First COE Ann Swindells Chair took winding road from lit to literacy

Gina Biancarosa

It may seem ironic for an associate professor at the College of Education, but Gina Biancarosa discovered her calling after she dropped out of Boston College, just one course shy of a master’s degree in English. Her decision marked the beginning of a circuitous path to the UO, where this April she was honored as the inaugural Ann Swindells Chair in Education.

“When I was in my 20s, I took the bachelor’s and ran,” Biancarosa recalled. “My professors wanted me to pursue a Ph.D. But I had a crisis of faith.”

She loved literature, but wanted something more — a feeling that she was helping people. Like in high school, when she tutored grade-schoolers. Or when she volunteered in college as a reader for the blind.

So she found work in Boston helping students prepare for the SAT, PSAT and GRE graduate school entry exam (which, she said, spurred a keen interest in measurement and assessment). But the real “aha” moment came when she started volunteering as an adult literacy tutor on the side.  

“The stories my students told me were painfully similar,” she said. “They worked hard to make a living but were restricted in terms of what they could do. So many things we take for granted — reading a driver’s manual, a recipe or a book to your child — were huge obstacles. What they could have learned in one year as a child takes years to learn as an adult. I became very interested in what I could do to help these people while they were still in school.”

She enrolled in a one-year licensure program at Harvard to become a literacy specialist. But her path was diverted again, this time by a course in literacy politics and policy — a class she found so fascinating she skipped a required licensure course to attend it instead (both were scheduled at the same time).

That ended her licensure plans but eventually led to a Harvard Ed.D. Along the way, she taught in grade schools, co-authored a groundbreaking work with renowned language and literacy expert Catherine Snow, and cultivated an implacable curiosity about reading comprehension.

She spent three years doing postdoctoral research at Stanford University, then joined the UO faculty. At the college, Biancarosa is a lead researcher for the Multiple-choice Online Cloze Comprehension Assessment project. The test helps teachers diagnose reading comprehension challenges and could lead to new interventions.

“Hearing about the chair was breathtaking,” Biancarosa said. “And very humbling.” The chair was established with a $1.2 million gift from the late Ann Johnston Swindells, a 1955 alumna who studied education.

“It’s always an honor to be recognized. It also means very practical things, like additional research dollars that will make it easier to do my work in a time of very competitive federal funding.”

That includes funding to help realize her dreams of an interdisciplinary initiative for literacy research. For now, Biancarosa and her colleagues call this initiative Language and Literacy Equity Assessment and Policy. She hopes the initiative will unite faculty members from across campus to study language and literacy acquisition and development.

“For me, this is all about improving access and opportunities for people who have been underserved by our educational, economic and political systems,” she said. “Literacy is the gatekeeper skill. The ability to read, write and express yourself opens the doors to opportunity.”

—By Ed Dorsch, University Communications