Shalini Shankar is the author of the book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success. Her other books include Desi Land and Advertising Diversity. She is a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University, and she lives in Evanston, Illinois, and Brooklyn, New York.
Q: Why did you decide to write about the National Spelling Bee and what it says about Generation Z?
A: As an anthropologist who studies youth culture and language, among other things, it seemed like a perfect melding of my interests.
Having enjoyed the 2002 documentary Spellbound, I was especially curious about why the contest itself and its young competitors today seem so different than the kids in the film. Specifically, they seemed much better prepared and more comfortable with the cameras and scale of it.
I also noticed that the words had gotten much more difficult, and came to learn that the whole event had become more competitive. I wanted to understand why that was and how this might align with broader changes in childhood.
Looking more broadly at Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012 (this end date has not been confirmed) allowed me to think about the changes in the Bee as part of broader shifts in the United States.
Q: You write, "About a decade ago, I noticed what others had also observed, that Indian American kids had started to win every year." Why do you think that is?
A: It is a very curious phenomenon, and attributable to a few factors. One is linked to the composition of Gen Z, which contains the most children of immigrants of any U.S. generation.
Among these immigrants, Indian Americans with children in the Bee are by and large first-generation immigrants who met the criteria for the 1990 Immigration Act passed by George H. W. Bush. This act solicited highly skilled STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals with advanced educational credentials.
They have, in turn, emphasized education and “brain sports” for their children. Their children participate in two “minor league” spelling circuits open to children of South Asian descent, as well as other cerebral contests. This gives them far more opportunities to study and compete in spelling bees especially, and many of them do so quite intently.
Q: What do you think of the result in the 2019 spelling bee, when there were eight co-champions?
A: It was spectacular! Since I first started this project in 2013, kids have been telling me something I had a hard time believing: “We don’t compete against each other. We compete against the dictionary.” I just couldn’t get my mind around how, even with co-champions in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
By 2018, when I finished research, I still didn’t understand the underlying logic of how that idea worked for them. In 2019, I finally did. Eight kids crushed the dictionary together, and they were magnificent.
I understand the viewpoint of people who think the Bee should only have one champion, but watching eight win was electrifying. Their prowess was formidable, especially when all eight of them withstood the three final rounds before being named champion. The expressions of surprise and delight on their faces were unlike anything I’ve seen at the Bee.
Q: What do you see looking ahead for the spelling bee?
A: Well, the only direction it can go is harder! They have to reconfigure the word list to address the elevated skill level of the 2019 spellers. Elite spellers will be expecting this. I wouldn’t be surprised if new measures are put into place as well, to avoid another eight-way tie.
Each year the Bee seems to get bigger and more intense, so I predict 2020 will be an especially extreme in that regard.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a project about Generation Z, aiming to understand their broader character and diversity. I am inspired by their activism and impressed by their digital fluency.
As a mom of two Gen Z kids (ages 9 and 13), I also share their concern about how competitive everything has become and how uncertain their future feels.
I’m especially interested in capturing the racial and ethnic diversity of Gen Z more broadly than I did in Beeline, focusing on how children of immigrants and mixed-race kids, along with African Americans and Native Americans, are changing the meaning of youth and what is possible during childhood.
I’m in the early stages, but the research is fascinating and promising so far.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: If you’re on the fence about whether you want to pick up Beeline, here’s my pitch: If you’re someone who cares about sports, education, media, youth, language, diversity, immigration, or the United States, I promise there is something in there for you.
Hope you enjoy it and please review it online if you do!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb