Interview by Ilana Gershon
Ilana Gershon: When did you first realize that there was such a rich research project in South Asian students’ success in U.S. spelling bees?
Shalini Shankar: What caught my attention initially was not that South Asian American spellers have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee every year since 2008, but rather, the ridiculous theories circulating in the media about why they were winning. Theories based on genetics were casually proffered, as were sloppy applications of the Asian American model minority stereotype. This was enough to make me take a closer look at the broad range factors I suspected were shaping this trend. The richness of the project was in what these extraordinary kids (not just the South Asian American ones) were doing. Their orthographic prowess was incredible, as was their stage presence in what had become a big budget media spectacle. I started to attend the National Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee (open only to kids of South Asian parentage) in 2013 and haven’t stopped. I was delighted to witness the naming of the “Octochamps,” though was quite relieved that my book was already published and I didn’t have to figure out what to say about it on the spot.
Ilana Gershon: When and how did the fact that the competitors you were studying were South Asian become important?
Shalini Shankar: Because I was interested offering an anthropological discussion about why this streak was happening, I ended up focusing primarily on South Asian American spellers. I welcomed the chance to follow and other spellers, and they also appear in the book. Having a somewhat heterogeneous sample helped confirm some of the hypotheses I had about this group: that their parents prioritize education and competitive educational enrichment or “brain sports” above their own leisure; that this community has built an infrastructure for competition that doesn’t yet exist in other communities; and that elite spellers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds work exceedingly hard to prepare. I wish I had a team of people to talk to many more kids, but I was certainly able to delve deeply into the South Asian American phenomenon through my focus.
Ilana Gershon: Studying how children prepared for spelling bees gave you some surprising insights into how children are preparing for a future of work these days. What did you uncover about how these competitors think about time? About what it means to be a person who has interests or passions?
Shalini Shankar: Several things surprised and, quite frankly, stunned me. Their awareness of time management and its importance in elite spelling preparation was finely honed. It came down to how many words you could study per minute, how many times you could cycle through the entire unabridged dictionary during Bee Season, and how you managed your two minute turn on stage. I watched them become experts, which is always a fascinating process to observe. Equally important is mind management, in not getting psyched out by how confident other people seem; not getting flustered on stage in front of thousands of people, cameras, lights, and noise; and most importantly, learning to lose. It was so interesting to me to see a prominent folk ideology from my research in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, about failure being productive, resurface here. Knowing how likely they were to lose, they did a lot of mental work to not internalize being eliminated as failure. Rather, they saw it as a learning experience, a social experience, and one that strengthened their resolve to do better the next time. Here, concepts like “grit” and “growth mindset” proved helpful to me to connect what I was seeing to broader conversations about learning and success for kids.
Ilana Gershon: What are some of the political stakes for you in writing this book?
Shalini Shankar: Firstly, I wanted to offer an antiracist narrative about this particular immigrant story, challenging some of the underlying assumptions of what people often chalk up to “genetic.” The mainstream media would routinely report South Asian American kids as having a “spelling gene.” Those of us who study language know that is complete nonsense! To challenge this prevalent notion, I triangulated which immigrants were winning (the children of immigrants of the 1990 Immigration Act with advanced STEM credentials, a far less heterogeneous group than first few waves of post-1965 immigrants); and the potential impact of these immigrants beyond their own communities, as Generation Z has more children of immigrants than any other post-war cohort. This allowed me to argue that this cohort of immigrants has advanced professional skills and an urgent emphasis on education that has led them to take the brain sport of competitive spelling quite seriously, and this is what has led to their success.
Secondly, I wanted to understand how childhood might be changing through the lens of this increasingly competitive activity. I was curious about how Generation Z, raised by Gen X parents, may approach competition and challenge differently than Millennials raised by Baby Boomers. The amount of time that kids used to spend studying and preparing had grown exponentially from even a decade prior. Accessing a searchable, online dictionary, staying connected with fellow word nerds on social media, and the promise of being featured on ESPN primetime were all factors that heightened the stakes of not only this contest, but what kids could do. What I observed is that age and lack of experience isn’t necessarily seen as an obstacle; kids today take on challenges that previous generations might have deferred until college or afterword. Several chapters in the book take up the question of professionalizing childhood, and why that is important for kids. If a 15-year old elite speller can become a spelling bee coach as a first year high school student by training spellers via Skype and charging whatever they want (which is the case with several spellers I followed), it complicates how we think of kids as economic actors, and how they might enter the economy differently than their struggling Millennial predecessors.
Ilana Gershon: This is a book written for a general public, and as a result, you had to make calculated choices about what you would include and how. How do writing for academics about spelling bees differ from writing for non- academics–are there ideas you decided not to include because you were anticipating the most general audience possible?
Shalini Shankar: Unlike my previous two books Desi Land and Advertising Diversity, where I writing for readers in Anthropology and Ethnic Studies, I wasn’t sure who my readers would be here. I was very careful about choosing theoretical concepts that would resonate with non-specialists. This meant I didn’t get into the weeds about semiotic concepts that I’d otherwise have included. That said, I still offered a semiotic analysis where appropriate, just using different terminology and doing far more explanatory work. When I chose to publish this book with a trade press, I was completely unfamiliar with the process. It was a steep learning curve! There is no peer review process and you primarily work with your editor. It is really different to get feedback from a generalist rather than a specialist in your own field. I had a lot of back and forth with my editor about what kinds of claims I felt comfortable making. I think I definitely pushed past my previous limits with this book, but still stayed within the realm of plausibility. Most of all, I wanted to write a readable book that people could enjoy. I hope I’ve done that for at least some of the people who open it.