Three COLA faculty win competitive Spencer Foundation grants

Monday, January 4, 2021
faculty headshots

Professors Kabria Baumgartner, Andrew Coppens and Elyse Hambacher.

Three UNH faculty members in the College of Liberal Arts — Kabria Baumgartner, Andrew Coppens and Elyse Hambacher — have each won highly competitive research grants from the Spencer Foundation, the only national foundation focused exclusively on supporting education research.

Baumgartner, associate professor of English and American studies, will use her grant to support her book project about Robert Morris, the first African American trial lawyer and an influential 19th-century thinker on African American education. The funding will allow her to hire a graduate student researcher to help conduct archival research at repositories throughout New England.

“Morris believed in a visionary educational model that promoted the value of mutually reinforcing sites of learning, from the family to the literary society to an apprenticeship. In his conceptualization, schools could and should not do it all,” says Baumgartner.

The Massachusetts-born Morris saw African American education as a society-wide endeavor that should involve all citizens and institutions, and the means to remedying the challenges that African Americans faced.

“One of Morris’ greatest contributions may well be his unique understanding of African American education,” says Baumgartner, “which is a perspective that we ought to bring to bear in current conversations about educational equality, equity and inclusion.”

Rural first-generation college (RFGC) students are the subject of Andrew Coppens’ research, in collaboration with College of Health and Human Services faculty Erin Sharp, Jayson Seaman and Cindy Hartman, and senior lecturer in English Sarah Jusseaume. An assistant professor of education, Coppens will use the grant to conduct a study of students from rural areas of northeastern U.S. that recently have seen significant economic and demographic changes and where college attendance is highly variable by socio-economic group.

Coppens pushes against current frameworks that suggest there is an unavoidable tension for RFGC students between their social identities within their home communities and their identities within the educational communities they join. According to these theories, students must choose between the two in what amounts to a “lose-lose” situation, either losing their rural identities in order to achieve college success or being unsuccessful in college if they don’t transcend their rural roots. Coppens argues that, instead, RFGC students’ experiences in their communities might be leveraged for success in college.

“This study aims to understand how RFGC students experience and transcend this double bind,” says Coppens. “Indeed, RFGC students may be powerful agents of change for both individuals and communities by coordinating social relationships, community networks and shared historical values across generations and institutions to open up new possibilities for both themselves and others with similar backgrounds.”

The study will examine how RFGC students use and develop the strengths of their rural identities and experiences as they determine where they belong and who they will be in the world.

Coppens and his colleagues hope this research will help universities and colleges attract, retain and support students from rural communities, as well as help find ways to inspire rural students to reimagine what’s possible in the communities from where they come.

Hambacher, associate professor of education, will undertake a case study of justice-oriented white teachers and administrators in two predominantly white school districts that will illuminate how these professionals engage with concepts of race, anti-racism and whiteness, a subject for which little research now exists.

The study will provide insight into what motivates these educators to sustain anti-racist work, what professional development they’ve undertaken to inform their approaches, and what challenges and successes they’ve experienced along the way. A goal of the study is to help educators and other stakeholders design and facilitate effective race-conscious and anti-racist professional development.

“The longstanding violence against and death of Black people only emphasizes the necessary work of effective race-visible education of white teachers in mostly white communities, so that white identities may act as agents for change against oppression,” says Hambacher.

“Spencer Foundation grants are highly sought-after, competitive awards,” says Michele Dillon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “That three COLA faculty members received grants this year is a testament to the truly stellar work that COLA faculty do in the field of education research and a reflection, more generally, of the strong research ethos and productivity of COLA faculty.”