAL Dissertation Award during my last year of my doctoral program. She told me that we never know what will happen but encouraged me to apply regardless because she thought that my dissertation would be a strong contender. At the end of my first year as an assistant professor, I decided to submit the application, as the process of applying was very straight forward. After a few months, I was invited to submit my full dissertation in August. I was very excited about being invited to the next round but was careful to not get my hopes up too much. Then December rolled around, and I got an email from Dr. Kendall King telling me that I was selected as the dissertation award winner. I remember just staring at the screen for a brief moment and then tears of joy came rushing down my face. After that, I screamed and ran a lap around the inside of the house because I was so hyped about it!
Where are you headed now professionally? What research projects are you
Right now, I am an assistant professor of literacy and anti-racist education at the University of North Texas, where I primarily teach literacy and theoretical courses from critical perspectives in both the undergraduate and graduate programs. As far as research projects go, I’m currently working on a few different ones. I’m continuing to disseminate my Ph.D. research in multiple journal outlets that represent the interdisciplinary areas that I’m interested in, including journals with a focus in applied linguistics, literacy, bilingual education.
I’m also currently working on strengthening collaborations with various scholars for different projects in teacher education, literacy instruction, and bilingual education. One project that I’m particularly excited about is thinking more deeply about how we can be more intentional with preparing bilingual teachers to teach Black students who speak Black language. I’m hoping to extend this work into a book manuscript in the future!
Do you have any advice that you would want to leave with grad students,
Master’s or Ph.D.?
A very wise Black femtor once told me to surround yourself with a very good hype squad. For me, my supportive squad consists of graduate school friends, current colleagues, and colleagues at various universities who I previous met through networking at conferences. As Black women, we are often encouraged to reduce ourselves for the sake of others’ comfort. Let me be the first to tell you that academia is a really challenging place to be, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and at times physically, especially for Black women. It’s full of a lot of rejections that people do not often share and invisible labor that can take a toll on you and the people you love. To combat this, I celebrate every single win with my squad...even wins that don’t feel like wins at the beginning. For example, in academia we often wait until journal articles are accepted to announce and celebrate. I know this because I’m guilty of it, too. However, we have flipped this narrative of what institutions want us to believe about “achievement.” We celebrate when we submit manuscripts, survive another meeting that could have been an email, or say no to a request that is not conducive to our personal and professional lives. We show up for ourselves and each other. Get you a hype squad that will do the same!