The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

From Sports Fanaticism to Plagiarism: This Week in What Is Wrong with Education

In the fall of 1984, I entered the field of education as a high school English teacher, assigned the exact room in which I had been a student and where my mentor, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to a district-level job.

Oddly, 18 years later, I transitioned to higher education after completing the same doctoral program as Lynn; the odd part is that I again filled the position Lynn left to return to public education. My office then and now was designed by Lynn as the education department was moving into a new building just as he left and I was hired.

Over my 33 years as an educator, I have acquired expertise and experience in two fields, education and English, and in two levels of formal education, K-12 public and university/college.

I entered education because I recognized early that although I excelled in and benefitted greatly from education, formal education was deeply flawed. Most of the good in formal education survived in spite of the system—because of wonderful teachers who somehow rose above the system and because some of us had privileges that allowed us to excel, again, in spite of not because of.

From about the fall of my junior year of college on, however, I knew that formal schooling tended to reflect and perpetuate the very worst of our society; that although education could be revolutionary and transformational, it often was not.

My career as an educator also began almost exactly at the genesis of the accountability era that has been an epic failure because the political prognosis of educational failure was completely wrong and thus the cures have all been disastrous.

Formal education at all levels in the U.S. suffers from the corrosive influences of privilege and inequity, and since those with power benefit mightily from that privilege and inequity, they will never (and probably are not able to) address those genuine failures—what I would phrase as: We have failed formal education; formal education has not failed us.

The week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017 has been illustrative of the kinds of problems with education that the powers-that-be are apt to ignore and reject, and these examples have come in an unlikely pair: Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and Monica Crowley, who is poised to serve in the Trump administration.

Swinney, as Dave Zirin unmasks, represents an “obscene amount of entitlement” because in the U.S. scholastic sports and coaches enjoy a perverse and warped degree of fanaticism; Zirin continues:

Here is someone working on a refurbished plantation who makes millions of dollars off the sweat and head injuries of overwhelmingly black, unpaid labor, and yet when asked about the Black Lives Matter movement in September, he said, ”Some of these people need to move to another country.”…

College football is a septic tank of entitlement. It’s a fungal culture created by the head coaches of Big Football. Dabo Swinney is the very embodiment of that culture: adrift, clueless, and filthy rich.

Quoted in Zirin’s piece, Clemson assistant professor Chenjerai Kumanyika has confronted his university, the football program at Clemson, and Swinney; as well, Kumanyika has a unique perspective he has shared on Facebook:

Clemson University as a public institution founded in and remaining mostly resistant to moving beyond its racist roots (see AD Carson and Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition), the National Champion Clemson football team, and Swinney are all powerful examples of the veneers that exist to mask what the powers-that-be claim to be about and what they truly are about.

Let me stress here that Clemson University, Clemson football, and Swinney are not unique, not the worst, and certainly not outliers. The point here is that this is what education is in the U.S.

Hypocrisy is rampant not only in claims about student-athletes but also in the unholy alliance between athletics/coaches and Christianity.

From Zirin to Kumanyika to professor Louis Moore (and many others), scholastic sports has been confronted as a contemporary obscenity in which mostly white men accumulate great wealth and power on the backs of mostly black males—only a very few of which ever gain access to some of that wealth, too few are afforded the educations they are guaranteed, and way too many suffer great physical injury.

Coaches like Swinney and Nick Saban are multi-millionaires, and are allowed to hide behind sanctimonious rhetoric about grooming young men, offering educational opportunities to disadvantaged athletes, and instilling moral fiber through (as Swinney does) coercing players to be baptized and attend church services (again in the context of a public university).

I grew up in a small rural town in the South where the head football coach was God, and a truly despicable person. Decades before the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky revelation, I witnessed and lived how a person can be lionized and simultaneously daily behaving in ways that were inexcusable around young people.

Scholastic sports at all levels, “septic tank[s] of entitlement,” are systemic problems that create and enable people such as Swinney—again as a notable representative of the systemic inequity, not as the only one, not as a person to be vilified solely for who he is and what he reaps.

The sacred coach dynamic ultimately exposes how those in power live by one set of rules even as they impose upon those beneath them a much more stringent code.

And in that context we have the new brazenness of Trumplandia that flaunts that fact in the faces of everyone throughout the U.S.—personified recently by Monica Crowley who continues to succeed and looks to be a part of a presidential administration even though she is a serial plagiarist.

The Melania Trump speech has already contributed to the new normal that ethical boundaries do not matter to Trump, the Republican party, or his supporters.

Trump embracing Crowley, defending her against “fake news,” and the high likelihood she will not suffer much for these transgressions are no longer surprising.

As with Rand Paul and Joe Biden, the real world’s response to plagiarism is more about privilege than about any real ethical code—one that academics at all levels claim.

More urgent and more telling from the Crowley story are that a major publisher and a major university failed to catch her plagiarism.

Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Nathan McDermott’s Trump aide Monica Crowley plagiarized thousands of words in Ph.D. dissertation is particularly damning—but again, not really about Crowley or Trump or the complete lack of ethical grounding in the U.S.

This is a parallel and ugly narrative about privilege and inequity, parallel to the fanaticism about scholastic sports.

Higher education often wraps itself in claims of academic and ethical rigor, but Crowley’s dissertation and the ability of CNN to detail it when the awarding university did not are where we should be focusing now.

From student-athletes to amateurism to academic integrity (do not forget the University of North Carolina)—there is a colloquial way to explain how Swinney and Crowley reveal what is wrong with education: it is all bullshit.

Bullshit shoveled by the powers-that-be who are created by and profit from the privilege and inequity built into and perpetuated by institutions such as formal education.

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

White progressives, academics, and book lovers were all atwitter on social media because in his farewell address, Barack Obama quoted from literature:

obama-af-tkam

Similar to my concern about Michelle Obama’s recent comments on education and teachers, my response to this excitement was tempered:

 

During the praise tour for the Obamas, I have taken this stance on social media:

Praise for Michelle and Barack Obama has begun as Obama’s presidency comes to an end. That praise poses a few problems:

Praise is warranted, must be supported against the inherent racism that demands perfection from minorities and not from white males.

However Michelle and Barack have allowed, supported policies that contradict the often wonderful rhetoric, notably about education.

Michelle’s recent praise of teachers and the power of education is hard to let lie since Obama’s 8 years have been horrible for education.

The policies and rhetoric from the DOE/SOE have been horrible for black, brown, poor students since they have fed deficit ideology.

Let us be careful to honor but not idealize, not gloss over the failure of policy beneath the veneer of rhetoric.

Here, I want to deal directly with the paradox of race surrounding Obama’s presidency as that is reflected in Obama’s choice to quote Atticus Finch and not, for example, the essays of James Baldwin or the literature and public commentary of Toni Morrison.

This is offered specifically to white people, in the context of my awareness and rejecting of whitesplaining, and as an ally to all people seeking racial equity in a country that denies its racism daily.

Also this is informed by the wide spectrum of reactions to Obama and his role in confronting racism in the U.S. Black academics and intellectuals are not uniform in how to assess Obama, not uniform in either praise or criticism of Obama.

A powerful touchstone for Obama and race/racism in the U.S. has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and William A. Darity Jr. have challenged both Coates and Obama.

Cottom offers a wonderful and nuanced response, but concludes:

The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.

But Darity is more pointed:

I had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama’s candidacy from the moment I heard his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that lifted him into national prominence, a speech that Coates summarizes in the profile. Toward the end of the speech Obama observed that black families in urban centers realized “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” “The acting white” libel—a myth that will not die—argues that low school performance for black students is a product of a culturally based black opposition to high academic achievement.

Among these many diverse and brilliant voices—and the rhetorical legacy of Obama—I feel both nervous about expressing and compelled to address how Obama choosing Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird to quote offers yet another reason to believe Cottom’s “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.”

My short response is Obama has been successful and effective (admitting reasonable people may disagree about what “effective” means) because he is the type of person who knows to quote TKAM when trying to persuade whites about the need to overcome racism.

My longer response must address why white people are so enamored with Finch and TKAM: Like Obama, it is a middle-class and respectable way to confront something very ugly and likely not to be changed by that politeness.

With the controversial posthumous publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, most people fell prey to the debate about Finch as a racist in that pre-quel and ignored the long critical examination of TKAM and Finch as a failed work on race and racism that is enduring because white privilege loves the white savior narrative, which is the foundational element of TKAM (see Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird).

“In many ways, Atticus’s subtle racism in Mockingbird is the story’s brilliance,” explains Catherine Nicols.

That “subtle racism,” notes Jennifer Polish, appeals to the Left:

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely valorized as a “progressive” book. And this is the larger problem with the book and with Atticus’s character and racism—Atticus was always positioned as a white savior.

And Osamudia R. James adds the need to re-consider TKAM (a call that may be equally relevant to how we praise and critique Obama):

Atticus Finch presented an enduring model to which many white liberals still cling. But besides being a fictional character, Atticus Finch is a myth. And a dangerous myth because he keeps good white liberals from reconsidering the fact that they live in white neighborhoods; from challenging administrators about the racial segregation of their children’s schools or white supremacy advanced in the curriculum; or from acknowledging how they benefit from a system that keeps people of color laboring in their homes but excluded from their social and professional spaces. Like Finch, it is sufficient that they simply “do their best to love everybody.”

James concludes then:

It would be easier to ignore “Watchman” and stick to white saviors and the triumph of individual values over structural oppression. But if we choose this account, racism is not overcome, black children still encounter anti-blackness at their schools, and whites – despite their individual goodness – remain complicit in it all.

Ironically, I guess, the debate around Lee’s Watchmen failed to prompt either an impactful reconsideration of TKAM or race/racism/white privilege (see here and here also).

It now seems unlikely that Obama’s presidency (at least a significant symbolic moment in race for the U.S.) or the rise of Trump and the concurrent normalization of white supremacy will prompt an impactful reconsideration of race/racism in the country either.

In fact, it seems that the circumstances have been reduced so that we must cling with glee in some way to Obama’s anemic confrontation of race tempered by the conventional expectations of respectability governed by white privilege.

Just as the white savior myth needs to be retired from literature and pop culture, the role of white privilege must be eradicated, allowing the equity of all spaces for everyone.

I am skeptical that appeasing white privilege is the course needed for that to occur.

I am nervous about incrementalism—the belief that Obama is a necessity along the path to racial equity.

I am fearful that Obama’s symbolic and rhetorical moment in history has spawned the worst sort of backlash, one we could not have imagined—or one that whites were unable to imagine while mired in the white savior myth, the lie of post-racial America, and the delusion that systemic racism is not fed by virtually every single white person.

Despite the good that Michelle and Barack Obama have fostered for this country, today we are still being asked to tip-toe around the sensibilities of racists—not to call racism “racism,” racists “racists.

This I am certain is not progress.

 

On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing

“The cause for my wrath is not new or single,” wrote Lou LaBrant in 1931, targeting how too often the project method engaged students in activities other than literacy.

This sharp critique by LaBrant has always resonated with me because even though I am now a teacher educator and have been a teacher for well over thirty years, I have always balked at pedagogy, instructional practices of any kind but especially those driven by technocratic zeal.

As one example, literature circles as an instructional structure represents the essential problems confronted by LaBrant about 86 years ago: the instructional practice itself requires time to teach students how to do the practice properly, and thus, “doing literature circles” becomes a goal unto itself and as a consequence subsumes and/or replaces the authentic literacy goals it claims to seek.

Further, many instructional practices border on being gimmicky because they are constructed in such a way to facilitate that anyone (regardless of expertise and experience) can implement them in the role of “teacher.”

For a while now, I have been contemplating the tension within teaching writing (composition) between those who teach writing as teachers and those who teach writing as writers.

I certainly default to the latter, and am drawn often to John Warner‘s public examinations of his teaching of writing (see below) because he also teaches writing as a writer.

Warner’s pieces about grading contracts and de-grading his first-year writing course have come when I am beginning my English/ELA methods seminar and wading into how my candidate must navigate ways to seek authentic practices in the context of the real world of teaching that often models for her teaching writing as a teacher, as a technocrat.

Here, then, I want to pull together a few concepts that I think are at their core related to LaBrant’s “wrath” and my rejecting of technocratic instruction—writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing.

Warner in blog posts and on Twitter questions his commitment to writing workshop, and offered that he has abandoned the term “workshop” for “laboratory.”

In one response, I mused that this all depends on what we mean by “writing workshop.”

Teaching about and practicing writing workshop for me have always been grounded in Nancie Atwell’s use of Giacobbe—that writing workshop incorporates time, ownership, and response.

Of course, writing workshop also typically involved peer and teacher-student conferencing as well as a number of other strategies such as read alouds and examining model texts.

So, although I do not wish to put words in Warner’s mouth, I believe he and I share a skepticism about writing workshop when “doing workshop” becomes so time consuming and complex that the pursuit of workshop replaces students actually doing the very messy and unpredictable task of writing, composing.

This is again the technocratic trap of instructional strategies of all kinds.

For the teaching of writing, something Kurt Vonnegut claimed could not be done, this trap is more common than not, particularly because teachers are often under-prepared as teachers of writing and teachers who are not writers (most ELA/English teachers, I would suspect) dominate who is charged with teaching writing.

Technocrats have ruined concepts such as the writing process, conferencing, and workshop by scripting and work-sheeting them into practices anyone can implement.

The teaching of writing requires teacher expertise and a high level of teaching as a craft—but fastidious attention to doing workshop or intricate peer-conferencing or mandating students demonstrate the writing process or essay templates ultimately fails fostering young writers.

Concurrent with the problems inherent in technocratic pedagogy is failing to consider the importance of cognitive overload when students are developing complex behaviors such as writing or reading.

Each of us has a limited amount of cognition we can devote to behaviors. When something becomes “second nature,” we then free cognition space. For me in the past year or so, returning to mountain biking has exposed this dynamic since road cycling had become “natural” to me, but mountain biking demanded so much purposeful thinking, I was constantly bumbling and frustrated.

Few truisms mean more to me as a teacher of writing than paying attention to (thus, avoiding) cognitive overload when your main instructional goal is fostering students as writers.

For example, if the topic or writing form is too demanding for students, they will often devote less or nearly no energy to writing itself. Many of us as teachers have read garbled essays by students, blaming the students instead of recognizing that we have asked them to do more than they were capable of doing concurrently.

For this reason, I stress the need to use personal narrative (because the content of the writing is an area of student expertise) as one foundational way to help students focus on craft and authentic writing forms.

K-12 students and first-year undergraduates, I think, need some careful consideration of cognitive overload as they acquire writing craft, and for first-year undergraduates, as they become more adept at the nuances of disciplinary writing in academia.

Avoiding technocratic pedagogy and cognitive overload, then, share the need for the teacher to keep primary the goals of learning; if we are fostering writers, we need to be sure time and effort are mostly spent on writing—not doing a pet instructional practice, not acquiring some disciplinary knowledge.

Finally, as I was discussing avoiding cognitive overload with my ELA/English methods student, I had her reconsider her plan to have students write short stories as the composition element in her short story unit this coming spring.

Just as I balk at technocratic pedagogy, I struggle with asking K-12 students to write fiction and poetry—primarily because these are very demanding forms of writing that encroach on my concern about cognitive overload; student must have both high levels of writing craft and the ability to fabricate narratives in order, for example, to write short stories.

As a high school English teacher, I found that students often reached for derivatives of derivative fiction in order to have something for characters and plot in their original short stories; for example, a student would write about an ER doctor as a main character (he or she always committed suicide at the end), drawing from almost entirely what the student knew about ERs from the TV show ER.

I made my case about cognitive overload, and then, she and I brainstormed what to have students write instead of their own short stories during her short story unit.

First, I asked her to reconsider her definition of “creative writing” being limited to fiction and poetry. I prefer LaBrant’s definition:

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

This pulls us back to honoring the broad concepts of writing workshop above, focusing here on “creative” being linked to student choice (ownership) over what s/he writes about and what form that writing takes.

Next, we brainstormed the possibility of asking students to write personal narratives while also emphasizing that their original personal narratives would have in common with the short stories they are studying—craft elements.

Students could focus on organizational techniques in narratives, for example, while reading fiction, and then, incorporate that craft in their own personal narratives.

I have examined here ways to rethink writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing so that we forefront our writing goals when teaching writing and guard against technocratic and reductive instructional strategies that can mask our own expertise and experience as writers.

From LaBrant to Warner, we can unpack that teachers of writing are often working from places of fear—fear about losing control, fear of not being adequately prepared to teach writing, fear students will not write if given choice and freedom.

However, “I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little,” LaBrant explained. “I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…” (p. 299).

And then Warner: “With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.”

Our antidote to these fears is trust, and then the willingness to honor for ourselves and our students the value in risk.

Teaching writing like writing itself is fraught with fits and starts as well as failure. Trying to control those realities results in either masking them or destroying the greater goal of fostering writers.


For Further Reading

Grading Contract Journey Part I: First-Year Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Grading Contract Journey Part II: Fiction Writing | Just Visiting, John Warner

Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writingThe English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)

 

You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

Don’t Count on Grading, Ranking Educational Quality

Having been a long-time advocate for and practitioner of de-testing and de-grading the classroom, I also reject the relentless obsession of mainstream media to grade and rank educational quality among states as well as internationally (see Bracey and Kohn).

As Kohn recognizes: “Beliefs that are debatable or even patently false may be repeated so often that at some point they come to be accepted as fact.”

And thus, with the monotonous regularity and mechanical lack of imagination of a dripping faucet, Education Week once again trumpets Quality Counts.

Like a college course no one wants to register for, Quality Counts 2017 gives the nation a C while no state makes an A or an F.

The appeal of all this much ado about nothing includes:

  • The U.S. has a perverse obsession with quantification that is contradicted by a people who are equally resistant to science and expertise.
  • People love the overly simplistic use of charts and interactive maps.
  • These grades and rankings always confirm the enduring narrative that public schools are failing.

However, the real problem is not how states and the nation rank, but that we persist at the grading and ranking as if that process reveals something of importance (it doesn’t) or as if that process somehow is curative (it isn’t).

How, then, does grading and ranking educational quality fail us?

  • As with regularly changing standards and high-stakes testing as part of accountability, grading and ranking educational quality is part of the larger failure of imagination, a belief in doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Media have been grading and ranking for decades, and the narrative of failing schools has continued; in other words, this process has no positive impact on education reform—but it feeds a media and social need to bash public schooling.
  • Anything can be quantified and ranked, and the statistics needed to quantify and rank are necessarily what drive both; thus, A-F grades and then extending the measurements so that ranking is possible become goals of the process that often distort the message of that process. For a simple analogy, in the 400-meter dash at the Olympics, the event creates finishers ranked 1-10; however, all of them are world-class and the distinction among them is minuscule, for all practical purposes irrelevant except for the need to declare winners and losers.
  • Grades and rankings of all kinds in education focus almost entirely on observable and measurable outcomes, glossing over or ignoring powerful influences on measurable student outcomes. Decades of research show that out-of-school factors account for 60-80+% of those measurable outcomes; and thus, outcome-based data of educational quality are more likely a reflection of social conditions than school-based quality. The inherent problem with using test scores, for example, for ranking and determining educational quality has been disputed by the College Board for years (see page 13).
  • Grades and rankings feed into a competition model as well as deficit ideology. These are both harmful in education because collaboration is more effective than competition and because our focus is on flaws (deficits) that we associate primarily with schools, teachers, and students, perpetuating a “blame the victim” mentality that ignores (as noted above) factors beyond the control of schools, teachers, and students (such as poverty, racism, sexism, etc.,—all of which significantly impact measurable learning outcomes).
  • And finally, grading and ranking fail because of a common misunderstanding about statistical facts as they contradict political and public expectations: large populations of humans (90% of students attend public schools) will always have a range of measurable outcomes (height, 40-yard dash times, test scores)—although also misunderstood, think the bell-shaped curve—which will appear to be a “failure” when posed against the political/public call for 100% proficiency by students. In other words, the U.S. demands that everyone be above average and then is disappointed when statistics show a range of human outcomes.

Since the mid-1800s, fueled by the Catholic church’s market fears, there has existed a media, political, and public obsession with bashing public education.

In this era of fake news and post-truth debate, as I have noted over and over, mainstream media are as culpable—if not exactly the same—as fake news and click-bait because practices such as Quality Counts by EdWeek are lazy and misleading, enduring, as Kohn noted, mostly because it is something media have always done and because these rankings feed into confirmation bias.

If quality counts, beating the grades-and-rankings drums is a sure way to insure that it will never be obtained.

If truth matters, a first step in that direction would include resisting the failed practice of grading and ranking educational quality.