Liars and Racists

If Thomas Jefferson impregnated his slave, Sally Hemings, as historians claim, Jefferson was a rapist. No slave had the power of sexual consent or rejection; at best, slaves functioned within a repressive culture of “reduced circumstances.” [1]

About Andrew Jackson, Tim Morris explains:

Jackson was an unrepentant slaveholder and the power behind the legislation that forced five peaceful American Indian tribes from their homelands and triggered the Trail of Tears, a 1,000-mile death march that would leave 4,000 of 16,000 Cherokees dead along the way.

Jackson was an virulent racist.

South Carolina’s shame, as Will Moredock writes, Ben Tillman was a racist, terrorist, and murderer:

The then 29-year-old Tillman led the members of the Sweetwater Sabre Club, a.k.a. the Edgefield Redshits, against a local militia group, all black. Several African-American militia men were killed in a pitched battle with red-shirt-wearing white terrorists. After the militia surrendered, five of them were called out by name and executed. A few weeks later, when vigilantes captured a black state senator named Simon Coker, Tillman was present when two of his men executed the prisoner while he was on his knees praying.

In more recent history, Bill Clinton was an adulterer and a liar. His life as a sexual predator is undeniable.

Today, Donald Trump leads the U.S. as a serial liar and a racist. He has a history as a sexual predator and has bragged about sexual assault.

When I was a child and teenager, I was routinely hit and punished for my attitude, my tone—even when what I argued was, in fact, true, valid.

Of the failures by my father I still struggle against, this is one of the worst lessons he taught me: The credibility of what you claim is always secondary to how you make your claims, and you should always defer to authority even when authority is wrong and you are right.

That is the sort of tone policing bullshit that is the refuge of those in authority who realize they have no real right to that authority.

So I now witness the U.S. drift increasingly into the sort of environment I have rejected my whole life.

To call a liar, a liar, especially in jest, is somehow the offensive thing—not the lies and the liar.

To call a racist, a racist, is somehow the source of racial discord—not the racism or the racist.

Those in authority who know they have no real right to that authority are encouraging tone policing as a distraction.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a liar; that is the offensive thing.

Trump is a racist and a liar; that is the offensive thing.

Trump’s support is significantly driven by racism; that is a fact, and the offensive thing.

Let us by vigilant about naming liars and racists.

Let us not be derailed or dissuaded by tone policing.

The offensive thing is the thing itself—never the ones brave enough to name it.


[1] See from Beware the Bastards: On Freedom and Choice:

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (June), the eponymous handmaid of the tale, reveals that “[t]he circumstances have been reduced” (p. 8) for the younger women of Gilead, a post-apocalyptic theocracy of sorts. These seemingly fertile women have become extremely precious for the survival of the white race and paradoxically the embodiment of a perverse slavery for procreation.

Atwood has written at length about being indebted to George Orwell—those who control language control everything and everyone—and that her speculative novel includes a quilting of human actions drawn directly from history, not fabricated by Atwood.

How have humans kept other humans in literal and economic bondage? Often by exploiting token members of the group being exploited.

Thus, in The Handmaid’s Tale, a few women are manipulated to control other women. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

Throughout the novel, readers must navigate how Offred (June) weaves the overlap of her own original ideas and vocabulary as that intersects with the propaganda of Gilead:

Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen.

Rented license. (p. 50)

“Freedom” and “license” are exposed as bound words, the meanings contextual.

As Offred (June) continues to investigate rooms, she discovers a powerful but foreign phrase:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by that very fact, and it hadn’t been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (p. 52)

The power to control language includes defining words, but also denying access to language—forbidding reading and writing, literacy, to those in bondage.

And then, Offred (June) explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

And from that previous life of “ignoring” the other since it wasn’t about them, Offred (June) finds herself the procreation slave of a Commander, in “reduced circumstances” where she realizes: “There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (p. 94).

Her previous life of “ignoring” has been replaced by something seemingly more awful, but nearly exactly the same as she explains about the Ceremony: “One detaches oneself” (p. 95).

Even in Gilead, Offred (June) again becomes the other woman, lured into an infidelity characterized by playing Scrabble with the Commander, who reveals to her that Nolite te bastardes carborundorum is slang Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (p. 187).

Adolescent language as rebellion has become a life-or-death slogan for Offred (June).

As her relationship with the Commander becomes increasingly trite and complex, Offred (June) declares, “Freedom, like everything else, is relative” (p. 231).

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Mama’s Boy: Aftermath

I have never liked Mother’s Day—as I have never liked any holidays, special days. The burden of celebrations and gifts.

This sort of ceremony and tradition has always felt forced, insincere, superficial.

As I grew older and my mother grew older, buying her gifts became more and more difficult because what do people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond need given to them?

It is Mother’s Day 2018. My first since my mother died in December 2017 just a few months after my father died in June of the same year.

This Mother’s Day feels even more burdensome than normal, of course.

As I have examined, we left living have been sifting through all my parents’ stuff, throwing away most of it—presents rendered just more trash.

As I have examined, I am a churning mess of anxiety, in part, as a biological and environmental gift of my mother.

She died over the course of about six months, slowly and fitfully after a stroke and then stage 4 lung cancer. The stroke took her ability to communicate, but worst of all, it supercharged her anxiety.

It was horrible to witness.

It wasn’t a fair thing for anyone to endure on the way out.

I don’t have much left to say except I am more convinced than ever that these holidays, these designated moments to celebrate and give gifts—this is truly a real failure of human imagination.

For gifts, I had begun to give my mother plants, living plants in pots that could be transferred and maintained. I just could not buy her another shirt she didn’t really want and certainly didn’t need.

When my father-in-law died 7 years ago, his daughters found stacks of gifts, mostly shirts, if I recall correctly, never opened, never worn.

Just resting in his dresser.

Somehow I thought the plants were a best case approach to gift giving, to this damned circus of stuff that we have reduced our human condition to in the name of love.

But they weren’t.

What my mother needed, what my mother deserved, what everyone deserves, was her human dignity.

Especially in the last years and then final months, she needed and deserved high-quality and affordable health care.

Instead, her deteriorating body and my father’s even more dramatic decline were hellish burdens on them and everyone around them. And this wore heavily on my mother who believed her stroked killed my father at last (in a way, it did of course, but mostly, his life was at its end and she had kept him alive longer, if anything, than his frailness really supported).

My nephews and I are still trapped in the calloused and mind-numbing labyrinth of bureaucracy surrounding my parents’ living and dying, the most evil part being the insurance system designed more to deny healthcare, to deny human dignity, than anything else.

Dignity, I suspect, seems too abstract, and health care, too mundane.

But if all we can must are a few designated days, some really awful cards, and then an endless stream of things people really never wanted or needed, we may be better served to consider the real value of human dignity and the essential role something as mundane as high-quality and affordable healthcare for everyone plays in that dignity.

To live as if everyday were a holiday, to live for others as if we all deserve the full fruits of human dignity.


Recommended

I Ask My Mother to Sing, Li-Young Lee

Eating Together, Li-Young Lee

The Gift, Li-Young Lee

the philosophy of gerunds (my mother is dying)

my mother has returned to where she began

fragility (and then i realize)

Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Mix all the colors of light and we see white; the absence of light is black.

Mix all the colors of pigment and we see black; the absence of pigment is white.

This paradox of how we see color often is the source of debate; I’ve heard students complain about being taught different facts in art and physics classes. But it also serves as a useful metaphor for the problem of color as a foundation of race and racism.

When I was young and still discovering and shaping who I am (and necessarily coming to terms with race in the deep South), I was profoundly influenced by stand-up comedians—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin among the most influential.

Martin’s 1979 comedy album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, is a prescient title for two contemporary stand-up comedians whose routines, viewed together, capture nearly perfectly everything that is wrong with contemporary understanding about race and racism: Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney.

Having recently watched Chappelle’s and Mulaney’s newest specials, I was struck by how many of their bits were similar—both used their wives’ minority status to tread on dangerous material, both depended on meta-jokes based on reactions to their routines, both weaved in political humor with the autobiographical, both worked blue, and each addressed race.

However, these two men and their routines are also profoundly different—Chappelle is very much a black comedian (think Pryor), and Mulaney is very much white (think Jerry Seinfeld).

And I imagine anyone knowing these comedians finds this distinction a bit simplistic, even bordering on crass, but I want to argue here that race becomes the defining element of their work, and as such, exposes a central problem in public discourse about race and racism: Many whites are apt to resist discussions of race and racism with “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “I don’t see color.”

Let’s start with a few clips, a shortened version of Mulvaney’s Trump skit (here on TV, but expanded in his new special) and a couple clips from Chappelle on Netflix:

Mulaney’s political humor is indirect; it is metaphor—in a similar way his profanity is rare and his special includes one direct reference to being white.

Chappelle’s political humor, profanity, and race, by comparison, are direct, even blunt, and pervasive. Consider especially the second clip above.

Because of his whiteness, his privilege, Mulaney is afforded the space of being indirect while Chappelle, even as he acknowledges his wealth privilege, cannot risk these subtleties.

The paradox of race/racism in human behavior is parallel to the paradox of color in light/pigment: For whites, race seems always invisible because white is the norm of U.S. culture (the absence of race is white), but for blacks, race is a constant reality, something always visible (the presence of race is black).

The media rarely identify race for whites, but nearly always do for black and brown people—especially in criminal situations.

Whites, then, watching Mulaney are apt to see the routines as not about race (even though the entire routine is imbued with whiteness) and mostly not political (although, again, his entire routine is a political commentary); those same whites, we can guarantee, would see Chappelle as racial (if not, to misuse the term, racist) and strongly political.

The problem with race/racial/racism as that intersects with political is that everything in human behavior includes both, but the norms make one invisible to the dominant race (white) and omnipresent to the marginalized race (black). And thus, all human behavior is political either by omission (maintaining those norms) or by confrontation (changing the norms).

Mulaney, in his whiteness and the primary state of omission, becomes a seemingly less radical comedian; Chappelle, in his blackness and confrontation, becomes a seemingly more radical comedian.

I include “seemingly” because, as Chappelle acknowledges, both comedians work with wealth privilege—even as Chappelle is not afforded through that to rise about his being black (see his skit about being pulled over by the police while a friend is driving for him).

Almost 40 years past Martin’s visual gag (and he too may seem less political in his whiteness), Chappelle and Mulaney offer by comparison comedy that is not pretty, but is pretty sharp in terms of modeling the lingering problems with race and racism in the U.S.

Tiny Houses, Poverty Appropriation, and Stepping Back as a Critical Move

Once you cross that line into critical consciousness, nothing else is ever the same—professionally or personally. While I doubt this was Jeff Vandermeer’s intent, his Area X of the Southern Reach Trilogy provides a perfect metaphor for this critical “you can’t go home again.”

Maybe the most pressing aspect of being critical is the loneliness, the isolation you recognize when you are no more at home among traditional/conservative environments or progressive/liberal ones.

A close second is the exhaustion felt once you realize being critical is not something you can simply turn off in order to function at the so-called normal level—just to be one of the crowd among friends.

I was reminded of this while grabbing lunch and falling into a conversation with a very smart and very critical friend who was reading about tiny houses.

Here’s the great critical mistake: I had already worked through tiny houses (the problem with poverty appropriation) and just shut the door (hint: if you ever shut the door, you ain’t being critical).

So when my friend spoke positively about tiny houses and the movement, we did what we do: Launching into a fairly passionate conversation that certainly sounded to anyone nearby like an argument.

My first response to this exchange is to confess that I was guilty of not doing the critical move that everyone should make: No matter where you stand on an issue, no matter how much you have unpacked and teased through all the complications, you must always be willing to step back and look again, to listen once more.

Further, as I made my claims, I recognized that my argument about most issues being way more complicated than people realize is incredibly relevant to how we should respond to the tiny house movement—which does smack of poverty appropriation but also promotes a critical investigation of what it means to create a space for living as well as what it means to be a consumer trapped in the allure of gathering ever-more stuff.

The discussion unfolded along a clear line—my skepticism about the majority of those embracing the tiny house movement versus my friend’s appreciation for the possibilities of tiny house ideologies.

We also were wrestling with to what degree do intentions matter, the good intentions problem.

Ultimately, the tiny house movement does present a real concern about poverty appropriation, but the movement itself also forces anyone who is critical to return to an important aspect of being critical, the need to step back and recognize that no issue is as simple as most people think.

So what do we do once we see the poverty appropriation in the tiny house movement, once our critical consciousness is triggered?

Resist a blanket discounting seems a wise caution.

Continue to study, to listen, seems a necessary step as well so here are some ways I found to continue thinking critically about the tiny house movement:

Navigating the tiny house movement may seem too academic, too removed from our every day lives (since some of our discussion was strongly grounded in how being privileged allows someone to make decisions that can easily trivialize many people’s lives that are without such choices). But I think how we manage this issue is a powerful example of all of our living once we have critical consciousness.

To be critical, Paulo Freire argued, is to resist fatalism, and thus, if our critical sensibility erases hope, unpacks anything and everything so finely that we are left paralyzed, then we are not being critical.

To be critical is to recognize that being human is a political act; we are always securing the status quo or affecting change. No other option exists.

Being critical must not be reduced to mere academic dismantling—the state of fatalism—if it is to remain critical, and thus revolutionary.

Being critical is not mere cynicism, not the calloused dismissing of a hand waved.

And that leads me to a final thought on being critical: Surround yourself with smart friends, and then be always ready to listen.

To return to my opening nod, Vandermeer’s Area X, we must add to our critical consciousness that interrogating tiny houses, for example, is a subset of investigating the larger systems within which any movement or behavior exists (my friend uses an analogy to veganism, trying to unpack its ethics versus the ethics of meat eating).

Area X is expanding, seemingly unstoppable, and it changes everything, including people (maybe replacing them with copies) and anyone’s perception of reality.

There is always another level if we are willing to step back far enough, but as soon as we do, we often see ourselves in the mirror of criticism, and then, another layer of discomfort awaits us.

I certainly need to keep stepping back. I certainly need to face myself in that mirror.

Draconian: of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in the public high school I had attended. The town and schools were the sort of traditional Southern environments that probably would seem to be caricature or even satire to someone not from the mid- to late twentieth century South.

I had been a very successful student at the school, graduating eighth in my class, but except for a few wonderful and life-changing teachers, I had found school to be mostly something to endure, especially high school as I became more and more recalcitrant.

When I began teaching there, several administrators and many teachers remained from my time as a student; while the traditional norms of the town and school endured—the greatest sources of my discomfort, having realized I was almost entirely unlike what was considered normal—I discovered as a teacher that I simply could not comply with the authoritarian disciplinary codes of the school.

We used a demerit system, and eventually adopted both in-school suspension and an after-school homework detention. Many of the demerit guidelines were automatic penalties—for chewing gum or eating in class, being late, and any restroom visit during class time.

Teachers monitored their doorways and the halls during class changes, and were themselves monitored by administrators for compliance with these rules.

Over nearly two decades, then, these authoritarian (and ridiculous in my view) policies were the source of my constantly being reprimanded for not enforcing the rules. Late students entered my class, usually without disturbance, and took their seats; students also with almost no disruption ate occasionally in class (although one group of students began to organize bringing snacks for their groups and had something nearly akin to a picnic many days during writing workshop).

But the most egregious flaunting of the rules in my classes was my approach to students going to the restroom.

In a school where the principal had his own private restroom in his office, going to the restroom was a manufactured and persistent source of anxiety for students (and even teachers who had very little personal time during the day).

Thus, I never turned students in, but I also created a process in which I had permanent passes on my desk that students simply took before excusing themselves to the restroom—all of which occurred without them having to ask, resembling what some of us may associate with simply leaving class while in college.

Early in my career, part of this commitment to the dignity of my students was grounded in the very real and very publicly difficult process adolescent women face during their periods. No one, I decided, should ever have to fret over going to the restroom, regardless of the need, but my female students were among the ones most appreciative of being able to attend to their needs without question or public announcements.

In fact, my female students began keeping a supply of tampons in my desk; there were times students I had never taught would swing by my room and simply ask to have access to my desk.

This is what I am most proud of about my 18 years teaching high school: I was not perfect, and I certainly can confess to many mistakes, but on balance, students recognized that my room was mostly theirs and it also was mostly a safe haven for their ideas, their words, their genuine selves, and their human dignity.

I must add here that what I am most ashamed of during those years are the times I failed that commitment. I believe I can name all of them, all of the students involved, and I deeply regret my failures.

This came rushing back to me as I have been reading reactions to the “no excuses” unmasking of Noble Network of Charter Schools—the most disturbing example being:

One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods.

“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.”

At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code.

Maybe because of my own discomfort as a student, maybe because my years teaching high school confirmed for me that the human dignity of students trumps everything else—everything else—I have been an early and persistent critic of “no excuses” ideologies, prominent in the charter school movement and championed by KIPP.

Because I have been a critic, I have been publicly attacked and falsely demonized in print by “no excuses” advocates and apologists who steadfastly deny the exact problems exposed in the coverage of Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Now, there may seem to be little to compare except for the poverty between student populations in my hometown, mostly white working-class and poor, and the majority-minority students served by “no excuses” charter schools. But I think we should all consider how authoritarian discipline (“no excuses,” zero tolerance, resource officers, metal detectors, suspension/expulsion) are disproportionately implemented with black, brown, and poor students.

At the core of this dynamic is a belief that some children are naturally defective, needing to be corrected, or because of cultural and racial stereotypes, that some children are reared to be defective, also needing to be corrected.

Affluent and mostly white students at elite private schools are exempt from being subjected to “no excuses” ideologies for a reason.

One of my favorite words has always been “draconian” because it fits into that small camp of words that sound like their meaning (“awkward” is among the greatest of these because what is more awkward to English speakers than “wkw”).

Draconian schooling, like draconian parenting, are among the most vile behaviors by adults. Authoritarian adults are petty humans, and their lust for power over those already weaker than them is a reflection on their own pettiness, their own insecurities.

On balance, there is no excuse for “no excuses” practices at any schools, but that is even more significant for our vulnerable students, the ones made vulnerable because of the poverty in their homes and communities, the ones made vulnerable because of the lingering inequities of this country (and the powerlessness of schools to change that), the ones made vulnerable by their sex or gender.

Noble Network of Charter Schools are not outliers; they are a harbinger of everything that is wrong with the charter school movement as well as our failure to create schools—public, charter, or private—that at their core protect the human dignity of all students.

Noble Network of Charter Schools is a real-life allegory confirming a central theme found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which warns through Offred how authoritarian practices create violent fantasies and behaviors; as one Noble teacher explains: “‘One student says it best,“When you treat us like animals, what do you think we are gonna act like?”’”

There is nothing noble about “no excuses” for our children and teens when the adults behind those practices are themselves above the moral and ethical standards they claim to be demanding of students.

If You Are Grading, You May Not Be Teaching

Throughout my career of about two decades as a high school English teacher and then approaching another two decades in higher education (as a teacher educator and first-year/upper-level writing professor), I have avoided and delayed grading as well as eliminated testing from my classes.

My experiences with first-year and upper-level writing instruction have further confirmed that if you are grading, you may not be teaching.

Specifically, teaching citation and scholarly writing has revealed a problem that directly exposes why grading often works against our instructional goals.

First, let me stress again that the essential problems with grading include how traditional practices (such as assigning grades that are averaged for quarter and/or semester grades that are then averaged for course grades) tend to blur the distinction between summative and formative grades, inhibiting often the important role of feedback and student revision of assignments.

The blurring of formative and summative grades that occurs in averaging, as I have confronted often, deforms teaching and learning because students are being held accountable during the learning process (and thus discouraged from taking risks).

To briefly review the problems with grades and averaging, let me offer again what my major professor argued: Doctors do not take a patient’s temperature readings over a four-day stay in the hospital in order to average them, but does consider the trajectory of those readings, drawing a final diagnosis on the last reading (or readings). Thus, averaging is a statistical move that distorts student growth, deforms the value of reaching a state of greater understanding.

As I have detailed before, consider a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment could be 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

But another problem with grades and averaging that speaks to this post is something my students taught me when they complained about their math classes. Several students informed me that they had never passed a single math test, but had passed math courses.

The trick? Students earned bonus points for homework, etc., that were added to each test, on which students never reached a passing score.

This process means that cumulatively students never acquired so-called basic or essential math skills, but passed the courses, resulting in course credit that grossly misrepresented student learning.

Therefore, returning to my claim that grading may not be teaching, when we subtract for so-called errors to assign grades, we are allowing students to move through the learning process without actually learning the element being graded. In most cases, I believe, that strategy is teaching students that the element really doesn’t matter.

This dynamic is particularly corrosive when teaching scholarly writing and citation. Citation is one area of writing that doesn’t have degrees; you either cite fully or you don’t.

Many students, similar to the math students noted above, have never reached any level of proficiency with citing because they have mostly had points deducted for improper citation and then gone on their merry way, never having learned to cite fully.

If citation is essential, to grade and never require mastery of citation have two very negative consequences: (1) students do not attain an essential skill (and may exit formal education without the skill), and (2) students fail to understand the importance of drafting, receiving feedback, and revising.

Academic writing is challenging for developing young writers since it demands complex technical demands (such as citation and document formatting) and high expectations for content and style. Students need years and dozen of experiences reading and writing academic writing across multiple disciplines and varying conventional expectations.

But we cannot expect students to acquire the nuances of citation if we simply grade and never allow or expect them to cite fully and properly as an essential aspect of an academic writing experience.

As I make this case, I want to stress that as writing teachers we are trying to balance expectations for students and provide them low-stakes opportunities to draft with little or no consequences.

Students should have both writing assignments that demand minimum proficiency with key skills such as citation and writing contexts that foster and allow taking risks and working outside conventions.

Grading, I witness daily, inhibits both of those in ways that suggest the non-graded writing class is the best opportunity for students to learn in holistic and authentic ways that reveal themselves in student writing samples.

Because of their experiences being graded, I struggle to help students see that citation, grammar, mechanics, style, and content all work in unison either to support or erode their authority as writers and scholars.

I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessary areas to learn, grow, and excel.

As I end my thirty-fourth year teaching, I cannot stress hard enough that if you are grading, you may not be teaching, and your students likely are not learning the very things you value enough to assess.