Power, Responsibility, and the White Men of Academia

With many things of pop culture, what becomes popular, recognizable and echoed, is something slightly or even significantly different than the original.

Hollywood has finally caught up with iconic superhero comic books—and is poised to ruin if not destroy its version of the medium as the comic book industry did to itself in the 1990s.

In 1962, Marvel introduced Spider-Man in issue 15 of Amazing Fantasy, and birthed as well a truism that has avoided being cliche since it continues to resonate. While repeated as “With great power comes great responsibility,” the original is a bit longer:

AND A LEAN, SILENT FIGURE SLOWLY FADES INTO THE GATHERING DARKNESS, AWARE AT LAST THAT IN THIS WORLD, WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME —  GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!

Two aspects of the original are worth highlighting. First, the sentiment itself is powerful and True, but, second, the subtle distinction of the original must be acknowledged: Power is the default and then responsibility is qualified with “must,” suggesting that it remains optional.

In short, there will always be those afforded power—and no guarantee that power is earned, deserved, or in any way just—but we must seek ways to demand the responsibility, tinted as it is with the implication of moral responsibility.

As as offspring of Europe and the Western world, the U.S. has always been and remains a culture in which white men embody the vast majority of power, through both economic and political might as well as the accumulated advantages of privilege simply from being white and male.

Academia, scholars and professors in colleges and universities, are significantly skewed toward white males, especially when rank (thus power) is included:

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016-144), Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty.

While in mainstream public discourse, the face and voice of tradition remain white and male, and the face and voice of calling for equity tends to be a so-called minority, it seems fair to expect academia to be different, even though it tends to reflect the race and gender imbalances of the broader society in terms of power and representation.

And here we come to another truism that defies being merely cliche: power corrupts. The original in full, again, asserts a more effective point, as John Dalberg-Acton wrote in a letter:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

I am a tenured full professor, a white male, at a university with a student population skewed strongly to females (about a 60+% versus 30+% female to male) and whites. Our faculty, however, is disproportionately flipped by gender, with only 30+% female, and mostly white.

The gender imbalance (exacerbated once rank is considered, similar to the national data) prompted a gender equity study, which when released was marginalized by white male faculty for its lack of validity.

Recently, I published a piece on black power and the rise of Trump, and a colleague with whom I have always been friendly took me to task by email, saying, in short, my arguments about race and racism driving Trump support were the sort of weak writing we discourage among our students.

My public piece is making a provocative and accessible case, however, supported by recent research on the 2016 election [1]. “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism,” Thomas Wood, assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University, concludes, for example, in his statistical analysis.

Both of these experiences, although anecdotal and bound to my lived experiences, are illustrative of the essential failure of academia: University scholars and professors remain corrupted by white male power and tend to skirt the concurrent “must” of responsibility, the moral imperative of power linked to advanced knowledge.

Despite the popular misconception that university and college professors are radical leftists—and while they are, in fact, disproportionately progressive in their expressed ideologies—academics are overwhelmingly conservative in their behavior, as Yasmin Nair confronts:

Becoming a successful academic requires one hell of a lot of ass-kissing and up-sucking. You have to flatter and impress. The very act of applying to graduate school to begin with is an exercise in servility: please deem me worthy of your favor. In order to rise through the ranks, you have to convince people of your intelligence and acceptability, which means basing everything you do on a concern for what other people think. If ever you find that your conclusions would make your superiors despise you (say, for example, if you realized that much of what they wrote was utter irredeemable manure), you face a choice: conceal your true self or be permanently consigned to the margins.

Hiring practices and the tenure process are both normalizing, leaving very little room or rewards for any ideas or actions that can be labeled radical. Both hiring and tenure may be best characterized as academic hazing.

And the essential problem is that the norm is a white male template masked beneath veneers of “most qualified candidate,” “scientific,” “valid,” and “civil discourse.”

As one example, but found throughout academia, power corrupted and without responsibility in academia has given us Charles Murray, a career that reflects how the sordid (racism) survives and thrives when given the patina of “scientific” or “scholarship.”

Murray must be taken seriously because of statistics and his seemingly civil discourse around all his data. But the dirty little secret is that all of this is mostly driven by his being white and male.

But Murray is but a celebrity example of the tyranny of the white male all across academia, the voices of authority that must hold forth in the name of high standards and rigorous metrics, impeccable methods.

This tyranny rests in introductory courses that force students onto the bell curve during standardized exams; it lurks beneath how departments recruit and cull majors; it stains every aspect of doctoral programs and dissertation committees; it is the refrain of university and college hiring processes; and it is the cat o’ nine tails of the tenure process.

The U.S. and its colleges and universities have been built by white men, and white men continue to run virtually every aspect of them all. It is undeniable, then, that white men have created and maintain the inequities of U.S. society and formal education.

This power of white men must embrace the responsibility to dismantle that inequity, to listen to the voices of the marginalized and act in solidarity.

“With great power there must also come —  great responsibility”—and yet, we are confronted every day with the first and wait still on the latter.


[1] See Top Democrats are wrong: Trump supporters were more motivated by racism than economic issues, Mehdi Hasan; Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism DidSean McElwee and Jason McDaniel; Analysis | Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism, Thomas Wood; Trumpism: It’s Coming From the Suburbs, Jesse A. Myerson

Haruki Murakami’s 7 Stories: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women”

Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.

“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.

The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:

Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.

His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.

Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:

They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.

The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.

For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.

As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.

“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.

Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.

The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:

She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.

As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:

He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.

This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:

Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while neglecting it entirely on the other.

“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.

A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.

The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.

Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:

Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?

Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.

Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:

What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.

In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.

This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”

The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:

“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”

Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.

Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.

Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…

“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.

The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.

None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”

Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.

Reader 22 May 2017 [UPDATED]: Connecting Dots

Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views

See: UPDATE 21 (20 May 2017): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Minorities Who ‘Whiten’ Résumés More Likely to Get Interview, Michael Harriot

“Whitening” is an all-encompassing term for when prospective employees scrub their résumés of anything that might indicate their race. Applicants with cultural names will sometimes use their initials. Community or professional work with African-American fraternities, sororities or other organizations are deleted. One student omitted a prestigious scholarship he was awarded because he feared it might reveal his race.

Although the practice sounds demeaning and reductive in the year 2017, apparently it works. In one study, researchers sent out whitened résumés and nonwhitened résumés to 1,600 employers. Twenty-five percent of black applicants received callbacks when their résumés were whitened, compared with 10 percent of the job seekers who left their ethnic details on the same résumés.

The results were the same for employers who advertised themselves as “equal opportunity employers” or said that “minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Whitened Résumés: Race and Self-Presentation in the Labor Market, Sonia Kang, Katy DeCelles, András Tilcsik, and Sora Jun

Abstract

Racial discrimination in labor markets is a critical process through which organizations produce economic inequality in society. Though scholars have extensively examined the discriminatory decisions and practices of employers, the question of how job seekers try to adapt to anticipated discrimination is often overlooked. Using interviews, a laboratory experiment, and a résumé audit study, we examine racial minorities’ attempts to avoid discrimination by concealing or downplaying racial cues in job applications, a practice known as “résumé whitening.” While some minority job seekers reject this practice, others view it as essential and use a variety of whitening techniques. When targeting an employer that presents itself as valuing diversity, however, minority job applicants engage in relatively little résumé whitening and thus submit more racially transparent résumés. Yet, our audit study shows that organizational diversity statements are not actually associated with reduced discrimination against unwhitened résumés. Taken together, these findings suggest a paradox: Minorities may be particularly likely to experience disadvantage when they apply to ostensibly pro-diversity employers. These findings illuminate the role of racial concealment and transparency in modern labor markets and point to an important interplay between the self-presentation of employers and the self-presentation of job seekers in shaping economic inequality.


Experts: Conflicts over Confederate names and symbols likely to continue, Paul Hyde

But Thomas said school administrators should encourage student debate over historical figures such as Wade Hampton — as an important lesson in democracy.

“If we really think that public education is to prepare people to live in a democracy, children need to have experiences with democratic processes,” Thomas said. “I think this specific protest should be seen as an opportunity for students to see what the democratic process looks like, with everybody’s voice mattering. Principals and superintendents of public schools — they have incredibly hard jobs — but they are the people who have to show students what moral courage is. If administrators and teachers can’t show moral courage, how do we expect our children to?”

See: Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document


When Standardized Tests Don’t Count | Just Visiting, John  Warner

And yet, when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable populations within Charleston County Schools, these standardized assessments provide a rational for top-down oversight and control.

This is entirely common and predictable. “Accountability” is often weaponized against those without the means to defend themselves.

I have no wish to upend the academic culture of the Citadel over their terrible CLA scores, but maybe some of those who are willing to give our elite storied places a pass can extend the same spirit to those who have no such protections.

See Are America’s top schools ‘elite’ or merely ‘selective?’

Why The New Sat Is Not The Answer, Akil Bello and James Murphy

If anything, the discord between them is likely to grow as the College Board pursues an equitable society using a test that is designed to mark and promote distinctions.

For all the positive changes the College Board has made, the new SAT shouldn’t be counted among them. It is a test, not a solution.

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse, Mike Taylor

The problem is a well-known one, and indeed one we have discussed here before: as soon as you try to measure how well people are doing, they will switch to optimising for whatever you’re measuring, rather than putting their best efforts into actually doing good work.

In fact, this phenomenon is so very well known and understood that it’s been given at least three different names by different people:

  • Goodhart’s Law is most succinct: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
  • Campbell’s Law is the most explicit: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
  • The Cobra Effect refers to the way that measures taken to improve a situation can directly make it worse.

America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality, Jeff Guo

According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

UNEQUAL ENFORCEMENT: How policing of drug possession differs by neighborhood in Baton Rouge

BR inequity

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack:Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document

Disturbance at the Heron House
A stampede at the monument
To liberty and honor under the honor roll

“Disturbance At The Heron House,” R.E.M.

“And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

Possibly one of the greatest failures of formal K-12 schooling has been not only what students are taught in history and social studies, but how history as a discipline has been misrepresented (paralleled, I think, by a similar message about science) as fixed and objective.

History is never fixed or objective, but always a living document—one written by those who have power, access to the telling.

A powerful and vivid example of this fact is how Howard Zinn has been marginalized as more an activist than a historian because his work was committed to changing the perspective of history from the power elites to the people. Zinn was both heralded and demonized, for example, when his work asked everyone to rethink Christopher Columbus and the concept of “discovering” lands already occupied.

Traditionalists remain trapped in the belief that history has been and can be objective, can avoid being political, and once anyone seeks to better understand a person or the narratives of the past, those traditionalists shout “revisionism,” as if that new understanding is something to be shunned.

That any human expression can be objective, apolitical, is a naive position. In response to those arguing Ivanka Trump’s new book is not a political work, Ani Kokobobo reveals:

She claims she wrote it before her father’s election, “from the perspective of an executive and an entrepreneur.” And though they criticize her for being trite, derivative, out of touch and racially tone-deaf, most readers have accepted the premise that this is a largely apolitical book.

Yet as every scholar of literature knows, each book contains what theorist Fredric Jameson has dubbed a “political unconscious.” In other words, through the sheer act of narrating, a book reinforces one particular point of view while policing others.

This last point perfectly captures the reality of all history. And thus, the great irony of slurring history with “revisionism” is that history as a living document should be a constant act of revisionism as a retelling history in an effort to make the story clearer, more accurate—not an erasing of history.

Teaching that Washington never told a lie or that Columbus discovered America was in the moment an act of revisionism since they both are distortions in the name of some agenda. To seek ways that better portray Washington and how Europe reaching the West began what is now the U.S. and other countries is the great promise history and historical thought can offer a free people.

In a time now characterized by the rise of Trump (as a marker for nationalism masking racism) against the #BlackLivesMatter movement (as a confrontation of the racial inequities in policing and the justice system), we become witnesses to the power of monuments to maintain racism: calls for renaming Tillman Hall at Clemson University, New Orleans removing Civil War statues, and near my university, black students petitioning to rename a high school.

These efforts to revise history, bending it toward a greater clarity, a more credible Truth, cannot be divorced from how political, media, and public responses frame calls for dismantling monuments to the flawed and often awful past.

As a recent example, local coverage of students’ petitioning to rename a high school has a revealing title, Petition calls for dropping ‘racist’ name of Wade Hampton, and lede paragraph:

Wade Hampton III was a Confederate lieutenant general, one of the largest slaveholders in the Southeast and, by today’s standards, a blatant “racist,” according to historians.

When I raised concern about the word racist being placed in quote marks in the article, the journalist noted that it was to identify “charged language” and to avoid bias.

Couched within the lingering racism driven by denying and tip-toeing about confronting racism is the pervasive failure of both-sides journalism that refuses to acknowledge that some perspectives are credible while others are not.

The article itself quotes a historian acknowledging the fact of racism that the article treats as “charged language,” and thus, possibly lacking credibility.

A revised view of history allows us to acknowledge what is not debatable—many with power in the past, mostly white men, were racists—and is essential for helping us resolve what is debatable—whether or not we rename buildings/institutions and dismantle monuments.

If we believe in an optimistic view of human history, associated with Martin Luther King Jr. (“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”), that we can somehow shape the world for the good of all, there is much to dismantle—the monuments grounded in human actions devoid of a more refined moral view as well as a tentative discourse that refuses to name and steps around the very facts that allow us to engage in robust debate.

It is an anemic approach to wait for monuments to crumble under their own baselessness, and thus, it is our duty to hasten the process on the path to justice, even when that duty is hard and seemingly unpopular.

We make history with each step we take, and we reshape history necessarily in that procession.

See Also

Opinion: Leave Wade Hampton in the history books, Asha Marie

The Young Black Activists Targeting New Orleans’s Confederate Monuments, Clint Smith

Elite or Selective?: Reconsidering Who We Educate and How

Sharde Miller’s California teen describes his road from Compton to Harvard University offers a powerful subtext about the American Dream as well as the enduring belief in education as the “great equalizer,” embodied by Elijah Devaughn Jr.:

Devaughn grew up in a single-parent household in Compton, California, a city that has been plagued by gun violence and gang activity for decades….

“Getting accepted into a prestigious university like Harvard, I think it means the world,” Devaughn said. “It means God is able. It means that hard work pays off. It means that, you know, struggles end.”

What if we unpack the label of “prestigious” by making an important caveat: Is Harvard University elite or selective?

As a point of reference, over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability in public education, schools have been annually labeled as excelling and failing; however, once we look beneath the A-F rankings, a strong and consistent correlation persists between schools identified as excelling or failing and the socio-economic status of the students [1] (as well as the racial and language demographics).

Consider also that for every year of the SAT being administered, average scores have fallen perfectly in correlation with parental income and parental years of education [2].

My university has begun gathering data to analyze our impact on students. The university is selective, having high standards for the academic backgrounds and achievements of students.

Some initial data are telling. When students with high preparation are compared to students with low preparation, extrapolating over four years of college, high preparation students are more successful and the gap with low preparation students widens during years 2 and 3 and then never closes by year 4 (year 1 and year 4 gaps are about the same).

If we persist in suggesting that education is the great equalizer (despite ample evidence education does not, in fact, equalize) and a foundational mechanism of the American Dream, we must reconsider how and why we identify any schools as “prestigious.”

Alexander W. Astin’s Are You Smart Enough? seeks to examine if our prestigious and excelling schools are elite or merely selective. Astin exposes part of the problem with labeling colleges, for example, as “prestigious”:

The “quality” or “excellence” of a college or university is thus judged on the basis of the average test score of its entering students, rather than on how well it educates them once they enroll.

What is lost in the rush to ascribe success and failure to schools is, as Astin argues, the essential charge of any formal schooling:

On the contrary, the quality of our national talent pool depends heavily on how well colleges and university develops the students’ capacities during the college years. And this mean all students.

And thus, Astin asserts: “More parents need to be asking, ‘Why should an educational system invest the least in the students who may need the most in higher education?'”

Here, then, is the dirty little secret: “Prestigious school” (K-12 as well as colleges/universities) is a veneer for “selective,” not “elite” in terms of the educational impact but in terms of the conditions at those schools.

Public universities are less selective than private liberal arts colleges, and the former experience is distinct from the latter in, for example, faculty/student ratios, class size.

In other words, more academically successful students tend to be from more affluent and well educated parents, and then are afforded higher education experiences that are identifiably superior to relatively less successful students from lower levels of affluence and education.

Reconsidering how we label schools, the “selective” versus “elite” divide, is a first step in seeking ways to turn a tarnished myth (“education is the great equalizer”) into a reality.

Too often “prestigious” and “elite” are code for “selective,” praising a college/university for gatekeeping, and not educating; too often “excellent” and “failing” are code for student demographics, ranking K-12 schools for proximity, and not educating.

Testing, ranking, and accountability in the U.S. have entrenched social and educational inequity because, as Astin confronts, “there are two very different uses for educational assessment: (a) to rank, rate, compare, and judge the performance of different learners and (b) to enhance the learning process.”

We have chosen the former, pretending as well that those metrics reflect mostly merit although they are overwhelming markers of privilege.

Let’s return to Devaughn as a rags-to-riches story.

Late in the article we learn Devaughn attended private school before his acceptance to Harvard—again bringing us back to the issue of opportunity and what we are learning at my university about well prepared students versus less prepared students.

Devaughn’s story should not be trivialized, but carefully unpacked, it does not prove what I think it intended to show. The American Dream and claims education is the great equalizer are, in fact, deforming myths.

Race, gender, and the socioeconomic factors of homes and communities remain resilient causal factors in any person’s opportunities and success:

All schools at any level must re-evaluate who has access to the institution, and why, and then focus on what impact the educational experience has on those students. Therein must be the evidence for determining excellence and prestige.


[1] See here and here for examples in South Carolina.

[2] See The Conversation: Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.