Lam Honored for Immigration Research

Lam Honored for Immigration Research

Eva LamProfessor Eva Lam’s research focuses on language, literacy, and diversity in education.

Northwestern University professor Eva Lam and her coauthors received the Alan C. Purves Award from the National Council of Teachers of English for their research looking at what happens when young people tell their own immigration stories through documentary filmmaking.

Their study, published in the journal Research in the Teaching of English, examined a program that helped children with immigrant backgrounds develop multimedia storytelling skills. Their project was designed to highlight voices in their community and to engage with larger societal issues.

“In a time when xenophobia and misunderstandings about immigration are on the rise and actively promulgated in society, we need to support learning in classrooms and other educational settings that reflects the voices of immigrants and children of immigrants,” the researchers wrote. “We can harness the power of narrative to connect people to the personal experiences of migrants and the societal contexts of migration.”

The study “Multimodal Voicing and Scale-Making in a Youth-Produced Video Documentary on Immigration” was coauthored by a multidisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in education, journalism, and civics.

Lam, associate professor of learning sciences at the School of Education and Social Policy, worked with a team that included alumna Natalia Smirnov (PhD19); Amy A. Chang, a doctoral student in learning sciences at the School of Education and Social Policy; Northwestern's Matt Easterday, associate professor of computer science and learning sciences; alumna Enid M. Rosario-Ramos (PhD11), assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education; and Jack C. Doppelt, the Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Journalism at the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. 

In the first phase of the project, high school students were tasked with creating a documentary film that explored an immigration issue. They used personal testimonies, interviews, music, images and more to explain the problems the threat of deportation created for families and communities.

Viewers learned the story of a girl named Maria and her family, who came to the US from Mexico. At the same time, the filmmakers juxtaposed the family’s experience with the voices of immigrant advocates and city government, weaving it into policy issues. “They centered the story of the family to help people understand the impact of deportation and other dehumanizing policies,” the researchers wrote. “This contrasts with generalized statements about immigrants.”

The paper builds on research that looks at how decisions are made–and who makes them–as documentary films are created. By turning interviews, video footage, and other assets into a story, the young filmmakers selected particular speakers and frames from these real-life interactions to include and to better reflect their own experiences, the researchers said.

The paper also adds to research on a concept called ‘scale,’ or how space and time affect someone’s point of view. The impact of deportation and family separation has both immediate consequences and long-term effects over time and across borders. “By including this they introduce different perspectives to help people understand the people’s struggles and strength in the face of a broken immigration system,” the researchers wrote.

Media production gives students the chance to control the narrative. By documenting and using their own language and cultural influences, they’re able to extend important conversations in society, says Lam, whose larger body of work examines what immigrants can teach others about new literacies.

Lam says it’s important to support and collaborate with immigrant communities to tell their stories using diverse mediums because “these communities are often marginalized in society due to language and cultural differences, and their interests are often not reflected in mainstream media.”

Whereas issues of migration had been sidelined in the current pandemic world with the closing of state borders, immigrant students continue to be some of the most vulnerable populations in our school system, particularly those who are multiply marginalized by race, home language, poverty, and undocumented status. Climate change and aggravated global inequality will continue to drive migration in the foreseeable future.

Lam’s research focuses on language, literacy, and diversity in education. Her broader goal is to use linguistic and cultural diversity to help students excel both academically and socially in an increasingly intercultural world.

She has served as mentor and advisory board member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color fellowship program since 2014.

“The ability to represent multiple historical contexts across societies and spatial boundaries, and to relate oneself to these contexts is important in creating more complex narratives on migration and other societal issues,” she says.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 12/1/21