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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Gail Gibson

Gail was inspired by the students she read about in Rackham’s Predoctoral Fellowship announcement this spring. She was impressed by the depth of their research and the unique accomplishments of some of the best and brightest doctoral trainees in the country. She is too humble to note her own brave, important work that earned her name a place on that list, too.

Gail spent 15 years in journalism, her successful career culminating as a national correspondent at The Baltimore Sun covering the U.S. Supreme Court and national legal issues. By 2006, she recognized the changing model of her industry and was ready to consider what her next turn might look like. She comments, “I always felt tension covering communities but doing so at a distance, with this sort of neutral reserve. I wanted my next career to be more involved in community, not covering people from sidelines.”

Her career led her to think she’d teach journalism, but when she started her master’s in Education at the University of Cincinnati, her first classroom assignment led her on a different path. She was working with underprepared students who needed to complete remedial work before they could attend regular college classes. She had no idea college remediation was a thing and could identify with the common belief that students should know this stuff. Her understanding of the need for this training grew quickly as she worked with the students, however. She explains, “From that first class, I wanted to know how this works, and, more importantly, how can we do it better. Remedial courses can restrict how students think about writing and higher education. I want to know how we can fix it to get students college-ready.”

Her path to U-M was a long one. She started by teaching developmental reading and writing courses at Sinclair Community College in Dayton but realized “without a terminal degree it would be really difficult to make the curricular and policy decisions to substantially change how we met the needs of these students more effectively.”

She read about the English and Education doctoral program at U-M and was intrigued by the interdisciplinary features of the program. Michigan seemed like the exact right fit. The location helped. Gail grew up in nearby Jackson and attended Michigan State for her undergraduate degrees in Journalism and English. “I knew Ann Arbor was a lovely community and it was good to be back in the state of Michigan. It is really interesting, though, that you don’t appreciate the gem you have in your backyard until you’re lucky enough to come and work within it. It has just been with utter sincerity that I am so impressed and floored with quality of instructors and students in so many spaces and the enormous willingness of faculty to make sense of this process. I’ve really never heard ‘no’ here. I cannot say enough about faculty and administrative support at this level. Coming from this professional life, I realize the demands on people’s lives and how much they give us.” she says.

Gail’s research explores college remediation and access programs. She says, “I want to know broadly what we do to help students who are marked as underprepared for college studies. This issue sits side by side with political and policy issues. As I began studying these issues, I find the students in these classes have a wide range of their backgrounds – non-traditional ages, underrepresented minority students and students without a model for college. The question becomes is there a better way to think about these students and help them get ready so they’re more fully able to enter studies.”

Gail’s dissertation examines education technology, which is becoming heavily used in remedial college courses as a quicker way to bring a broad fix to these students. She explains, “I’m really interested in automated instructional tools that give skills a faster fix. I want to explore what that looks like in the classroom, what are teacher attitudes and student beliefs, and what is the efficiency and cost influence in applying education technology. I’m exploring how education technology shapes beliefs on what writing is; whether it is a full rhetorical understanding or is restricted to notions of correctness and standard languages. My dissertation begins with an historical look at education technology use for remedial courses. Nothing new is ever new, and this new thing that makes the process of helping students learn faster has been in existence since the turn of the 20th century, but that silver bullet never hit the mark. That leads us to this moment in education technology.”

She spent a semester observing community college remedial writing classes that heavily used one education technology tool around grammar and writing instruction. She comments, “I was enormously lucky to be able to work at this site. Most college remediation takes place at the community college level due to policies that have moved it out of four year institutions. These spaces are vastly understudied, even though half the students start at community colleges.”

Gail continues, “I examined how students and teachers responded to the system, the priorities imparted and what the constraints of the system and possibilities were. I find there are some rich and fascinating possibilities about what technologies might enable us to do. There are great policy implications regarding educational classroom changes at stake. Still, these clear policy implications are not a single solution. They require more complex thinking and investment than any single technology project can offer. This project speaks to different audiences.”

Now analyzing her data and starting to write, Gail hopes to finish in May of 2017. Her field of research opens professional opportunities in a number of different spaces, and Gail will pursue a two track job search. She describes, “Either space could have rich possibilities. The traditional path of a faculty role where you are working on research on issues and teaching students would be really lovely and exciting work. I’m also really fascinated by the opportunity in nonacademic spaces. I came to U-M with a long history of expertise in government and journalism, and my training may circle back to nonprofit or government policy and development work. There are policy implications that are as important, and the career path there is as clear as the academic one.”

Grad school has been a positive experience for her and helps her reconnect with the road she began after leaving journalism. She explains, “I love teaching again. This has been a rich opportunity at U-M to work with the undergrads here. They are a real delight; they are endlessly interesting and game for anything. Teaching here has been one of the real rewards of the program. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me.”

Gail was happy for the opportunity to lead a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workgroup (RIW) dedicated to the study of community college called the Community College Interdisciplinary Research Forum (CCIRF), which is currently in its seventh year. She says, “That speaks to the richness of services at Rackham. You can stand up and do this if you have people who are interested.”

As a non-traditional student, Gail says, “It is humbling to start a professional space from scratch after being successful in another space. I bring the discipline of my prior career and approach graduate school as a professional step. I think of it as a job, where the university is making an enormous investment in me. I find that to be a reasonable way to get through it and not be too overwhelmed by the long nature and intellectual demands of it. I look at grad school like any other job; that makes it more doable.”