How to Get Published as an Educator

One of the best and most significant changes for me when I moved from high school English teaching to being a college professor was a blossoming of my life as a writer.

In the spring of my first year of college—almost 40 years ago—I had an epiphany: I realized that I was a writer. Much of my life in my twenties while I struggled to develop my professional credibility as a high school teacher, I was also writing poetry, short stories, and even a novel—all of which I religiously cast into the submission pond for publication.

For more than two decades, I dutifully mailed through the postal system 9 x 11 manilla envelopes including my hand-typed manuscripts and another envelope with return postage. Most of that work was returned with terse and impersonal rejections; a few had hand-scribbled notes of encouragement, and a smattering of work was accepted and published in so-called small or literary journals.

I had a couple professional education articles published before I entered my doctoral program in 1995 (Oregon English and English Journal), but I did not begin to recognize my writer life as less than a writer of fiction and more as a scholar and public intellectual until the late 1990s and especially once I left high school teaching and became a professor in 2002.

Since I was mostly a self-taught writer of fiction and poetry (not a part of an MFA program or the “in” circle of writers) and “only” a public school teacher, my efforts at publishing were almost all very discouraging and fruitless.

So here is my first caveat about publishing as an educator: Create a network and make contacts so that your work has a better chance of being considered and thus published.

Since I became a professor, I have published self-authored and edited/co-edited volumes (20+ volumes), about 30 chapters in volumes, and many dozens of scholarly journal articles and public articles and commentaries; as well, I have co-edited state education journals, edited/co-edited columns for 10 years in English Journal, and edited series for education publishers Peter Lang USA and Brill/Sense.

How did this transformation happen?

As I noted above, once in higher education, I gained access to publishing that I had not enjoyed previously. My affiliation with a university opened doors to public commentaries in local, state, and national newspapers and publications, and quite significantly, I made a connection through a colleague with a series editor (Joe Kincheloe) who believed in my work and started my career as a scholar.

Here, I want to emphasize that I was prepared for these opportunities by the years of mostly unproductive work prior; I had spent decades honing my skills as a writer—despite my lack of publications—and I had almost two decades under my belt as a classroom teacher (practitioner expertise) as well as a doctorate (scholarly expertise), including, of course, the powerful experience of completing a dissertation (which I later published).

As a series editor for two education publishers and as an editor/co-editor for columns in English Journal, I have learned a great deal about how to start and develop a career as a published educator; below, then, are some suggestions:

  • Determine the type of writer you are (or want to be). Essentially educators (K-12 or professors) who want to publish are either writers who want to publish scholarship or practitioners/scholars who need to write in order to publish. This recognition is not about being the right kind of writer (there isn’t a right one), but your attitude about the writing and your path to publishing are quite different between the two types.
  • Commit time to the craft of writing. If you want to publish, you must practice writing—including drafting a significant amount of text that will never be submitted or published. Read books on being a writer and writing well; read authors and scholars writing about being writers. But most of all, create writing time and build a reserve of writing that helps you hone your skill, explore the type of writer you want to be (voice, style, and genre/form), and accumulate texts that may serve you once you begin writing pieces targeted for submission and publication.
  • Begin to read professional published work as a writer. My time editing has included a great deal of energy gently responding to submissions that should have never been submitted; the format is unacceptable, or the piece simply does not match the publication or column. Want to publish scholarly articles? Seek out the journals where you would like to publish and read meticulously. What to publish a book? Explore publishers and read the books like the ones you want to write.
  • Do the due diligence of understanding and then conforming to submission guidelines. Well before actually submitting work, study calls for submissions and calls for proposals. Know the expectations for queries, proposals, and submissions. While some standard guidelines exist, almost all publications and publishers have unique requirements that demand you are meticulous and are willingly to honor the time and professionalism of the editors receiving your work; meet format, citation, and word-length requirements.
  • Join professional organizations and attend professional conferences. The most effective “in” to publishing as an educator is the professional organization, and then the professional conference. Professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels allow you to begin and grow a network, but they also often have publishing opportunities that far too few educators explore. Presenting at conferences is also an outstanding first step to having an article to submit—especially if you present with other educators and then co-author the article. Collaboration, in fact, is an excellent initial route to publishing, especially if you can collaborate with a published educator.
  • Create a social media presence (Twitter, etc.) that is mostly professional. Similar to professional organizations, social media can be a great community for entering the conversations you will want to explore as a writer. The key is to focus your social media time (who you follow, and what you share) on a professional community.
  • Identify your are(s) of expertise and then research to see what has been published, what is being published. As an editor and a peer-reviewer, I have very often had to reject work that simply walks well-worn ground or enters a conversation with no clear awareness of the status of that conversation. Being an educator at all levels can be very isolating, but to publish, you must be aware of what the conversation includes, what the research base has already offered (many call this standing on the shoulders of giants). First-time publishing is daunting, but those initial efforts have a much better chance if you commit yourself to knowing your publication, knowing your expertise, knowing your audience, and knowing the historical and current status of the conversation you wish to influence.
  • Recognize that academic/scholarly publishing is not the same as other types of publishing. Publishing as an educator is a subset of publishing in general. In my own career, the submission game for fiction and poetry is quite different than academic publishing. The “I want to publish” comment or urge must be qualified, and once you recognize you want to publish for practitioners and scholars, you need to understand the process for education-oriented journals and publishers. This is mostly the world of other educators and scholars; many journals, for example, are edited by practicing educators and professors (not full-time editors). And even book series are also edited the same way. Publishing as an educator is mostly entering a very distinct community, a community you are already a part of as an educator.
  • Consider blogging as a pathway to more traditional publishing. Nearly as important as the connections and access that moving to higher education afforded me was my deciding to blog, first at open sites and then on my own WordPress blog. Blogging provides for me a way to think through topics and issues, but it also creates a huge reserve of writing that I can cull from for formal submissions. Blogging also motivates me to write nearly daily (in a way that journaling never worked for me). As well, blogging helps you practice entering a conversation in ways that will benefit your formal submissions. Blogging has gained a much better status in recent years, and as I have done, a blog can be established as a place for your professional voice, and an outlet for establishing and developing that voice.
  • Submit your work. Ultimately, you must draft and finalize a manuscript, and then send it out. As I have detailed above, if you make the right efforts before you do this, you have very good odds of that work finding a home—probably in a smaller venue at first, but eventually in places that you have identified as your larger goals. Due diligence, and baby steps.

And this brings me to a final thought that isn’t so much about how to get published as an educator, but something to expect once you do get published: A sudden sense of terror often follows the thrill of acceptance and publication.

For me, publishing has been a powerful, important, and even necessary aspect of being an educator; I simply can’t see doing one without the other. Once you make the same decision, I think you will find a new level of satisfaction that enhances your life and profession.

 

 

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Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

Safety Dance: Cycling as if Your Life Depends upon It

After a few weeks more than a year-long hiatus from road cycling prompted by a fourth bicycle/car accident, I returned to road cycling because mountain biking alone simply never fulfilled the reasons I have been a cyclist for over thirty years.

In that time, several local cyclists’ lives were lost and many had been injured by negligent motorists—all of which had transformed the cycling community I had enjoyed for decades. Local cyclists had begun to work in earnest toward greater cycling safety, including most cyclists now using day-burning tail and head lights as well as shifting to hi-visibility cycling kits.

Image may contain: one or more people, bicycle and outdoor

Globalbike’s Spartanburg chapter has adopted hi-vis kits for 2018.

My hometown bicycle club, the Spartanburg Freewheelers, launched a safety initiative also.

However, despite the lights and hi-vis kits, despite the increased rhetoric around safety, I have to admit that the actual cycling I witnessed upon returning to my road riding has not changed much; it remains too often punctuated by unsafe practices, and notably by veteran cyclists, some of whom are on the cycling club’s safety committee.

In fact, a recent Ride for Safety on July 4 highlighted for me that too much of what is happening in our cycling community is rhetoric without action*.

While the increased use of day-burning lights and hi-vis kits are important, I remain concerned that too many cyclists fail to acknowledge what exactly safe cycling looks like, and thus, here are some recommendations:

  • Obey traffic laws governing motorists and cyclists. In my home state of South Carolina, cyclists are mostly bound to the laws applicable to motorists, but some cycling specific rules apply—a few of which, such as riding two-abreast, are actually antagonistic to motorists who are unaware of the laws.
  • When joining posted or organized group rides, know the plan and expectations for the ride, and then conform to those expectations. In short, do not turn a posted or organized ride into your event or training session since the other cyclists will be expecting the posted ride. If you prefer a different ride or need a different training session, organize that yourself.
  • Cycle predictably; hold your line, maintain even accelerations and decelerations, and use verbal and hand cues. Know the norms of group riding, or sit on the back of the group until you do. How to do a paceline, for example, is an essential skill for joining rides and riding safely.

Group riding is a community of cyclists.

  • Safe cycling requires each cyclist to have a bicycle in working condition, including safe tires and the needed items in case of a minor mechanical (flat tire, etc.).
  • Safe cycling also means being prepared with fluids and food that match the intended ride. A bonking or cramping cyclist is not a safe cyclist.
  • Know the cycling route and help the entire group navigate that route by stopping completely at stop signs, calling out and pointing directions for all turns, and checking on and communicating the status of the group regularly (for example, if the group ride is a no-drop ride, confirming the group is together). Great rule to follow: If you do not know the route, do not ride at the front.
  • Ride at your ability level, including monitoring your effort (such as taking pulls) relative to your fitness and experience. If you are a beginner or your fitness is lacking, the group will appreciate you skipping pulls so that you are able to maintain the group pace and complete the ride.
  • Use verbal cues and hand signals to identify potholes and objects in the road. All cyclists in the group, not just the lead riders, are responsible for identifying dangers in the road and for moving the pack safely and calmly to avoid them.
  • Communicate forward and backward. Pass up and back any verbal cues from other riders.
  • Be careful not to use a group ride to socialize, but if you wish to chat with a friend, move to the last two riders so that your focusing on the discussion doesn’t interrupt the group.
  • Virtual socializing also creates unsafe cycling; just as using your smart phone while driving endangers motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, your urge to take pictures and selfies while cycling probably should be reserved for stops or pre-/post-ride. At the very least, do your smart phone gymnastics at the back of the group.
  • Drinking, eating, and clearing your throat and nose are all behaviors that must not interrupt your safe cycling or impede other cyclists. Learn how to use your water bottle and eat while cycling safely, and drop off the back of the group to spit or clear your nose. Do not cross the yellow line to create that space, however (see below).
  • Remain two-abreast (or conform to the laws of your area) except when rotating off the front. Do not initiate wider than two-abreast during climbs or at stop signs/lights.
  • Do not overlap wheels or wedge into or overtake other riders who are riding safely two-abreast. If you want to take a pull, work through the group in a safe manner as people rotate, or wait for a stop sign/light and ask to move to the front.
  • Don’t cross the yellow or center line of a road**. This is the ultimate unsafe and inconsiderate cyclist move since it endangers yourself, the other cyclists on the ride, and motorists.

This last point hits as the larger concept of safe cycling: Always ride as an integral part of a community of riders recognizing that any action you take (or don’t take) impacts other cyclists.

Cyclists are extremely vulnerable on open roads, but for many of us, that risk is worth the huge benefits to group cycling. As is common in life, those most vulnerable carry the brunt of responsibility—unfairly.

Unsafe motorists are far more dangerous for themselves and everyone else than unsafe cyclists. None the less, cyclists must take it upon ourselves to model good stewardship of the open roads.

Safe cycling also helps foster the sort of community awareness that would serve us well in our full lives as workers, family members, and citizens.

I am glad my local cycling community has sought ways to be seen better, but I worry now that we are more visible are we in fact showing others what it means to cycle as if our lives depend upon it.

* This reminds me of when I first joined my university where the campus was blanketed by flags stating “Engaged Learning,” but when I walked the halls, all the classes were silent, attentive students in rows listening to their professors lecturing, often from notes.

** How many of us have crossed the yellow line to avoid a dog, or to avoid a crash? I have. Certainly, emergency situations create the necessity for emergency maneuvers, but far too often, crossing the yellow line while cycling is just careless bicycle handling and negligence. Yes, we can distinguish between the two, but in normal safe cycling, we should not cross the yellow line.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” (Franz Kafka)

There is a paradox to my formative years that I vividly recognize but cannot fully understand.

My parents weren’t well educated or prone to intellectualism, and they raised me in some truly toxic ideologies that stunted the human I have been trying to be ever since I recognized those ideologies as toxic.

But my dear parents also—and this remains baffling—allowed and even supported for me an intellectual freedom that completely contradicted everything else about my upbringing.

No book, magazine, film, music, or comedian was ever off limits, denied to me—or banned. In fact, my parents despite out modest working class budget eagerly bought me anything I wanted to read or listen to, including a subscription to Playboy and albums by George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

And because of this great fortune of my youth, I am compelled by all bold art—what some call adult or explicit, even profane—and concurrently, by radical, confrontational ideas. Along side the regrets I feel for much of my early life, this gift from my parents rises above everything else as something for which I could never repay them.

As a voracious reader and a would-be writer as I entered college, I fell in love with Franz Kafka, nearly a cliche for would-be writers, I suppose, but incredibly important for me none the less.

And this has remained a refrain for me since I first discovered Kafka: his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

<||>

My home state, South Carolina, remains too much like the very worst of my early life—notably the coastal city Charleston.

Charleston has a rich but deeply scarred history of racism and economic inequity that remains in many ways today. Charleston is also notorious in contemporary times for the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME church and a police officer killing Walter Scott.

Yet, like William Faulkner’s Emily, some despite that context persist in clinging to the corpse of race and class bigotry, blinded by James Baldwin’s “rigid refusal”—as in this case highlighting that the fear of books is the fear of ideas that is the fear of Truth:

Two books causing controversy in Charleston County are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. They are on the summer reading list for Wando High School’s English I class.

In The Hate U Give, the main character’s best friend is unarmed, and shot and killed by police. In All American Boys, one of the main characters is brutalized by a police officer after a misunderstanding when the character is falsely accused of stealing. Both books address racism and police brutality which is making some local law enforcement officers upset.

President of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, John Blackmon, says, “Whether it be through social media, whether it be through text message, whether it be phone calls, we’ve received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list.”

He says in just the past two days, he has received hundreds of messages from police and community members.

Blackmon says, “Freshmen, they’re at the age where their interactions with law enforcement have been very minimal. They’re not driving yet, they haven’t been stopped for speeding, they don’t have these type of interactions. This is putting in their minds, it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”

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“In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books,” recalls Carmen Maria Machado. Specifically, she fell in love with Lois Duncan—despite the problem Duncan’s genre created:

Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?

Machado’s story represents the journey of many writers, how falling in love with writers and books combined with an exhilarating freedom to read as one pleases leads to a life of becoming and being a writer.

To a life of unconventional ideas, a life adultexplicit, profane.

For Machado, Duncan appears to have been a doorway into unconventional ideas about gender:

Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.

In hindsight, Machado realizes:

After that, I re-read “Daughters of Eve,” which had seemed revolutionary when I was eleven. In college, I’d recounted the plot to a friend and started to wonder about its politics. But now it strikes me as a cautionary tale about the potential of radical ideology to empower or destroy, and about the circumstances under which it can take hold. Second-wave, to be sure, and imperfect, of course, but chilling and complicated and uncondescending to its audience. I realized that her books paved the path toward my adult love of novelists such as Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. Some of her plots still show up in my dreams.

What if Machado had continued to be blocked from horror novels, banned for being too frightening for a young girl or too radical in their ideologies?

Like Machado, I bumped against teachers discouraging me from reading comic books and outright barring me from choosing another science fiction book when we had novel choices for class.

Yet, comic books and science fiction are my Lois Duncan.

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“If you read this story out loud” becomes a parenthetical refrain in Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” a story about telling stories (“I have always been a teller of stories,” reveals the narrator) and the horrifying messages in those stories about the fate of girls and women; for example:

The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.

Once you have read about Machado’s early love of Duncan, this story blossoms even from the tips of the many blossoms built into the narrator’s mysterious green ribbon and the interjected brief stories punctuating the main story.

Early, the story is about unconventional ideas, the sexuality of girls, the tension between being fully sexual and “good”:

The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts. I run slick. It isn’t that I don’t have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have a breast that heaves out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse all at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way that men sometimes are, and I want.

It then becomes a story of awakenings, the inevitable demands of men on women, and the brutal consequences of the world for any, or every woman—like the narrator.

I think Machado’s story is brilliant and awesome, in the purest sense of the root “awe,” and I hesitate to dig deeper, share more because much of that awe is in the reading and the very careful unveiling, the lust and the terrifying.

But as a teacher and a teacher of English teachers, I bring this story here because it is the exact sort of story young people should read, must read, but because it is graphic in its depiction of young sexuality, I can hear my former students who now teach high school explain to me that they can’t teach this story.

It is the sort of fiction that is an “axe for the frozen sea inside us”; it is meant to stir our bodies, our souls, and our minds.

And like the novels challenged by police in Charleston, this story is frightening to the social order, the sort of things police, schools, and churches seek to maintain.

Adults with authority, if truth be known, are terrified of young people aroused in mind, body, and spirit.

In one story within the main story, the narrator concludes: “I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is.”

And this is why fiction is frightening; it presents us with inconvenient truth. It isn’t so much that we don’t know it, but that it must not be uttered into reality.

As poet Adrienne Rich has confronted: “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable” (p. 150).

Fiction is almost always terrifying, and it certainly is far more dangerous than fake news.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the police.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the dangers a man’s world pose for all women.

Banning books is banning ideas, the very ideas that liberate anyone to recreate the world in the name of justice and human dignity. There simply is no place for banning books among free people.

That, in fact, is yet another paradox: banning books is an unspeakable crime against human dignity.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Justicia” and “Refuge”

“I wasn’t prepared for the knowledge of what one nation will do to another,” Barbara Kingsolver explains near the end of the Introduction to her poetry collection, Another America/Otra America, continuing:

But knowledge arrived regardless. I saw that every American proverb has two sides, can be told in two languages; that injustice does not disappear when you look away, but seeps in at the back of the neck to poison your soul. The unspeakable things can be survived, and sometimes there is joy on the other side. (pp. xvii-xix)

And so Kingsolver presents a collection of poems, each translated into Spanish by Rebeca Cartes, written over many years and finally published in 1998.

“My way of finding a place in the world is to write one,” Kingsolver concludes. “But when I want to howl and cry and laugh all at once, I’ll raise up a poem against the darkness. This is my testament to two Americas, and the places I’ve found, or made, or dreamed in between” (p. xix).

This idea of two Americas grounded in culture and language, poems now two decades old and well before the rise of Trump’s America, offers a way to navigate what seems to be contradictory claims: Trump’s politics represent enduring ideologies and patterns that in fact reveal who America is while also confronting the nation and the world with a unique bravado and crassness that deserves an equally resolute response.

“Justicia” and “Refuge” speak to historical problems with the American character and current tensions inflamed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“The feral incantations of our dreams” begins “Justicia,” a title evoking “justice” but also (possibly) the flower of that name. Nature is always prominent in Kingsolver, and this poem is grounded in the lone wolf (given a human pronoun):

His orange pain becomes a desert sunset.
His hunger perceives the scent of blood
on the wind,

the sleep of sheltered animals,
everything
but borders.

Kingsolver investigates civilization (“borders”) and the wild, the wilderness (“feral”), a paradoxical tension in which it is the wild that is framed as violent and dangerous but that is often sacrificed.

Next, Kingsolver turns to the politics of race and geography:

The television says McAllen, Texas,
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.,
and housewives in McAllen

check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.

The poem ends with a crescendo of “peaceful,” “liberty,” and “justice” building to “the wolf deserves a meal.”

Reading “Justicia” in 2018, in the wake of Trump’s incessant demonizing of Mexicans and invoking images of immigrants as “animals,” I am compelled to suggest Kingsolver is offering a powerful exploration of racism and nationalism folded into the image of the lone wolf reappropriated as a sympathetic symbol of the dignity all living creatures deserve.

Quoted in full in Feroza Jussawalla’s “Cultural Rights Theory: A View from the U.S.-Mexican Border,” “Refuge” fits equally as well into the state of mangled U.S. politics under Trump.

Kingsolver dedicates the poem “[f]or Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported”—replayed with an awful intensity during the current debate about separating children from parents seeking political asylum and reports of children being sexually assaulted by immigration officials.

“Give me your hand,/He will tell you”—the opening inviting tone triggers for me Adrienne Rich’s equally disturbing interrogation of how the criminal justice system subjects victims of rape to a second assault in her “Rape”: “There is a cop who is both prowler and father.”

“[B]arbed wire,” “desert,” and “hunger” create next an oppressive tone, building to “I will/take your hand./Take it” and then:

First
He will spread it
Fingers from palm
To look inside,
See it offers nothing.
Then
With a sharp blade
Sever it.

Again paralleling Rich’s poem, the language is both violent and sexual, dehumanizing and invasive.

The final stanza is disturbing in its simplicity detailing the officer keeping the severed hand as a token of “the great/desirability/of my country.”

In these two poems, civilization—specifically America—is the rapacious aggressor, the taker that objectifies the weak, as Others, foreign, less than. This is the America that is contrasted with the America claimed.

Kingsolver’s poetic recreation of two Americas, another America, resonates in awful ways that should turn our stomachs, that may prompt us to turn our eyes.

“Another America” confronts us as not the America we claim to be; “another America” challenges us to become the ideal we have yet to achieve—a people devoted to human dignity, to enduring values such as each child is everyone’s child, such as there are no strangers, such as anything we have we will halve and share.

In her poems, essays, and fiction, Kingsolver implores us to be our better selves. I wonder if that is a dream also, an ideal, something we simply are not capable of being.

Love in the Time of Capitalism

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

When risking love, we often calculate the costs.

The emotional cost of being vulnerable with your heart, the existential awareness that our passions are inevitably our sufferings.

But the economic cost as well—gifts and anniversaries, engagement and wedding rings, weddings, honeymoons, car payments, rent and mortgages.

‘Til death do us part.

I believe in soulmates; that love is a recognition, not a choice.

These likely are idealistic, even romantic, and thus unlike virtually every other fiber of my being. And since almost all of my poetry in some way is love poetry, people are often surprised at the poetry against the other writing they know, or the person they recognize as the public and social me.

A therapist once told me that my hypersensitivity to the world (he said I see the world in techno-color when most people see black and white) is a gift—although it also was at the root of my anxiety, my being prone to loneliness and depression.

That hypersensitivity also translates into love, or better phrased, loving too deeply, too much.

I am too much, my love is too much for the unfortunate objects of my affection. A tidal wave. An avalanche.

Although I taught it for many years, I never cared for The Great Gatsby, but one scene always stood out. When Gatsby demands that Daisy tells Tom she never loved Tom, only Gatsby, Daisy breaks:

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.”

This moment—”‘you want too much'”—sets in motion the inevitable end, the tragedy that very well could be titled Love in the Time of Capitalism.

Love that is allowed—normal love, conventional love—triumphs in a perverse way that leaves many people dead in its wake, collateral damage like the idealized love Gatsby so desperately wanted Daisy to confirm.

Their unconventional love across social class, like interracial or interfaith love, love between different nationalities, same-sex love, love across an age gap.

As I near 60, I have discovered that the costs of romantic and familial love can become too much, or at least so demanding that I have failed it—or as I recognize, I become too much.

I have at times learned to disassociate, to set aside feeling too deeply, feeling at all. Love is a kind of obsession, at least for me, and when I care deeply I am nearly always aware of that love, especially in the absence.

As I near 60, I also must admit I am far more able to appreciate the importance of love, not just conventional love, and far more willing to seek ways to ignore the barricades to love. I am apt to argue that nothing else matters as love must for any human.

So this morning, with the recent death of Donald Hall, I was introduced to Hall’s Between Solitude and Loneliness from 2016.

Aging and becoming aware of ones mortality can often be extremely liberating—paradoxically too late. Hall writes at 87 about his journey with solitude and loneliness, as a veneer for an essay about love.

Hall details an early life that seemed crowded, especially for a man prone to the solitude of writing. In college, for example, “Solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it.”

And then Hall married young: “My extremely intelligent wife was more mathematical than literary. We lived together and we grew apart….After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced.”

Hall’s essay turns, then, to the ways in which he squandered life and love:

For five years I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon. I dated a girlfriend who drank two bottles of vodka a day. I dated three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day. My poems slackened and stopped. I tried to think that I lived in happy license. I didn’t.

When love returned to Hall, however, he was vividly aware of the costs, in this case of unconventional love, a much younger former student: “One night, we spoke of marriage. Quickly we changed the subject, because I was nineteen years older and, if we married, she would be a widow so long.”

None the less, they married, and the essay cannot hide the joy of their love, that the risk of unconventional love for a man who had failed life and love was very much worth the cost.

There is nothing guaranteed about life and love—”After twenty years of our remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude, Jane died of leukemia at forty-seven, on April 22, 1995.”

This essay is about a man risking love, grieving as deeply as he loved while envisioning his own death bed before him.

I was watching my two grandchildren when I read this. I cried very hard and had to navigate my granddaughter asking me to help her find her P.J. Mask dolls through tears blurring my contacts and dropping onto the lenses of my old-man reading glasses.

It was the sort of deep and unnerving cry I experience, spontaneous and uncontrollable, when I listen to Ben Fold’s “The Luckiest,” my go-to anthem about the treasured soulmate.

The lyrics are quirky and heartfelt—with the speaker admitting: “I love you more than I have/Ever found a way to say to you.”

Our metaphors of capitalism, the costs of love, ultimately corrupt not just love itself but how we talk about love.

Love fills us to bursting, forcing at times the tears from our eyes. In its absence we are empty.

Not much could save The Great Gatsby for me; I loathe Fitzgerald, and the characters leave me cold. But reimagined as Love in the Time of Capitalism, a novel as a cautionary tale calling for humans to choose the heart over our consumerism, I may be persuaded otherwise.

Love is a very human thing, and a very difficult thing for humans. In the time of capitalism, it may damn well be impossible.

But what if Gatsby were not asking too much? What if unconventional love was not just  tolerated but celebrated?

What if love was enough?