In conversation with Shalini Shankar
By Shalini Shankar |
In this second installment of SAADA's "In the Mix: Conversations with Creators" series, we ask Professor Shankar about her newest book, Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success (2019).
What ideas are at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about them?
Many of us living in the United States as well as South Asia have become aware of the success of South Asian American kids at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and I found this to be a very curious phenomenon. I wanted to know what drove this success, and whether their approach to competition was shared by others in their generational cohort. These questions drew me in to conduct an ethnographic (interview and observation based research) project that culminated in this book. Beeline is an immigrant-forward look into Generation Z, born 1997 onward. Through the lens of the spelling bee, I look at the intensive ways that kids prepare for and compete in them and other “brain sports,” and how these early activities may have long-term consequences for these youth.
Questions that especially interested me include why, among a group of immigrants that values STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), is this language arts activity so valued? If South Asian Americans only comprise about 1% of the overall U.S. population, why were they disproportionately successful at spelling bees? When you consider that over 11 million kids participate in this activity at the classroom level and about 500 make it to the national level, it didn’t really make sense that they were so successful (but then I learned that there are also minor league spelling circuits just for them, like the South Asian Spelling Bee and the North South Foundation bees).
Based on the research I present in the book, I’d like people to understand how complex and intelligent these kids are, and view them as thoughtful human beings I saw them to be. So often people look at a feat as impressive as the National Spelling Bee and assume that kids are being pushed by their parents to do this, or chalk it up to these kids being genetically gifted spelling robots. Neither is the case!
Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?
While the South Asian American winning streak initially drew my attention, the deeper personal connection came from my own experiences as a parent. As I watched these parents invest so much time in helping their kids train for and compete in spelling bees, I realized how different it was from my own experience as a second-generation South Asian American. Growing up in a less competitive era and part of a smaller generational cohort (Generation X, b. 1965-1980), my childhood didn’t look like this. Even more fascinating is that I don’t do spelling bees with my own kids. One of the main areas I examine is the difference between U.S.-born and non-U.S. born parents of Gen Z kids. I see this as a main way of understanding the changing nature of childhood today.
For someone who might not be interested in this book’s specific topic, why should they still read this and what do you hope they will get out of it?
There are certainly people who don’t care about the spelling bee, and may even be tired of hearing South Asian Americans go on about it. I understand! That’s why my book is not about spelling bees per se, but uses them as a way to identify and analyze broader trends among kids today. The career-like focus that kids cultivate when preparing for this competition and the ways they monetize their expertise as coaches after they age out of competition are relatively new phenomena. This is a distinctive moment for a digitally savvy generation and these South Asian Americans are forging new ways of growing up. Even for those who don’t have kids, the book offers a look at what some of our community’s youngest members are up to.
What resonance do you think your book has for parts of the South Asian diaspora, per se?
While we know a lot about the earlier post-1965 immigrants, the story of post 1990 immigrants is one that we are still piecing together. There have been important works about this cohort exploring the lives of IT workers and the overall rise of discrimination after 9/11, and Beeline offers another window into this group. Since George H.W. Bush passed the Immigration Act of 1990, the majority of highly skilled STEM workers the act solicited have come from India. These exceptionally well qualified individuals are by and large the parents of South Asian American elite spellers today. They are the ones who spend their weekends and leisure time on brain sports and cultivating their children’s potential, far more than the second-generation South Asian Americans like me. Beeline aims to understand these parents and the potentially outsized impact they may be having on Generation Z.
This is not your first book. How have you changed as an author since your first book?
This is my third book, but my first book with a “trade press.” Despite having published Desi Land and Advertising Diversity with Duke University Press, the process of writing for a broader audience was a major challenge for me. While I had written numerous short op-eds and other articles for major news outlets, most of my writing was for fellow academics and students. I have never rewritten and revised so much in my life as I did with this book! It was far more difficult than I had anticipated. My respect for people who write effectively for non-academic audiences has increased manifold.
Did you have a particular audience in mind when writing this book? If so, what do you hope they take away from reading it?
The audience I had in mind was my mom. She is a well-educated former journalist who couldn’t find a way into the jargon and argumentation style of my first two books. It kind of broke my heart that she didn’t read them because she is a writer herself. I had to find a way of conveying complex social science information while also telling engaging stories. That’s what I aimed for in Beeline, to have people like her, as well as former and current spellers and their parents, teachers, sports fans, and someone browsing in a book store to find the book to be an accessible and enjoyable read. So far so good—my mom read it cover to cover and loved it!
What advice did you receive that really helped you in the writing process or what advice would you have for new authors? So many people want to write a book but it feels daunting. Did you have a process for writing, such as blocking off chunks of time per week, or writing each morning before checking email, or something else?
The advice I have for new authors is to persevere! If you’re like me, you’ll encounter rejection, critical feedback, and people who just don’t understand your vision for your project, but you have to believe in your own work. Especially because the publishing world is a very white place, well-intentioned liberal editors can still regard books about South Asian Americans to have a very small and niche audience. Even if that is your primary audience, think about how to make it matter to people beyond it. One way to do this is to think about your book telling part of a larger American story, which makes it harder to ignore or marginalize.
Regarding the writing process, keep trying approaches until you find what works for you. I have friends who write every day for a short, set period of time. That didn’t work for my brain or my schedule, so I aimed to find several hours at a time together and write in concentrated spurts, even if that meant getting less sleep and writing at night, or sometimes cutting into family time with my husband and children. Very few of us who work full time and have families have the luxury of uninterrupted writing residencies, so we make time however we can.
If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?
I’d like people to better understand what drives these kids to succeed. Many people, including fellow South Asian Americans, can’t fathom that these kids would want to compete at this level unless their parents were forcing them to do it. As a parent of two kids who don’t gravitate toward spelling bees, I understand their skepticism, but still invite them to consider what these kids are doing differently. The parents are certainly enablers and do everything possible to help their children succeed, but the kids want it as well. They generate excitement about competing and work very hard to accomplish what they do onstage. They also have to learn to manage disappointment and find graceful ways of losing on live television. Viewing them in this way challenges the idea of the model minority stereotype and instead reveals the hard work and motivation they expend to make this happen.
What is your next big project?
My next big project is to look more broadly at immigrant impact on major generational cohorts and decenter the whiteness of categories like “Millennials” and “Generation Z.” I started to do that in Beeline but want to go back and revisit the kids from Desi Land as Millennials and see what contributions they, as well as other people of color, are having on their cohort. I’d love to collaborate with other researchers about this.
Shalini Shankar is a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic research with South Asian American youth and communities in Silicon Valley, with advertising agencies in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and with spelling bee participants and producers in various US locations.