Lesley Bartlett

Educational Background:

PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Lesley Bartlett is a Professor in Educational Policy Studies and a faculty affiliate in Anthropology. An anthropologist by training who works in the field of International and Comparative Education, Professor Bartlett conducts research in literacy studies (including multilingual literacies) and migration; she has done research in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, and the United States. She has authored several books, including: Additive Schooling in Subtractive Times; Refugees, Immigrants, and Education in the Global SouthRethinking Case Study Research; Teaching in Tension: International Pedagogies, National Policies, and Teachers’ Practices in Tanzania; and The Word and the World: The Cultural Politics of Literacy in Brazil.

An interview with Lesley

How would you describe your research?

Rooted in anthropology, my work addresses fundamental questions concerning how cultural processes and social forces influence educational policy and practice, specifically in the realm of literacy and particularly for im/migrant populations.  One strand of my research investigates how social and cultural processes shape the acquisition and use of literacy, broadly conceived. While some consider reading and writing to be primarily a psychological process, my research has demonstrated that literacy policies, programs, pedagogies, and practices are deeply influenced by social forces and cultural contexts. For example, my first book, The Word and the World: The Cultural Politics of Literacy in Brazil (2010), examines the contradictions of Freirean critical literacy and the limitations of literacy programs that aim to advance social change. The book demonstrates that, contrary to claims that literacy promotes development or empowerment, the potential impact of literacy on students’ economic mobility and political engagement depends to a great extent not only on students’ and teachers’ cultural interpretations of literacy and schooling but also on pre-existing social relations and economic arrangements over which schools have minimal influence.

You mentioned that you are interested in multilingual literacies, too. Tell us about that work.

In many parts of the world, children are speaking one language at home and in community but learning in another language at school. That means that they are trying to learn to speak the target language, and learn key vocabulary, while learning to read or reading in the school language to keep up with content areas. Given that, I’m really interested in how schools develop and support bilingual education. While I was working in New York City, my colleague Ofelia García and I did a four-year ethnographic study of a bilingual high school set up by and for Spanish-speaking immigrants that was achieving remarkably high graduation rates. The resulting book, Additive Schooling in Subtractive Times (2011), documented how the educators supported students socially, academically, and linguistically to achieve those educational outcomes.

What have you been working on recently?

Since 2014, with the support of a Spencer Foundation Mid-Career Scholar grant, I have continued my work on literacy by critically examining the focus on early grade reading in international educational development. Basically, major bilateral development organizations have promoted a specific approach to early grade reading that is based on learning to read in English. Drawing on the anthropology of literacy and the anthropology of development, my work questions this universalist approach and argues that reading pedagogies need to be adapted to the political, material, and linguistic contexts in which they are used. In the next few years, I hope to conduct fieldwork on multilingual early grade reading models in Tanzania, examining how policy makers and educators negotiate donor pressure to use imported models of reading that do not match the linguistic and pedagogical needs of students.

You work in the School of Education, but area studies are often situated within the Letters and Sciences realm. How do you see connections across areas of the university?

Most of the students I work with directly are working well beyond U.S. borders to look at phenomena such as the internationalization of higher education, educational equity for im/migrant and refugee populations, the politics of educational programs proposed or imposed by international development organizations, or the global privatization of education. International studies is essential to the work of so many faculty and students who are situated across the university—including in the School of Education, School of Human Ecology, Law School, School of Nursing, School of Medicine and Public Health, School of Business, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, and College of Engineering. Students across these units seek to develop their understanding of life beyond the United States and the ethical role of the U.S. in the global system. Further, area studies institutes give faculty, staff, and students a valuable  opportunity to work across and beyond the usual disciplinary divisions, toward transdisciplinary insights and innovations.

What do you see as the role for international studies in the contemporary period?

As an anthropologist, I have always had a strong sense that familiarity with how social problems are addressed across a range of national and local contexts is essential to combatting both the parochialism and the universalism that too easily creeps into discussions about theory, policy, programming, or ‘best practices.’ Area studies provides a salutary nudge toward considering other empirical and epistemological traditions, as well. I appreciate how work outside the U.S. can decenter the United States as an actor and English as the language of knowledge production, even as it allows us to think critically about the politics of research, including the training of researchers, the framing of inquiry, the funding of research, and the presentation of findings and recommendations.

The global re-emergence of populism and nationalism provides a specific example of the kinds of topics that require transnational, transdisciplinary approaches, even while reminding us why this work is urgent. Other pressing topics, such as climate change and environmental degradation, the contested expansion of human rights, and unchecked technological innovations, such as artificial intelligence and gene editing, similarly require global perspectives and insights from a variety of academic disciplines and methodological approaches.

See department profile here.