This talk will examine how members of Generation Z (b. 1997-present) compete in the prestigious “brain sport” of The National Spelling Bee. The talk will especially investigate the role that post-1990 professional immigrants from South Asia have played in heightening the level of this competition, as well as the role that broadcast and social media play in complicating these trends. Ethnographic examples drawn from fieldwork at spelling bees and with children and families will illustrate how, in a neoliberal era, children and parents collaborate in particular types of pre-professional socialization that enable competitors to develop “spelling careers.” The implications of these phenomena will be explored, especially in as much as they offer new understandings of contemporary childhood, as well as immigration, race, and ethnicity for Generation Z.
Shalini Shankar is Professor of Anthropology and Interim Director of the Asian American Studies program at Northwestern University. Her book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success is forthcoming with Basic Books (April 30, 2019). She is also the author of Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley (Duke 2008) and Advertising Diversity: Ad Agencies and the Creation of Asian American Consumers (Duke 2015), and coeditor of Language and Materiality: Theoretical and Ethnographic Explorations (Cambridge 2018). Her research has been generously supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Spencer Foundation for Research Related to Education, the Social Science Research Council, and other sources.
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