Campus News Faculty Spotlight

Associate professor puts social theory into practice

Amy Stich is an associate professor at the Louise McBee Institute of Higher Education. (Photo by Jewel Caruso)

Amy Stich removes barriers in higher education while studying them

It took a nudge from a mentor before Amy Stich began to pursue a doctoral degree and a career in higher education.

As a first-generation college student from a working-class family in central New York, Stich recognized the significance of her background as soon as she started her undergraduate career. She fought feelings of not belonging in higher education to ultimately recognize the value of her perspective. As a sociology major, her coursework gave her the knowledge and language to connect her personal experiences to larger social patterns.

Now, as an associate professor at the Louise McBee Institute of Higher Education, Stich uses the same sociological lens to examine the very issues she encountered as an undergraduate student.

In particular, Stich is drawn to social theories that help us to understand how and why inequalities are reproduced through social institutions, even as those institutions work to increase access and equity. Drawing from these frameworks, she engages in equity-oriented work that aligns with her priorities and ethos.

Democratizing research teams

This commitment to the democratization of education leads Stich to embrace innovative research methodologies and course designs at the University of Georgia. In describing her research collaborations, Stich frequently uses the term “democratic.”

Stich’s collaborative approaches to the process of conducting qualitative research are as noteworthy and innovative as the specific lines of inquiry she pursues.

A recent article, co-authored by a graduate, a current student and Stich, examines the flattened team structure they devised during a three-year NSF-funded project for which Stich served as co-primary investigator. Kanler Cumbass, a part of the research team, said, “As her mentee, [Stich] has taught me the importance of democratizing research and building community across scholastic approaches.”

Another current study, part of a larger collaboration with Georgia Policy Labs and Achieve Atlanta, brings participants directly into the qualitative research process. Using Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR), her team leverages the experiences of participants and empowers them to partner as co-researchers in the overall study design, data collection, analysis and generation of recommendations to improve educational policy. Stich explains, “CPAR conducts research with participants rather than on participants.”

Amy Stich, left, stands with one of her students, Alexa Arndt. (Photo by Jewel Caruso)

Empowering student colleagues

Stich’s graduate courses in higher education are heavily discussion-based and student-centered.

“There’s very little lecture. Instead, I aim to cultivate an inclusive classroom culture that encourages all students to embrace different ways of thinking together in order to tackle difficult questions. My teaching philosophy recognizes the value and expertise each individual brings to the classroom, and I think that can lead to deeper learning for all,” said Stich.

Students who have taken courses and worked alongside Stich describe her style as “fearless,” and she has earned their respect. Her graduate classes often include people from diverse backgrounds, and she reinforces the importance of hearing everyone’s unique voices. Stich’s vocabulary also reveals her perspective, as she refers to her students as “colleagues,” and her aspiration “to push her student colleagues to think deeply, question bravely, and reach beyond where they thought possible.”

Returning to roots

Productive and busy mentoring commitments and collaborative research agendas compete for Stich’s time on individual scholarly pursuits.

Presently, Stich is planning to update her research on the infinite nature of stratification within institutions of higher education.

“Even as education is hailed as a great equalizer, not all opportunities are available to all students, and this shapes students’ experiences and outcomes. This becomes particularly problematic when we determine access to educational opportunities by inherently flawed conceptions of merit,” said Stich.

Tracking, the process of sorting students into academic tracks based on prior academic performance, and its effects have long been studied and debated in secondary education, but scholars have largely ignored similar trends within colleges and universities. The research informing Stich’s first book, “Access to Inequality,” turned her attention to this topic. She then carried out a two-year research project on tracking in higher education after being awarded a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2016. She is excited to return to this work.

This summer, Stich will travel to Spain to participate in a keynote panel at a convening of the British Sociological Association’s Bourdieu Study Group. Her work in social theory has given her a rich connection with scholars from around the world that continues to inform her research, teaching and everyday life.

In all settings, from a coffee shop near North Campus to a lecture hall in Barcelona, Stich seeks to create spaces for scholars to draw from their experiences, ask difficult questions, and respond to challenges in higher education without reproducing the same inequalities educators seek to ameliorate.