Paul Carlson: 50 Years of Making a Difference
In another timeline in an alternate universe, Paul Carlson might have spent decades tending to acres of farmland on the East Coast instead of preparing educators for the classroom.
It might be surprising for those who have known Carlson to imagine him doing anything not related to teaching or community service. But for the revered educator who grew up on a farm, higher education wasn’t an option in his mind until he was a teen and his father asked him an important question: What do you want to do with your life?
“When I told him I wanted to farm, he pretty quickly wore me down,” Carlson said. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to get a college education.’ It hadn’t even occurred to me that I should go to college. But the decision to go to college changed the whole course of my life.”
As the University of Houston-Victoria celebrates its 50th anniversary, Carlson, a professor of education, will also celebrate the milestone with the university. He was one of the first faculty members on campus, then known as the University of Houston Victoria Center. Except for a couple of leaves of absence, Carlson has spent nearly 50 years teaching at UHV and decades researching the latest in education, community research and service.
Carlson has taught mainly education preparation courses in Victoria and Katy, as well as in Houston and the Crossroads and South Texas areas. He has taught hundreds – maybe even thousands – of teachers who educate at all levels, and some of whom have gone on to lead educational institutions.
“When you talk about education at UHV, it’s difficult not to talk about the positive impact Dr. Carlson has had on the university, our students and the programs we offer,” said Diane Prince, a UHV professor emeritus.
Prince, who retired from teaching full time in 2019, joined UHV as an assistant professor in 1974, a year after UHV started. She has served in various roles at UHV, including as dean for the college of education. She also was a student of Carlson’s while he was still teaching at the University of Houston main campus prior to teaching in Victoria, and the two have been colleagues and friends for many years.
His sharing of knowledge isn’t limited to the classroom, either. Carlson has been a mentor to many faculty members, whether in the college of education or across any subject in the university, Prince said. He offered leadership advice to Prince during her time leading the education college and gave her valuable critiques of the work they were doing. Some of the advice and critique came from his own experiences and from what he learned through research. He has taken on other leadership roles, such as serving as a senator for the Faculty Senate for years, or by helping to build education programs. Carlson also has done consultant work with different school districts as well to have a better sense of how UHV can best serve the needs of the community.
“He is always a scholar and continues to stay on the cutting edge of research,” Prince said. “Dr. Carlson is a strong advocate for students and for our university. He is dedicated to his profession and is what we all would hope a full professor would be at a university. The UHV community is incredibly lucky to have him.”
In addition to his years of teaching, Carlson, who also has a background in anthropology and linguistics, has spent years conducting or leading research focused on the intricacies of communities, including how people interact with each other and how different upbringings can affect the development and behaviors of children and how they learn.
During one of his two leaves of absence from the university, he even left to work for the U.S. Department of State for a few years as a social science analyst and conducted international development work.
But it was during his time as a schoolteacher in the U.S. Virgin Islands early in his teaching career that sparked his interest in how anthropology and education intersect, and how understanding people from different cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds can help educators reach all of their students.
It also made him realize that he, along with so many other teachers, had no training or preparation to teach students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He went back to graduate school in the early 1970s for a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Massachusetts to learn more about anthropology, and since then, has included anthropology in his education courses, including the undergraduate course, “Anthropology of Diverse Populations.”
Although that course has had to change and be adapted for state assessment requirements, the premise of the course has maintained its importance for teachers in the classroom. He also discusses with his graduate students the different ways in which people from different ethnic backgrounds respond and communicate, as people are all culturally influenced.
During his first few years teaching in Victoria, Carlson gained permission to start a field school in the British Virgin Islands with an anthropologist colleague who taught at the University of Maryland. Carlson and his colleague ran the field school for two summers for students who were studying anthropology, and students would live in different communities to conduct anthropological research. Currently, Carlson is conducting research with other UHV education faculty members on bias in the identification and assessment of culturally and ethnically diverse children, and whether certain children are either being overly or underdiagnosed with behavioral problems.
“Information is not frozen in time and is constantly evolving,” Carlson said. “The research is how we continue to better understand each other and how to best serve our children and, on a wider scale, the future of our communities. We keep up with the research in our field because our students are on the frontlines in education, and it is important that they are prepared with the most up-to-date information available.”
For UHV alumna Yonghui Wang, she is thankful to have had a professor like Carlson. Wang teaches kindergarten Chinese, math and science at the Mandarin Immersion Magnet School in Houston. Carlson was the instructor of the “Education in a Diverse Society” course during the summer of 2018 when Wang was in the UHV curriculum and instruction graduate program, with an emphasis on English as a Second Language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
With his instruction and guidance, Wang was able to build a deep understanding of the social theories and pedagogies such as “differential socialization” as well as examining the big picture of the social contexts of diversity, she said.
He also helped her develop an awareness of the funds of knowledge approach, which is the cultural practices and knowledge that children learn through their family and community, and how to integrate it into her language teaching and subject content teaching. To facilitate student learning and understanding, Carlson also shared with his students one of his unpublished manuscripts, “Education in Diverse Communities,” which provided a framework for examining differential socialization, she said.
“I am thankful for Dr. Carlson’s professionalism and expertise with regards to analyzing some of the critical issues in public education, nationally and locally,” Wang said. “Dr. Carlson strongly equipped me to teach my culturally and linguistically diverse students through incorporating young dual language learners’ funds of knowledge and connecting language and content learning with the students’ daily life. I sincerely appreciate Dr. Carlson’s instruction and guidance through my learning journey.”
One of his favorite memories from his career was when, during the 1990s, Carlson and other education faculty ran an after-school program at a neighborhood housing complex in Victoria. For nearly 10 years, Carlson and the faculty, along with some UHV education students, ran the program for at-risk students.
Up to 30 children of all ages would show up for the program on a regular basis, and the faculty were able to assess the students in several subjects and create individual programs for them. They would also meet with the parents of some of the students to gain a better understanding of how to best support the students and their families.
The program was very effective and had positive results, and even though he was met with some skepticism in the community about the program, he knew it was helping students. He would love to start a program like that again because it helps sharpen the skills of both the education faculty and those they are teaching to better understand the students in the community.
“That program was one of the greatest joys of my life,” he said.
After more than 50 years of teaching, Carlson is still as dedicated as ever to his profession and enjoys being in the classroom, even if the classroom is sometimes a computer monitor. Online learning is helpful and necessary, but for Carlson, he is still like the many teachers he has taught, who find joy in teaching in a classroom and making that special connection with a cohort of students.
“Having that connection is something I miss,” he said. “Once you have face-to-face connection during a semester with students, that tends to stay with you. I’ve had some very interesting conversations with students and former students in places like the supermarket, and we’d stop there in the aisle and catch up and see if there’s anything they need that we can help them with. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. But we’re always here to help.”
If you see Dr. Carlson out and about, do make sure to say hello.
The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 50 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.