Interview with Dr. Steve Alvarez: “About my Mexican American Identity . . .”

Interview with Dr. Steve Alvarez



In preparation of Dr. Steve Alvarez’s start at St. John’s, the SJU blog editors decided it would be swell to ask him some Q & A’s, as another warm welcome to the Department.

Recently, Dr. Alvarez ran into some of the department’s colleagues and grad students down in Louisville for the Watson Conference.  He is thrilled and looking forward to meeting more grad students and learning what we are working on up here in Queens!

Below, you will find our Q & A with Dr. Steve Alvarez!


Tell us more about your professional experiences, particularly those not mentioned during your job talk.

“My research is ethnographic-based, but this wasn’t always the case. When I started graduate school, the English Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center, I intended to study high modernist writers Joyce, Beckett, and Pound. I was especially intrigued with Joyce’s and Pound’s poetics and mixing of languages in their work. At the time, I was looking to these artists to explain the confrontations of language without considering my own bilingual history. Fortunately, I made a contact one morning on the 6 train downtown when I met an individual who connected me to an after-school homework program serving Mexican immigrant families. Helping bilingual children with their homework, I was amazed at how they mixed languages, both naturally and poetically, and in practice. Also, the community woke questions I had about myself, about my Mexican American identity, my family history, and how my passion for language and writing could make an impact in the lives of real people whom I began to care about. This experience led me to change my trajectory to community-based research that would examine the languages, literacies, and poetics of bilingual individuals. No doubt this research has also affected my poetry, which still looks to Joyce and Pound for hybridized forms and Joyce and Beckett for narrative.”


How does this position fit into your overall career goals?  What do you aspire to do with the graduate research course you will be teaching Spring 2017?

“This position fits into my goals in two ways. First, I will be able to make a larger impact in terms of teaching writing by working with instructors for professional development and pedagogical practices. In addition to the experience of changing my trajectory to qualitative research through ethnography in graduate studies, I also early on discovered my love for teaching writing. Teaching first-year composition taught me that I loved sharing my passion for writing, but also working with students to examine their lives and the richness of their own communities. That said, ethnographic methods have been instrumental for me to teach writing and also for students to learn tools to deepen their understanding of the socio-cultural aspects of their identities. For the graduate course I’ll be teaching Spring 2017, the course will be geared to ethnographic methods with students proposing a project of query, studying methodological approaches, reading ethnographies, and collecting data. The IRB process will also be emphasized, as I certainly could have used that procedure demystified for me when I went through it.”


What do you consider to be best practices in developing research?

“I think the best practice to develop is to ask questions, focused questions. To ask questions to guide possible routes of thought. These are the first questions, those we ask ourselves. These questions, I think, then lead to the questions we ask of other researchers and scholars, who may be formulating similar queries. After this, I think studying the tools for research, the databases, scanning archives, and the like, that also becomes an important facet of research. In addition, studying how to present research in different genres is another layer of learning. All of this, though, from the articulation of questions to the learning of academic genres comes with mentorship. In that way, good researchers are cultivated with the guidance, and in that way, scholars must always pay it forward.”


How will your background and experiences strengthen IWS, the English Department, as well as be a resource to students?

“First, I would say I’m from Safford, Arizona (population 9,566), and I know no one in IWS and the English Department has that in their background. Seriously, though, as a resource, I bring a different set of eyes to New York City, a way of viewing what happens here from a way of seeing things as I experienced them where I grew up, but also where I have lived and taught, which ranges from China, to Alaska, to Mexico, to Kentucky, and to Queens. I think my background in terms of being a first-generation college graduate, and my pride in being this, has also allowed me to present students with a way of seeing how the gates of academia in a different frame. Finally, being Mexican American and the son of immigrants has shaped how I approach aspects of equity and social justice in how I view myself as a public academic. I have taken the mission upon myself to learn about how Latinx students fare in all of the institutions where I have worked, how they are being served and sometimes underserved.”


If possible, discuss a major conflict you came across during your research.  How did you handle it?  Overcome it?  

“The major obstacle I faced in terms of my research became my level of Spanish. I grew up in an English-dominant household in Arizona. The story about this is much longer, but to be blunt, Spanish was figuratively and literally beaten out of my parents by their schools. When it came time to raising their children, English, that is, English as spoken by Americans, unaccented English, was the gold standard. As I started doing more research with Mexican folks who spoke only Spanish, I struggled. I knew some of what was being said to me, but I really struggled–to learn the language, but also to understand how my family “lost” it in one generation. I made it a point to reconnect with family in Mexico and live in Mexico for extended periods of time to learn more of the language, which I did, and which I have. In terms of my research, however, this required me to often have a translator help me to speak to different people. These translators soon became the focus of my research for me because in many cases they were children. Soon, I started to focus my research on the translating, while I improved my Spanish. In this way, what I saw as my initial difficulty in conducting research and interviews with Spanish speakers actually became the focus of the research. The obstacles and ways to negotiate translation, in other words, became clear avenues of research once I started learning about all the places where children found themselves translating for their parents, and that led me from there.”


Give us a snapshot of your teaching philosophy.

“My teaching philosophy developed as a result of my scholarship, research, and practical classroom experience. I consider my classrooms to be workshops where I learn how what I teach builds upon strengths students bring to their writing from outside the realms of the classroom and formal schooling. Students draw on their own cultural literacies and non-school literacies to develop academic literacies required for success in the university and beyond. As I mentioned already, incorporating qualitative research guides students into lived experiences and formulating critical questions. The last thing is that I believe building a classroom community extends the ways of thinking of community outside classrooms, and how tolerance of diversity among communities outside of classrooms happens by opening classroom communication. Learning is not bounded by institutional walls, after all.”


What motivates you?  As a professor?  A researcher?  An academic?  A person?

“For all of these questions, I think I have a couple answers. First, Alvarez the professor, researcher, academic, and person are the same person. That said, my first answer is my family, all in Arizona. My parents, my siblings, and my sixteen nieces and nephews all give me the strength of roots, and I know where I come from. I’m the first person in my family to graduate college, to earn a PhD, and to become a professor. My family is proud of me, but I’m proud of them. For me to be here, we worked together, and my story is the story of my family–of immigrant folks who looked to the younger generations to realize the dignities denied them. And I’m looking to those sixteen sobrinos and sobrinas to both see themselves in the future but also know where they come from, and to maintain bilingualism. My family in New York City, my family-in-law, also impacts me, and drives me forward for the same reasons. My partner Sara and I both share research interests and have collaborated on publications. No doubt, she motivates me, and for the better in terms of how I think about my life and also my pride and love for being Latinx. Related to this, the communities of confianza, of trust, I have made with folks from New York, Kentucky, Arizona, and Puebla, Mexico forever motivated how I think about teaching and writing, and the importance of community for learning.”


If you had the power to effect one major change in  education – what would that change be? How would you go about effecting that change?

“The move to standardization I think is dangerous, and a kind of educational model that further pushes back against much of the progressive momentum that began with the civil rights movement. The “teaching to the test” students experience is symptomatic of an educational system that follows a kind of rule of the free market, which if course leads to tremendous inequalities, and leaving some students behind–even blaming the students themselves for being left behind. What we’re seeing through a kind of ripple of effects is that schools are becoming de facto segregated, privatized, and policed. How to effect change? The first thing, I think, is looking to spaces outside educational institutions, such as after-school and community programs. From these spaces, we can listen to students, parents, and community leaders, and potentially to strategize ways to mobilize collectively. That said, how the question is not how I can effect change, but, rather, how we can effect change.”


What do you like to do for fun?  During “down-time” . . . any hobbies?

“I like to read fiction and verse, and I like to write, mostly verse. I enjoy going to see live music, and I also play guitar. I also like to take photographs (check me out on Instagram @stevenpaulalvarez). I listen to a lot of podcasts, mostly about news. I guess that all sounds fairly boring. Of the more exciting stuff, I love to search out local restaurants, especially Mexican food. In short, then, I’m looking to start a band where we can tour local taquerias on the weekends.”


Any additional information that you would like to share?

“Probably the last thing you need to know about me was that I was an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts. Oh yes, I was also the high school yearbook editor. With these admissions, I hope everyone will appreciate my nerd factor.”

Here’s a photo of Dr. Alvarex (back, dropping a “peace” sign), from the Taco Literacy class at the University of Kentucky, Spring 2016



Thank you for being so cool, Dr. Alvarez!

1 Comment

  1. New York……you all are receiving quite a gem having Doctor Alvarez teaching! You all will love him just as much as we do!!

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