Terri Wilson is a philosopher who believes in applying what may seemingly be nebulous concepts to everyday life. "I see philosophy as a discipline and approach, a tool for thinking through policy questions," says the second-year Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and education. Indeed, Terri possesses an innovative approach to tackling the tough issues with which educators grapple, offering a visionary outlook rooted in critical thinking and analysis.
The blend of these disciplines has always fascinated Terri, whose undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota was a bachelor's in individualized studies. It enabled her to combine her interests in an integrated program focusing on philosophy, political science, and education. She applied these interests in her work with the university's Center for Democracy and Citizenship, concentrating her efforts on its Jane Addams School for Democracy. The organization is a collaborative effort between U-M and the community that engages citizens in contributing to the improvement of society through public work by creating a "school," i.e., a space rather than a structure, in which to exchange ideas and create a context for change and improvement. It primarily services Latino and Hmong immigrants. Terri says the experience allowed her to connect her philosophical concerns to the community and individuals.
Terri knew she wanted to work in public schools after earning her degree. For three years following her graduation,she coordinated youth and parent involvement programs for the Achievement Plus organization. In reflecting on this and the Jane Addams experience, she notes they were "two different ways of configuring the space between schools and communities." An increasing zeal for school reform issues motivated her to apply to graduate school, and TC was her top choice. Terri was drawn to the institution because of the "strength of the students in my department," the faculty, and in particular, the opportunity to work with David Hansen. "I'm really impressed with the how of his scholarship [rather] than the what. He's thoughtful and carefully blends philosophy with qualitative inquiry. He [has a way of] wedding philosophical disposition and rigor with life in classrooms," she believes. And while the native Midwesterner is a long way from home, she describes New York as "both amazing and different. It's so full of amazing opportunities and people."
She is currently engaged in two research projects with the University. At TC, she works with Pearl Kane of the Department of Organization and Leadership on a study of New York State's first three charter schools, examining the creation and governance of their boards and recommending best practices. Her work with the psychology department at Columbia entails acting as a school facilitator at Mott Hall Intermediate School to study the effects of giving students information about how the brain can be changed in the learning process as a means by which to promote efficacy. Terri, an honorable mention recipient of the President's Grant for Student Research in Diversity as well as an awardee of the Dean's Grant for Student Research, is also concentrating on individualized research by continuing her work with the Jane Addams School. Both grants underwrite her projects that investigate how teachers and parents think conceptually about parent involvement. She returned to her hometown last summer to collect data, facilitating teacher institutes and working with them on connecting their practice to the community. "The grants give the vehicle and impetus to pursue [these] projects; they give a push." Terri will present her findings at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in April.
Because her undergraduate projects focused primarily on community activism and since then on working on initiatives from the perspective of schools, she feels she has had "the experiences of both sides of the aisle." While she still has time before she begins to pen her dissertation, Terri already has thoughts on the subject. "I'm very interested in how different actors construe schools as public. I'm interested in the philosophical and normative claims people make about public, particularly around parents and community members. The one constant thread is the idea of the relationship between the school and the community, and what public means. I grew up with a particular perception of school; the City undercuts, in negative and positive ways, the assumptions of what schools should look like. Now I have an appreciation for the complicated middle."