Daniel Friedrich with Erica Colmenares

Daniel Friedrich. Photo: Teachers College, Columbia University

Dr. Daniel Friedrich is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum, in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching, at Teachers College, Columbia University. Professor Friedrich has described himself as interested in “the ways in which the citizen is produced through different ideas of responsibility and the role given to history in guiding the present and the future. I have analyzed how in contemporary Argentina, for example, discourses about the last military dictatorship (1976–1983) are mobilized to define and bind the democratic citizen and to exclude those who do not fit.” Here, he talks with Erica Colmenares, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Teachers College, about his passion for education and the journey that led him from Argentina to New York City.

ERICA COLMENARES

Who is Dani? 

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

Who am I? I am me. One of the very strong convictions I have is that labels are never enough to describe who we are. So, I am me, and that is the only answer I can give.

ERICA COLMENARES

Why education?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

I think there are many reasons. It’s also where life takes you. I think initially it’s hard to deny that most people who go into education have a bit of that Messianic sense of, “I’m going to save the world, I’m going to change things, I’m going change the world,” and all that… All of which is fine, it’s good. I went into teaching thinking, “I’m not happy with the way the world is, I want to do something about it.” And I was interested in doing it through education. That’s what got me into it, but what kept me in the field was the challenging feeling. It was a challenge I couldn’t let go. It’s so complex, so interesting. Every time it’s different, every day it’s different. And I love challenges, so that was it for me.

ERICA COLMENARES

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got here to Teachers College?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

I’m from Argentina originally, and I lived there until 2005. When I was in Argentina, when I finished high school, I did two things. I went into a teaching program to become certified to teach elementary school (because in Argentina to become a school teacher it is not through the university, but through specialized institutions, teacher education institutions). That took two years. At the same time, I studied at the university what is called Educational Sciences, which was five years. It took me a total of six years – looking at all aspects of education, the history of education,  psychology of education, philosophy of education, sociology, etc.  So I was interested in being a teacher, but also trying to look at education from various perspectives. At that point I didn’t know if it was for the classroom or not, but I was interested in both. The teacher education program was not very good but it was what was available. There weren’t many good options, but the university gave me what I was missing.

When I finished the teacher education program, I started working as a teacher. I worked as a teacher for five years, mostly 5th through 7th grades, but also some in second grade, and I really loved it. It was great. However, my salary as a teacher wasn’t very good. It was terrible. So, I had to find new jobs. Once I finished college, I had to get two more jobs. At the point when I decided I wanted to pursue graduate studies, I had three jobs: one in the morning teaching elementary school, three afternoons per week coordinating projects in a high school, and some nights per week, teacher education. When I decided to go to grad school I thought that in order for me to take it seriously, I needed time to think. And with having three jobs at the time, I couldn’t think, I didn’t have time to think. So I decided to look for places where I could study but also have time. I looked at programs in the US, and to make things short, I found the program in Madison, Wisconsin, to have faculty whose work I read and admired in Argentina, especially Tom Popkewitz, who highly influenced my thinking and my teaching. I contacted him and we went back and forth and when he agreed to be my advisor, and guided me to get funding for my studies. I applied to Madison and I got in. I did my Masters there, and after one year of the Masters, they offered me to switch me to the PhD, so I went on to finish the Ph.D.  In total, I stayed in Madison for five years. When I finished my doctorate there, in the last year, I went to the job market, and I got this job. And I’m very happy to be here.

ERICA COLMENARES

What’s your inspiration, your motivation? What is it that drives you in your work?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

A mix of things. On the one hand, curiosity. I have to be challenged by researching or teaching about something that I don’t know about. I need to be curious about it. But it’s not curiosity about everything, it’s a curiosity tied to a sense of injustice, to a sense that the world is not working in a way that I would like it to work. I don’t know that I necessarily have the answers for how it should be working or how to solve those problems, but I’m willing to look into that. To push myself and others to think about certain things differently, and to challenge myself to question my assumptions and hopefully help others to question their assumptions, the assumptions that have lead us to a place of injustice.

ERICA COLMENARES

What do you feel is the best part of this profession?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

One of the things, for me at least, is that I never get bored. Two days are never the same. Also, knowing that it will always be the case because we are not going to get to the point where there are no more injustices in the world. I don’t believe in that utopian view. I think things can get better, that things can always get better. It’s a hopeful view. It’s not pessimistic to say we’ll never solve everything, it’s the idea that we can always be better. Not better individually, but as a collective. I really enjoy teaching. I love doing research. I think the best part of the job is that I get paid to do what I love to do, and what I love to do is a set of very different things. I talk to interesting people, I have good conversations, I teach, I get taught, I do research, and I read, I write. So I feel very fortunate to be where I am.

ERICA COLMENARES

What are the most challenging aspects of this profession?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

The fact that it’s a challenging profession is for me a positive. Well, like any academic body it’s a place with strong opinions and egos and different ways of looking at the world, which for certain kinds of things are good. But trying to commit to a particular path is hard. It is very hard to reconcile the way in which I want to challenge people to think about the possibilities in the classroom with knowing how hard it is in current times. It has always been hard, but nowadays, because of the restrictions there are for teachers in terms of standardized curricula, in terms of very limiting and limited spaces to act, and to act responsibly, to do what one thinks is best, its not impossible. I think there are still spaces to do things interestingly, but maybe that’s the hardest or most challenging way – to be able to juxtapose the possibilities with some of the realities of educational policy.

ERICA COLMENARES

What’s one of the best pieces of advice you have ever received?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

It is cliché, but if you are really really passionate about something, just follow through. This advice has been given to me in different moments of my life, from people in different ways, but so far it has always worked. When I was finishing my doctorate degree in Madison and I had the dissertation, some people would say it was highly theoretical. Also, it was very local because I was talking about Argentina, and many people gave me the advice to modify it, or to adapt it to the needs of the market. They said I would never find a job if I submitted this kind of work, so I should change the title, or the way I presented it, so it would be more practical, be more useful for American universities. Then, of course, when you’re looking for a job and you are frantic, you are doubtful, I went to Tom Popkewitz, my advisor, and he gave me the complete opposite advice which is: if you do good work that you are passionate about, that you trust you are doing the right way, a good job will find you. And it worked. I didn’t have tons of options, but the options I had were good fits for me.  If I would have changed what I was doing then maybe I would have had more options, but those options would have meant being someone I was not. When I chose teaching as a profession, I was very good in school, I could have gone into any career I wanted, and teaching did not pay very well. I heard from my mom and from other people who said, “You know, if this is what you want, then go through with it.” And I’m happy that I did.

ERICA COLMENARES

What advice would you give (if you were asked) to graduate students?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

That is one for sure*. Also, if you are choosing a dissertation topic, don’t choose a dissertation topic because of what you think other people want to read or what you think other people need to read. Choose something because you’re passionate about it because you are going to be married to that topic for many years. So, if you choose something because of reasons that are extraneous to you and extrinsic to your own motivation, because of how you are reading your professor, or because how you are reading what you suppose is the job market, first of all, you won’t end up with a very good product, and second of all, let’s say you did, and you got a job based on that, you will always be tied to something that you do not care very much about.

ERICA COLMENARES

What do you like to do for fun?

DANIEL FRIEDRICH

Well, right now I love to be with my son and my wife, but especially my son, who is about to turn one. I like to play tennis. I like to go for a run, to go for a hike. I love to eat, especially good food. I like to spend time with friends, have beer, talk. I love the movies.

ERICA COLMENARES

Thank you for your time!

* Professor Friedrich is referring back to previous answer.

Screen Shot 2013-05-13 at 10.19.04 PMErica Colmenares is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Originally from Caracas, Venezuela, Erica graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2004 with degrees in Elementary Education, Spanish Literature and French Language. In 2008 she completed her Masters degree at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She spent several years teaching elementary school in Kuwait and Indonesia. Her research interests include teacher preparation, international education, and intercultural communication/experiences.

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