The Politics of the Hero’s Journey: A Narratology of American Special Education Textbooks with Professor Assaf

By: Carlie Gerberick, Kassidy Sandoval, Daniel Velasquez, and Nicole Turner

Professor Elise Assaf, a California State University Alumni, continues to impact the students and staff years after graduating. Professor Assaf was born and raised in Orange County. Following her father’s wishes, she stays local when pursuing her higher education after completing her undergraduate in Communication with a concentration in Public Relations. Professor Assaf went on to complete both her master’s and doctoral. Continuing her higher education enforces her love of being in the classroom. Teaching was a way to continue this passion. Now a professor at her almatar. Professor Assaf paves the way for her students to find their love of learning. In her recent research study, The Politics of the Hero’s Journey: A Narratology of American Special Education Textbooks. Professor Assaf collaborated with Jennifer James and Scot Danfrom.


What was the influence behind your research project: The Politics of the Hero’s Journey: A Narratology of American Special Education Textbooks American Special Education Textbooks?

“It was a paper I worked on with two individuals; one of them was a professor at Chapman. I did a graduate research project with him which was the start of that paper. About a semester into it, we decided to bring on a peer of mine who was in the program at the same time. The professor teaches disabilities courses within the program at Chapman; my friend and I were both within that concentration. The reason that professor reached out to me to work on that project was because of my background in communications and looking at content analysis. Since that wasn’t in his field, we basically created a team of people that were experts in their different fields to make sense of that study. He had the idea, I brought the research methodology background, and my friend Jenny brought the English background.”

In your study, you work alongside Jennifer James and Scot Danfrom. How did you divide the work between you and your peers?

“Initially, there were just two of us, Scott and myself; he was the idea person. While he came up with the concept. I contributed to the preliminary coding and looked at all of the data. When Jenny came on, the data had been coded, but we changed the study a bit, so we went back, and all three did analysis on the data.”

What do you think is the impact your study has?

“The hope is that people see it and realize that there are some things that are problematic in special education teaching and are not inclusive in the stories they tell teachers. They don’t show that people with disabilities are able to do things for themselves and have had an impact on history and change. The impact we hope is that we need to be more inclusive in the stories we tell.”

What would you do differently knowing what you know now?

  “It was the first study where I was working with other people, being aware of team dynamics of others insights and understanding. I was fortunate to get along with my partners and that we were able to bounce ideas off of each other and work collectively as a group. They brought good ideas to the table, and I didn’t feel like I was doing most of the work. There can be beneficial team experiences, and make sure you are working with people that you respect and enjoy being around because you’re going to be working with them a lot during that time period. We went in with one idea and kind of expanded that idea and went down a slightly different path, so just the fluidity of all that.”

What brewed or inspired the research topic you chose?

Scott’s idea, he saw a need for this type of research, and there is a type of research that intrigues you where you have a question on what’s going on within your area of expertise, so you want to dig deeper. We had our meetings on how to achieve those questions and make it a study, then we went from there.

Did you run into any difficulties while conducting this study?

“It was pretty straightforward because we had a team that worked well together in which we could divide the tasks. When we did make some changes to the study and changed things from what we initially planned, it wasn’t an issue; we just realized we needed to shift a bit.”

How was data collected for the research project? 

The team analyzed five of the leading American special needs textbooks used in university teacher education programs. To find the top five textbooks, they decided to base them on the best-selling textbooks for “Introduction to Special Education” courses. Professor Assaf added, “We thought that if they are the top five, then that means the most number of people are looking at them, and they should be significant.” To gauge which five textbooks are the best-selling, they reached out to sales representatives from three of the leading publishing houses; SAGE Publishing, McGraw-Hill Education, and Pearson Education. 

(Assaf et al., 2021)

What are data coding and content analysis, and how were they used for the research?

Data coding is the process of taking information that is collected from a wide range of texts and/or observations and transforming them into a set of significant, cohesive categories. Content analysis is a research tool used to discover the presence of patterns, key terms, themes, and concepts in a given text, in this case, American special needs textbooks. Professor Assaf went into detail about how data coding and content analysis was used for her team’s research, “Our data points were history chapters within textbooks. I scanned those chapters and read through them initially, then came up with initial code words and terms to highlight. When they would talk about government change, people with disabilities, or a high-profile individual we went through and coded for all of those. We had a meeting about it and then came up with some themes we found. It changed a little bit when Jenny came on, we ended up shifting to include some English lit stuff, then went back and coded for the Hero’s Journey, then it had to apply to that.”


In our interview with Assaf, we focused on the process a team undergoes to successfully address and uncover a research goal. Approximately three years passed between the conception of the project to the publication of the results. Her biggest tip was to be sure you work with a group you get along with and work well with. Researchers must combine knowledge and skill, and make sure things are distributed appropriately based on each individual’s abilities.

We can take Assaf’s information and advice directly into our research. The key takeaway is that working with a team who is both passionate and dedicated will lead to success of the problem you are trying to identify and the research you conduct to attempt to answer it. 

Teamwork makes the dream work! 


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