Terri N. Watson is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at The City College of New York and a member of the Urban Education faculty at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Her research examines effective school leadership and is aimed to improve the educational outcomes and life chances of historically excluded and underserved students and families. She employs Critical Race Theory, Black Feminist Theory and Motherwork as methodological frameworks. Her scholarship is featured in several edited books and journals, including Educational Administration Quarterly, the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, The Journal of Negro Education, the Journal of School Leadership, and Leadership and Policy in Schools.
Dr. Watson was named a 2020 – 2022 Faculty Lead in conjunction with The Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at The Graduate Center’s Center for the Humanities, The City University of New York. She is also the guest editor for a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History (Routledge) titled, A Seat at the Table: Examining the Impact, Ingenuity, and Leadership Practices of Black Woman and Girls in PK – 20 Contexts.
Describe your writing process?
I guess, the etymology of my writing process is the personal, you know, the personal is political. So, when I’m writing, I’m writing from a place, I wouldn’t say from hurt but a place that seeks justice, that seeks to make right situations and experiences that I lived through. And now that I’m on the other side, my work on black women and girls, of course, as a black woman, it’s personal. And I hope that my writing informs and influences on best practices, so that my writing informs and influences teachers, school leaders, policymakers to think seriously about the challenges that black women and girls face every day in their school and personal lives.
The beginning of my process starts when I think about something that I experienced something that hurt me, something that made me pause. And so I usually start with a story. I share what happened to me, or what happened, in something that I read about, and I bring it in and I shine a light on it. Because that’s usually the setting, if you will, the source of inspiration. When writing, this most recent case study about challenging whiteness at Claremont high school, I thought about my hair and the issues that black girls have to deal with, because of their hair. Hearing about black girls being suspended or disciplined in schools for the way in which they wear their hair, even how it’s policed. And not thought to be beautiful, which it is, but how they have to constantly defend and explain and, and are not made to feel like welcome oftentimes, just based on how they style their hair, they’re judged, usually presumed to be guilty, before they’ve had a chance to even open their mouths. And so when I write I think about kind of what’s happening in schools in the world, and, and how can we shine a light to make sure that, again, teachers and school leaders and policymakers are aware of the impact of policies and practices on black girls and children of color really, based on just how they wear their hair in the schoolhouse.
Then I’ll start with the introduction and think about, readings for the review of lit to complement it.I think about how I can inform it based on the readings and what readings make the most sense to align and exploring to see if there are theme, or even ways to challenge it to have a conversation in the review of lit, but it’s usually in the morning, and then I kind of map it out to have, you know, the purpose of it, the overview, the methodology, the literature, hence the review of lit, and then how I’m going to discuss the problem. And then what methodologies I’ll use and which lens is usually it’s a critical race theory, black feminist theory, Mother work, and then it kind of writes itself almost because once you know, once you start talking, you know, it gets other conversations and readings and, and that helps the dialogue I consider the article as my conversation, you know, with, with whomever is reading it.
When did you develop your writing routine?
I think beginning with the dissertation, like, when I wrote my dissertation. My dissertation is titled, FLORIDA‘S DEFINITION AND SUBSEQUENT CALCULATIONS OF A PUBLC HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATE: A CRITICAL RACE THEORY ANALYSIS. The springboard for that was that in 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school district of Palm Beach County, and its superintendent for the way in which it reported its graduation rates. So I wondered, you know, what’s the what’s the issue that it will warrant, this this case suit. I learned that Florida purports three different cat calculation methods, meaning we have three different rates based on these different methodologies. And they mean very different things to different people. So I wondered, doesn’t this matter and if so, who does it impact and why and what can we learn from it? And, you know, most importantly for me is, who do we leave behind? Who do we dismiss or let slip through the cracks by reporting these rates that are not accurate or transparent enough?
And so anything that I write, again, I read something, I experienced something and I want to shine a light on to address it or have a discussion to see what happened and why and, and how we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the first thing is that it made me feel something, it sparked my interest. And it made me want to explore and to see what is it we can learn from this particular situation.
What time of day do you find you write best?
Definitely in the mornings, I’d like being the first one up finding quiet place, and just, you know, getting out my ideas. I usually have my best days when I can get my writing in the morning and maybe from seven to 10. And then I often read and write and in tandem just to inspire me.
How did you improve your academic writing skills?
I constantly look for people who are saying what I’m saying. And even those who are saying different things. Most recently I was at the Schomburg, here in Harlem. And so I was looking at the archives to see what I’ve missed, particularly from the 1920s and 30s, in terms of Black Women, school leaders. Whatever is relevant and germane, it sparked my interest. I also read case studies in the Journal of Cases and Educational Leadership, she leadership, a lot of Sage Publications, a lot of open source documents.
How do you make time for writing with all the other commitments you have?
I try to sketch a schedule.
What are your strategies for staying productive and for maintaining momentum with your writing?
I would say I need a strategy! But deadlines are my biggest motivator. I have no such formal document like a publication’s tracker. When I write with colleagues, we’ll get together and sketch out a schedule of what’s needed. Who’s going to do what we have meeting dates and times. And we agreed upon, you know, certain sections of the article, we’ll put it in a Google Doc. And that way we are writing in real time. So that’s been cool. But I don’t have a formal I’m kind of methodology, if you will. Usually, it’s a deadline. Usually, it’s a project like right now, I’m working on a book project and the proposal is soon to come back. But I’ve already started kind of fleshing out the proposal, meaning, give the book editors an outline. Now I’m just putting the details in like, here’s what the introductions going to look like.
What is the best writing advice you’ve gotten?
Gloria Ladson-Billings told me that, you wrote your way into this, and you’ll have to write your way up. Meaning as an assistant professor to an associate to a full. Just keep writing, and you’ll get better. It’s like, anything, you know, practice makes perfect.
What writing tools do you suggest? And this could be apps, notebooks, pens, whatever tools you think are helpful to get someone to start their routine or their research agenda or just start writing?
Anyone who knows me knows now I often write on this yellow pad first. And that’s kind of where I sketch out my ideas. Everything from, you know, an incident that I hear about happening to a New York Times article. I may read about something and pull a quote from a parent or student, and ask myself “why is this our reality?” And then that can either to a conceptual piece, or if I’m thinking more long term, I can make that the impetus for my next study? I think about how I can lift this question to the forefront? But more importantly, how can we address the issues that the child raise, or the parent raise or teachers raise?
What are some specific rules for writing within your discipline that someone may not be aware of?
My job is to tell a full and robust story, using, that thick, rich data. So that, yes, it’s always subjective, but I do try to be as informed as possible. And then to offer a solution. In the end, I hope that whatever the piece is that it leaves you with strategies, tools, an appreciation for a different type of experience.
Who are some writers you particularly admire, and what about their writing seems most admirable to you?
I like reading Goldie Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius, Bettina Loves book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and so I’m constantly reading books that inspire me. Chris Emdins book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and his most recent one Ratchetdemic: Reimagining Academic Success. I’m currently reading the 1619 project. And I’m also revisiting Muhammad Khalifa’s book Culturally Responsive School Leadership.
What advice would you give fellow writers?
I tell young scholars to use their dissertation as their launch pad to look at what first caught their eye, you know, with a topic that they spend so much time on, and why is that important? And then break it up, from the review of lit to maybe a case study, and kind of go from there.
Also, I often tell folks, when you’re interviewing, going on the job market, when they’re interviewing you, you should be interviewing them too. Look at the community, look at the relationships, look at how they treat one another, look at the dynamics, look at the community public engagement. Everything isn’t for everybody, and you’re not for everybody. I learned that, we have to be in places where we can be our best selves. If not, it becomes another prison.
Check Dr. Watson’s scholarship including Harlem’s Motherwork A Valuable Resource for Urban School Leaders and A Seat at the Table: Examining the Impact, Ingenuity, and Leadership Practices of Black Women and Girls in PK-20 Contexts.