Spotlight: Debalina Maitra

Last month, our former postdoctoral research fellow, Dr. Debalina Maitra, published the results of her 2018-2019 postdoctoral fellowship experience. The study used qualitative research to understand equitable teaching practices in computer science classrooms in the Chicago Public Schools through a video analysis of Latinx students’ experiences. Her work was completed in the context of the Chicago Alliance for Equity in Computer Science (CAFÉCS) RPP. Cat McGee caught up with Debalina to learn about what she is currently working on and how her postdoctoral fellowship experience benefited her career.

Cat: Describe your postdoctoral experience and the research you participated in while with The Learning Partnership?

Debalina: I started a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in 2018 that got extended to 15 months. I worked on the CAFÉCS Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) funded by NSF. CAFÉCS included The Learning Partnership, DePaul, UIC, Loyola and Chicago Public Schools. Prior CAFÉCS research by Dr. McGee and his collaborators found that Hispanic students were less likely to take additional computer science courses and their failure rates were a little higher. To help investigate this further, I was given some of the videos that were already collected from different Exploring Computer Science (ECS) classrooms in Chicago. That was my primary research. I knew those teachers through classroom observations. I analyzed videos of them teaching different ECS concepts. Computer science became a mandatory requirement for high school graduation in Chicago starting with the class of 2020. Back then, many of these teachers were not originally computer science teachers, they were ELA teachers or social studies teachers, but they were now being asked to teach computer science to their high school students. ECS has three strands in their curriculum – equity, inquiry, and content. My main focus was looking at how teachers are practicing culturally responsible pedagogy in terms of considering the established syllabus of ECS. I attended the ECS PDs organized by CPS where they teach you explicitly how to use different lessons. The videos and classroom observations helped me to see what practices teachers were implementing. What is missing, and how can it be more culturally relevant? That was my area.    

Cat: How has the postdoctoral experience helped you with your career and where you are today?

Debalina: My Ph.D. was in literacy education, and social science and humanities were a little behind in receiving grants. It’s better now, but I needed that exposure because I knew I wanted to write grants. I’m a hardcore researcher, that’s my identity first. In grad school I never worked on an NSF grant because my advisor never wrote an NSF grant, so with The Learning Partnership and my postdoc, it was my first time working on an NSF grant. Although my time was short, I did get experience writing an NSF grant that was not funded. I learned a lot about relationship building, collaboration, and networking, which is very important after you complete your Ph.D. and throughout your academic career. My time at The Learning Partnership definitely prepared me for my next postdoc and my tenure track position.

Cat: Describe your current role.

Debalina: I’m on a tenure track at New Mexico Highlands University and teach two classes. The first is on content area reading, and that’s for alternate teacher license programs. My second course is in reading for bilingual education. My responsibilities also include research. I work mostly with marginalized and intersectional identities. I submitted a grant to the NSF CORE program about immigrant women and international women, their retention in STEM and how can we support them more. I am trying to submit two more grants. One I am submitting to the informal learning program at NSF on makerspace. In the other one I’m working with somebody from UNM on microaggression or peer relationships in engineering. I’m also working on a unique grant called BLAST STEM. That’s also an NSF CORE grant and that’s on racial equity looking at Black students’ and Black faculty’s experiences. We are going to be conducting extensive faculty interviews because we hear about the marginalized narratives, but we want to know the values of the faculty and how they are trying to support their students. As a faculty member now, I mentor three international grad students and I see first-hand the resource, navigational and institutional barriers and sometimes feel helpless on how I can best support them so the BLAST STEM grant will hopefully provide more insight.

Cat: Aside from exposure to NSF grants, are there other ways in which the postdoctoral experience prepared you for where you are now?

Debalina: Dr. McGee provided a lot of mentorship to me. I was first exposed to grant writing and collaboration through him and The Learning Partnership. Being a literacy major, I always thought I couldn’t do STEM research because I don’t have that background, so it was really groundbreaking to gain the confidence that I can do anything. Before coming to The Learning Partnership, I had never done video analysis. I had done a lot of discourse analysis, and I knew theoretically how to approach videos but when given videos from the classroom, there are many different aspects to consider for analysis because you need a different lens. Dr. McGee supported me in getting training in the Charlotte Danielson observational framework, going to the PDs, and he introduced me to teachers and district officials in CPS. Having Dr. McGee expose us to every aspect allowed me to understand the overarching goal of the partnership and how CPS envisioned implementing computer science in the district. Back then, I was younger, and I felt there were a lot of limitations in what I was trying to do. But with time, I learned that’s not a barrier, that’s interdisciplinary research. You may need a computer science person to help but they may equally need you, so it becomes a wonderful partnership. I think that would be my biggest takeaway.

Cat: Lastly, what advice would you give to graduate students looking for a postdoctoral experience?

Debalina: I think when you’re looking for a position, it’s important to make sure that it’s aligned with your life goals. I knew I wanted to go in a tenure track position, so I was looking for a position that would give me exposure to teaching, writing grants, research and writing articles and potentially mentorship exposure. If you just want to go into research, look for a position that will give you only exposure to research. I would also say make sure that you get along well with your PI because that will be a two to three year relationship which could turn into a lifelong relationship, which is invaluable.