Teaching, Writing as Activism?

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.

Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Low self-esteem and doubt are evil, tiny demons, and both have plagued me lately with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?

In the past several months, from Ferguson to Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism.

The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.

To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity.

To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.

Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives.

For me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.

More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context.

As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career.

The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism if we embrace that call.

Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color.

My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history.

In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate SC, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.

Beyond my classroom, as department chair, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them.

Then, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.

So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.

I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves.

Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong.

None of this is easy or comfortable, and I recognize in hindsight, to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.

My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting ones name behind words that challenge.

But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic).

My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.

Thus, my vigilance lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity.

As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?

I say that we can be, that we must be.

But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words.

And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.

I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists.

These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe.

Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.

Who Can, Who Should Teach Writing?

My transition from public high school English teacher to university assistant professor overlapped with my university debating and then voting to change its core curriculum and academic calendar.

I sat in many contentious faculty meetings mostly listening as faculty held forth about the pros and cons of both the established core/calendar and the proposed core/calendar. One thing that I witnessed was that faculty are quite protective of their own disciplines—but are apt to step carelessly on disciplines outside their area of expertise.

For example, the faculty were considering dropping the traditional first-year composition approach that is taught exclusively by English faculty for a first-year seminar approach that allowed and required faculty across all disciplines to teach the writing-intensive seminars for first year students.

As someone who taught high school English for almost twenty years—most of that time spent learning the complex craft of teaching writing through trial-and-error and dedicating much of my own energy to learning how to teach writing by studying the research against my own practices—I heard faculty repeated trample the field of composition, in terms of speaking as if the field doesn’t exist as well as stating directly and indirectly that “anyone can teach writing because we all are scholars.”

Let’s jump ahead about ten years. The faculty did adopt a new core and calendar, including the first year seminar structure.

Currently, we are reconsidering the first year seminar model, and much of the motivation for that reflection is that who can and who should teach writing have become a significant problems—ones not anticipated well or addressed adequately.

A few academic years ago, due to my interest in the first year seminars and teaching writing, I was named Faculty Director, First Year Seminars in order to help provide the sort of faculty support that had been lacking.

We have a First Year Oversight Committee, but that oversight has focused primarily on approving new courses and monitoring funding for seminars—although the committee has managed faculty workshops over the summer to address course development and teaching writing.

This summer we have implemented the initial year-long Faculty Writing Fellows seminar, including 12 faculty and three seminar facilitators to begin building a purposeful approach to supporting faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Just as I remain in search of how to teach writing well to students of all ages (there is no finish line), I also can attest that teaching faculty at any level how to teach writing is a perpetual and nearly overwhelming struggle.

First, then, I want to highlight a couple foundational issues and questions that must be addressed when any school is considering who can and who should teach writing:

  • Initially, acknowledge that composition is a disciplinary field that is not the same as English as a discipline. In fact, many K-12 teachers and college professors with credentials/degrees in English are skilled in literary analysis, not teaching writing. As well, even when we acknowledge composition as a field, we should also recognize that it is typically a marginalized field. That marginalization includes assigning new/beginning teachers to teach composition and so-called “remedial”writing as a sort of gauntlet they must endure to earn better course assignments. In higher education, adjuncts and teaching assistants are disproportionately staffing the teaching of writing also.
  • The larger questions of who can and who should teach writing are much more complex than many schools admit. All educators at every educational level have attained a degree of literacy that equips them for the ability (can) to teach writing, but flipping that can to should is where schools often make a fundamental mistake. Faculty charged with teaching writing purposefully but without a formal background in composition must want to teach writing and then must receive sustained and organized instruction and support in how to teach writing.

If schools committed to writing across the curriculum, expanding writing-intensive courses, or embracing “anyone can teach writing” manage the two hurdles above, however, several new problems are sure to exist:

  • Faculty without composition backgrounds tend to view “teaching writing” as correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage “errors.” This dynamic requires establishing common language among faulty teaching writing (for example, do not say “writing” to mean “grammar”) and then couching that common terminology in a robust examination of linguistics that confronts the tension between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive grammarians. That tension typically can be predicted in that the general public and educators without composition backgrounds skew toward prescriptive grammar (rules-based) while composition best practices tend to be driven by a descriptive grounding in linguistics (conventions-based).
  • Without addressing that tension above, then, I am convinced the process to expand who can and should teach writing is doomed to failure. How to accomplish that, however, is another matter entirely. That tension is likely to manifest itself in a trap: Faculty without composition backgrounds will often note that they feel unprepared to teach “writing” (which is code for correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage), but when they are introduced to best practice in teaching writing and descriptive linguistics, they balk. The result is: “Teach me how to teach writing, but I don’t want to hear about how to teach writing, I want to correct my students’ horrible grammar.”
  • That trap means the first step to learning how to teach writing is giving faculty the opportunity to investigate their own attitudes toward language, and then to invite them to set aside, as Connie Weaver calls it, the “error hunt.” Teaching writing begins with having a rich and healthy attitude about language, and then coming to understand that teaching writing is not simply teaching grammar and that the question is not if we address grammar, mechanics, and usage, but how, when, and why (and that the why is to foster students as writers, not grammarians).
  • Even those of us with formal backgrounds in teaching writing face a significant hurdle shared with many educators without that formal background: It is very difficult to teach writing in the context of best practices (for example, writing workshop) if the teacher her/himself has not been a participant in best practices such as a writing workshop. One of the most powerful elements of the National Writing Project’s professional development model has been summer workshops that provide just that experience. Faculty designated for teaching writing must be provided some extended opportunities to examine themselves as writers, participating in writing workshop and the practices they will bring to their own students.
  • All of the problems above should also be within a formal mission and concurrent goals for writing shared within the school/college and among faculty. Both faculty and students are likely to be more successful if everyone has core goals to maintain a manageable focus for teaching writing. However, that mission and those goals must acknowledge that teaching writing is never a fixed outcome. In other words, no single course or teacher/professor can or should be expected to produce a “finished” writer. Even so-called “basic” skills of writing are nearly impossible to identify and master at predictable points along formal education.

Who can teach writing? Nearly any educator motivated to teach students as writers and then provided the necessary support to become a writing teacher.

Who should teach writing? See above.

As a writer and teacher primarily focused on teaching writing, I am in the process of both and daily aware that writing and teaching writing are always a process of becoming.

Few human endeavors are as complex and important as being a writer or being a teacher of writing, and thus, asking who can and who should teach writing remains just as complex.

See Also

To Grammar or Not to Grammar: That Is Not the Question!, Connie Weaver, Carol McNally, and Sharon Moerman

Who I Am, Who I Am Not

I am not Howard Zinn.

That likely is unnecessary to state, and may seem a passive-aggressive statement of arrogance, but recently several people have challenged black men’s work and perspectives (notably Ta-Nehisi Coates) by noting “he is not James Baldwin.”

My relatively recent personal/professional blog presence is named the becoming radical based on Zinn’s central claim about his role as teacher/activist:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

Along with Zinn, my work as teacher/writer and activist is guided by James Baldwin’s concept of bearing witness:

Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

But my voice and footprint in this world—even my direct spheres as a classroom teacher—are incredibly tiny compared to Zinn and Baldwin. They represent who and what I aspire to, but in no way am I deluded into thinking I matter in any way compared to them—or many others.

Part of the reason they and others guide me is that I increasingly am aware of and consciously addressing how flawed I am, how far I have yet to go. If there is arrogance here, it is the arrogance of being a writer; we are compelled to write, which includes the arrogance that there will be readers who think we should be read.

I have been a practicing teacher and writer for over thirty years—and I want to stress that I came to recognize that I am both a teacher and writer, but that I never chose to be either.

An external reality I must admit is that despite my working-class background, my redneck past, I have been afforded a tremendous amount of unearned privilege because I am a white male.

Those powerful buffers of race/gender privilege have been not just a foundation for my personal and professional success but also a trampoline for those achievements.

Nonetheless, my first 18 years of teaching from 1984-2002 were spent as a high school English teacher in the rural Upstate South Carolina high school in my hometown.

There and then, I built who I am today—a teacher who, like Zinn, embraces teaching as activism.

I spent nearly two decades as an unapologetic student-centered teacher who fought daily to expand the reading options for students—adding women and writers of color to the stale white/male canon—and to de-track our English courses by eliminating a mind-numbing array of leveled textbooks.

While teaching high school English, I was mentored by the only black teacher in our department, Ethel Chamblee, who added the much needed veteran voice to our goals of race and class equity in a very conservative and repressive school.

But I also learned another very harsh lesson while teaching high school: I was always “just a school teacher”—professionally and publicly.

If you glance at my publishing history, there are a few scatterings of professional work, poetry, and some fiction throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but my publishing career exploded in 2002, when I moved to higher education.

In fact, in the final months before I left teaching high school and into my first months as an assistant professor at a selective liberal arts university I was told in both subtle and direct terms that one career didn’t count (teaching public high school) and simply being associated with a university did count (the university association, though, mattered, not me).

First, even though I was hired in the education department of my university, I was told those 18 years teaching didn’t count toward my university experience (administration would have, by the way). So in my early 40s, I had to start in higher education at the bottom.

Next, though, once I had my university beside my name (I had had an EdD for four years before then), local, state, and national publications suddenly considered and published my commentaries. I had been submitting for years while teaching high school, but mostly received no response, and when I did have rare acknowledgements, they were “reject.”

Even today after 13 years and moving through every rank to full professor in higher education, many people within the academy shift their tone and tilt their heads when I explain I taught high school for 18 years before coming to higher education—implying in no uncertain terms, “O, I am so sorry.”

While my university position has afforded me incredible access to doing scholarly and public work, I am daily reminded that teaching is a nearly powerless and dehumanizing profession.

So let me return to my blog title—the becoming radical—and Zinn.

Who I am is teacher/writer as activist, but who I am is also a life-long student, thus my always becoming.

I was raised in the fundamentalist and racist South of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite being academically “smart,” I entered college a deeply ignorant and wrong-minded young man who was daily patted on the head for being smart, even though I had yet to recognize the “smart” was an ugly mask for privilege.

In those college years, I discovered literature, and Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes became my unofficial teachers, my saviors—starting for me a journey now 36 years and counting.

I have been at this teaching thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at this writing thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at both as an activist along side those marginalized by race, class, and gender for a long time, and I am still becoming.

If I have to be Howard Zinn to matter to you, then I am certainly going to disappoint you.

If you think you know me because of Twitter or this blog, it seems likely you don’t because the closest thing to the real me is in the classroom year-round (I have always taught optional summer and May sessions for my entire career); the real me is writing nearly every morning, alone; the real me is reading, reading, reading—certain I have so much more to learn.

Who I am will always be the deeply self-conscious redneck young adult who one day confronted his demons and has worked every day since to make amends.

If you think me arrogant (many do since my passion often reads as such), insincere, or self-serving, I must caution you to reconsider. At a few years past 50, my life tells a different story if you are willing to look at it.

But I am certain you do see flaws I haven’t seen yet as well as ones I am now addressing, and rest assured, I am looking because who I am includes as part of the becoming someone who is always listening.

Listening because while all I have is me, who I am is he who knows this is not about me.

This Is My Post on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Burden of Living among Dreamers”

Under President Barack Obama, instead of hope and change, the U.S. has been offered ample and disturbing evidence that we are not a post-racial country.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the U.S. is now forced to confront an inevitable reality: a post-Obama U.S.

From the Sandy Hook school shooting to the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama stood before the country and the world in a way that those holding the office before him and those now seeking the office after him surely could not have matched, will not be able to match.

Obama under the weight of Nobel Peace Prize winner and “first black president” was destined to fall short—personifying the racial dilemma exposed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in March 2014:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

In 2015, while popular and critical opinions of Obama have risen in many ways, it is now fashionable to praise Coates, who has released a book-length letter to his his son, Between the World and Me.

Like Obama, Coates has been tossed immediately into rarified air, comparisons that virtually no one could survive. Herself a Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, in fact, has joined the chorus anointing Coates the next James Baldwin.

Between has also proven to be an irresistible land mine for black male public intellectuals as well as pontificating and tragically un-self-aware white-mansplainers.

Conversely, several black women scholars and journalists have found Between a powerful entry point for encouraging a much needed conversation about race, class, and gender.

The array of responses presents lessons in grace and the absence of grace that Obama spoke to while eulogizing South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney.

My status as privileged (white, male) former redneck and current academic is not intended here to justify, explain, qualify, or endorse Coates or his book. In fact, if you haven’t been reading Coates, if you haven’t read his book, you should be doing those and not reading yet another post about Coates and his book.

If nothing else, this is about that paradox grounded in the racism of the U.S. that produced Coates as well as the book he has written; the racism of the U.S. that is producing the son to whom Coates writes for everyone else to witness.

“Of course we chose nothing,” Coates writes:

We did not design the streets. We do not fund them. We do not preserve them. But I was there, nevertheless, charged like all the others with the protection of my body….

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. (pp. 22, 42)

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From his candidacy and through Obama’s tenure as president, I have drifted from skepticism to cynicism about the promise of a black president to change policy or the hearts and minds of privileged Americans.

I harbor no delusion that the people who should read Coates slowly and carefully, with hearts and minds open to hard truths, will do so.

Despite overwhelming evidence of systemic racism, whites in the U.S. remain resistant, if not incapable of admitting their own culpability in racism. In fact, research shows “Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.”

Coates lived what research details:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic—an orc, troll, or gorgon….There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. (p. 97)

For those who believe themselves white, everything is about “me”—except for racism, of course.

And since the connection has been made, let’s admit that James Baldwin was too often ignored while he lived and has nearly disappeared since his death. If Baldwin was one of the, if not the, greatest witnesses among writers and public intellectuals—and I believe that to be the case—how can we expect Coates to achieve what Baldwin could not?

Ours, then, among the privileged is to resist raising a bar so high that Coates is doomed to fail.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to refuse the “yes, but” trivialization of a black man’s interrogation of this racist world.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to listen, to stand with in order to build a more perfect union that, ironically, will never again create a Baldwin or a Coates-as-Baldwin in the way those men have been formed.

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Coates creates a powerful refrain throughout his book, the Dream.

That refrain is an unmasking of people who think they are white, a denunciation of a world that forces black males to define themselves against that whiteness.

As an educator, I am compelled to highlight a central message from Coates about formal schooling: “I had been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life” (p. 37).

Ultimately, Coates left college—and we must hear Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” in the background:

I wanted to pursue things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)

Formal schooling is a mechanism of the Dream, Coates discovered:

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. (p. 50)

The world Coates interrogates failed him and fails his son in the streets and the classroom; this we must admit is an inexcusable consequence of both enduring racism and the recalcitrance of the privileged to acknowledge systemic racism.

“And still you are called to struggle,” Coates tells his son and his readers, “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (p. 97).

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“As I learn from you,” concludes the speaker of “Theme for English B”:

I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

Hughes was Hughes, Baldwin was Baldwin, and Coates is Coates.

The themes are too often the same, however, and it is well past time that the somewhat more free who believe themselves white set themselves aside and learn without qualification from those who have been declared black.

See Also

“I look at the world,” Langston Hughes

remnant 57: “forced on me from above” [Haruki Murakami on school]

Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.

For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.

Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.

As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).

In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.

Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.

Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.

What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.

I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.

I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.

However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.

Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.

As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.

Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?

If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?

As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.

I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.

Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.

Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.

Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?

I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.

When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.

Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.

I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.

And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.

“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.

Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.

Technology Fails Plagiarism, Citation Tests

My home university has taken another step in our quest to provide our students more effective and intentional first-year and sustained writing instruction during their time at our liberal arts institution. Once we moved away from the traditional English Department-based approach to first year composition and committed to a first year seminar format, just under a decade ago, we opened the door to having professors in any department teach first-year writing.

We are currently re-thinking the first year seminar model, but we are also taking steps to support better professors who have content expertise in the disciplines, experience as researchers and writers, but little or no formal background in teaching writing or composition research. This summer, then, we have begun a year-long faculty seminar on teaching writing.

Coincidentally, on the day this week we were scheduled to address plagiarism and citation, a session I was leading, I came across in my Twitter feed Carl Straumsheim’s What Is Detected?:

Plagiarism detection software from vendors such as Turnitin is often criticized for labeling clumsy student writing as plagiarism. Now a set of new tests suggests the software lets too many students get away with it.

The data come from Susan E. Schorn, a writing coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin. Schorn first ran a test to determine Turnitin’s efficacy back in 2007, when the university was considering paying for an institutionwide license. Her results initially dissuaded the university from paying a five-figure sum to license the software, she said. A follow-up test, conducted this March, produced similar results.

I have been resisting the use of Turnitin, or any plagiarism detection software, but my university and many professors remain committed to the technology. The growing body of research discrediting the software suggests:

“We say that we’re using this software in order to teach students about academic dishonesty, but we’re using software we know doesn’t work,” Schorn said. “In effect, we’re trying to teach them about academic dishonesty by lying to them.”

My general skepticism about technology was confirmed years ago when I was serving on my university Academic Discipline Committee where faculty often debated about whether or not students flagged for plagiarism by Turnitin had actually plagiarized (see Thomas, 2007, below). That debate turned on many issues being raised by the failure of plagiarism detection software, as highlighted at the University of Texas-Austin based on Schorn’s research:

  • Despite industry claims to the contrary, most plagiarism detection software fails to accurately detect plagiarism. Read more.
  • The Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Council of Writing Program Administrators do not endorse plagiarism detection software and have issued statements warning of its limitations. Read more.
  • Plagiarism detection software can have substantial unintended effects on student learning. It perpetuates a very narrow definition of originality and does little to teach students about the complex interplay of voices required in dialogic academic writing.
  • Plagiarism detection software transfers the responsibility for identifying plagiarism from a human reader to a non-human process. This runs counter to the Writing Flag’s concern for “careful reading and analysis of the writing of others” as part of the learning process.
  • Plagiarism detection software raises potential legal and ethical concerns, such as the use of student writing to construct databases that earn a profit for software companies, the lack of appeals processes, and potential violations of student privacy and FERPA protections.
  • Plagiarism detection software does not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence to prove academic dishonesty; it should not serve as the sole grounds for cases filed with Student Judicial Services.
  • Instructors who choose to use plagiarism detection software should include a syllabus statement about the software and its use, establish appeals processes, and plan for potential technological failures.

The fourth bullet above—where the authority for both teaching citation and detecting plagiarism is shifted from the professor/teacher to the technology—is the core problem for me because of two key issues: (1) many professors/teachers resist recognizing or practicing that teaching citation (and all aspects of writing) is an ongoing process—not a one-shot act, and (2) focusing on warning students about plagiarism and suspecting all students as potential plagiarizers (teaching plagiarism, a negative, instead of citation, a positive) are part of a larger and corrupt deficit view of scholarship, students, and human nature.

While plagiarism detection software is being unmasked as not as effective as using browser search engines (a free resource), we must admit that even if software or technology works as advertised, best practice always dictates that professors/teachers and students recognize that technology is only one tool in a larger obligation to teaching and/or scholarship.

Another related example of the essential folly of placing too much faith in technology when seeking ways to teach students scholarly citation is citation software, such as NoodleBib and the more recent App RefMe.

Despite, once again, many universities (typically through the library services) encouraging uncritically students to use citation software, I discourage the practice because almost always the generated bibliographies my students submit are incorrect—in part due to some of the harder aspects of APA for the software to address (capitalization/lower-case issues, for example) and in part due to students’ lack of oversight after generating the bibliographies.

Ultimately, then, if we think of citation software as a tool, and if students can be taught to review and edit generated bibliographies, the technology has promise (setting aside that some citation software embeds formatting that can be problematic once inserted into a document also).

Both plagiarism detection and citation software are harbingers of the dangers of seeking shortcuts for teaching students any aspect of writing; spending school or university funds on these inadequate technologies, I think, is hard to defend, but the greater pedagogical problem is how technology often serves to impede, not strengthen our roles as educators—especially as teachers of writing.

Some lessons from these failures of technology include the following:

  1. Be skeptical of technology, especially if their are significant costs involved. Are there free or cheaper alternatives, and can that funding be better spent in the name of teaching and learning?
  2. Be vigilant about teacher agency, notably resisting abdicating that agency to technology instead of incorporating technology into enhancing teacher agency.
  3. Recognize that teaching writing and subsets such as citation are ongoing and developmental commitments that take years and years of intentional instruction.
  4. Resist deficit thinking about students/humans (do not address primarily plagiarism, but citation).

Straumsheim draws a key conclusion from Schorn’s research: “In addition to the issues of false negatives and positives, plagiarism detection software fits into a larger ethical debate about how to teach writing.”

The ethics of teaching writing, I believe, demand we set aside technology mis-serving our teaching and our students—setting technology aside and returning to our own obligations as teachers.

See Also

Thomas, P.L. (2007, May). Of flattery and thievery: Reconsidering plagiarism in a time of virtual information. English Journal, 96(5), 81-84.

Statement on Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Preventing Plagiarism (UT-Austin)

Teaching with Plagiarism Detection Software (UT-Austin)

Plagiarism Detection Software: Limitations and Responsibilities (UT-Austin)

Results of the Plagiarism Detection System Test 2013

Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices (WPA)

CCCC Resolution on Plagiarism Detection Services (#3)

On Public Versus Charter: “The Dispute Has Actually Nothing to Do with Education”

I.

Published 54 years ago, Nobody Knows My Name continues to shake any reader willing to listen as James Baldwin bore witness to the region currently—and again, shamefully—in the national spotlight, “the South, which was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people.”

Baldwin continued—and we could too easily substitute for his “this” as we now witness debates long past their time for resolution:

This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.) Educated people, of any color, are so extremely rare that it is unquestionably one of the first tasks of a nation to open all of its schools to all of its citizens. But the dispute has actually nothing to do with education, as some among the eminently uneducated know. It has to do with political power and it has to do with sex. And this is a nation which, most unluckily, knows very little about either. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1102-1108). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

The “frivolous” comes not from the great questions that have always and will always confront humanity—how do we educate?—but from the “bad faith” among “uneducated people” who have undeserved privilege and power.

To believe the current education reform debate is not nearly indistinguishable from what Baldwin contested as the U.S. resisted desegregation is to live among the deaf and blind.

For more than three decades now, public education has been held hostage by the most frivolous of frivolous debates: how to design and implement accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing. This adolescent game of “my accountability can beat your accountability” has left public education and the children it should serve battered and bloodied.

From the seemingly endless cycle of new standards and new high-stakes tests (and ways to punish even more groups within our public schools) to the increasingly snarky divisiveness and personal politics of social media, the often cited reasons for all this sound and fury—public schools, the children—are being mis-served; just as a couple terrible examples, public education has re-segregated during the accountability era, and the mislabeled achievement gap among racial groups has remained robust.

II.

“I often find myself scratching my head,” writes Andre Perry, “wondering why so many black folk extol the virtues of public education.”

Perry, 54 years after Baldwin’s challenge to “frivolous dispute,” wades into not only the public versus charter schools debate but also the race and social class biases at the root of whose voices matter and whose voices do not.

Most of the U.S. sits idly by—like audiences watching the newest Avengers movie—while the arrogant and mighty battle, rarely acknowledging the collateral damage (will there ever be a superhero blockbuster film in which all those superheroes use their superpowers to rebuild the infrastructure they destroy?).

Since Marvel’s Civil War is set for film soon, we may be watching the equivalent in fiction of the public versus charter debate, and I think Perry is offering a rare but important plea, as Baldwin did: “the dispute has actually nothing to do with education.”

Perry recognizes “[i]n the education wars,”

black and brown educators who criticize the current wave of reform often find themselves rallying with those who can say that public education in this country works. But let’s be clear, blacks aren’t in a position to root for or celebrate the status quo. Likewise, there has never been a time in which blacks shouldn’t have considered themselves reformers. Yet many have incidentally joined an education “party of no.”

Although eventually (as late as the early 1970s in the South Baldwin examined) public schools were forced to open their doors to all children, Perry stresses “many of us fight for that unfulfilled promise at the expense of student learning”:

Public education should advance society and its individual members simultaneously. But black communities can’t afford to wait for whites to gentrify schools in the name of democracy to get a good education.

And thus, Perry challenges the false dichotomy that has been created by the “education reform [debate that] is too white to do any good“: public schools versus charter schools. In fact, Perry asserts, guided by Frederick Douglass’s “What To The Slave Is The 4th of July?”:

Charter schools make sense for black communities. Charter schools are independent public institutions that are freed from administrative controls of a centralized, area board, but must still meet broad guidelines or requirements of public schools. Through a charter, parents, teachers, and administrative staff primarily can gain freedom from an elected local board that’s incongruent with their values.

To fight the public versus charter war at a pitch that drowns out the voices of those whom “public institutions” should be serving, must be serving is disturbingly frivolous, Perry recognizes.

Of all the education reform debates, this tension has given me the most pause: How can we rectify rejecting “no excuses” charter schools for being racist/classist while many black families choose those very schools?

I am compelled to look again to Baldwin in order to remove the misleading labels (“public,” “charter”) and to hear, as Perry explains:

I like many see a promise that charter schools can deliver, but I also see inequities waving in the faces of black and brown students every day in public schools. Inadequate funding, harsh suspension and expulsion policies, lack of services for students with special needs and culturally irrelevant curricula are durable, standing problems in most takeover districts. I see waste, fraud, and unsavory practices that led cities to decentralize.

“Charter” for Perry represents a new promise, one responsive to the needs of children too long ignored.

So to save this debate from the “frivolous” we must guard against simplistic labels. Regardless of whether the school is “public” or “charter,” the educator’s commitment must be, as Paul Gorski explains, to “take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income[, black and brown] students and families.”

Being for public education or either for or against charter schools proves to be as callous and hollow as superheroes destroying a city to win a war between Good and Evil when we lose sight of foundational promises to achieve race and class equity.

III.

In the years between Baldwin’s and Perry’s commentaries, the promise of public institutions has remained unfulfilled because the question of race in the U.S. has never been fully confronted.

In 2015, presidential candidates expressing racist trash are viable while elected officials, although now in a minority, in South Carolina continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag as they spew whitewashed history and empty slogans as thin veils for racism that works as political capital. In 2015, because a privileged minority controls what counts as civil debate, we haven’t the capacity to denounce the morally reprehensible position that “both sides” deserve equal credibility.

So we are people trapped by trivializing debate and democracy in a moral vacuum.

And again, Baldwin’s “debate” allows us to insert his voice in our moment now:

And yet, it became clear as the debate wore on, that there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimiliar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 346-351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

From Baldwin’s world of overt racial segregation to Perry’s world of covert racial segregation, then, whether the debate be who we educate or how we educate, the tarnished promise is the consequence of the white illusion:

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1080-1085). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

IV.

We need “educated people,” as Baldwin explained—not the credentialism of formal schooling, but the education that comes from Freire’s reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world unmasked of race and class privilege.

Educated people who can state clearly that no black child should have to sit in Robert E. Lee Elementary.

That no black young adult should have to sit in Tillman Hall.

Yes, names matter.

But then, the indignity of honoring “men with wicked histories” must not be compounded by what happens inside those institutions.

No black, brown, or poor child should be walking through the doors of any school only to be treated as criminals, failures, or data.

We need educated people who can admit public, charter, and private schools remain too often institutions of inequity reflecting a country in which a child’s race and social class at birth have a greater bearing on her/his life than the content of her/his character.

We need educated people who can admit symbolism and practices both matter—that two Americas will not be tolerated or obscured by “frivolous dispute[s … that have] nothing to do with education.”

On this there must no longer be debate.

“Men with Wicked Histories Often Enjoyed Lives of Comfort…Buried with Honor”

The life of teenager Billy Parham during the 1930s and across the Southwest of the U.S. and Mexico entrances readers of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing with a number of embedded stories along the way.

In one narrative-within-a-narrative late in section three, Billy hears a retelling of the philosophical pronouncements of a sepulturero (gravedigger, undertaker):

He said that while one would like to say that God will punish those who do such things [blinding a man in a horrible act] and that people often speak in just this way it was his experience that God could not be spoken for and that men with wicked histories often enjoyed lives of comfort and that they died in peace and were buried with honor. He said that it was a mistake to expect too much of justice in the world. He said that the notion that evil is seldom rewarded was greatly overspoken for if there were no advantage to it then men would shun it and how could virtue then be attached to its repudiation?

This second volume in the Border Trilogy, like the first volume (All the Pretty Horses), meanders often back to foundational questions about justice. The undertaker’s beliefs excerpted above end with a question that the novel leaves at the feet of readers, although other characters comment on it as well

As South Carolina has wrestled with this exact same issue in the form of a flag once flying atop the state capitol and then on state grounds as a bitter compromise, we must admit the undertaker is not cynical at all, but telling Truth.

Buildings, monuments, and statues honor our “men with wicked histories,” and as long as they do, we cannot claim any real interest in justice.

Removing Confederate Battle Flag from State Grounds Facing, Not Erasing, History

Often ignored behind the whitewashed myth of the Founding Fathers and the so-called birth of a nation is that the Declaration of Independence was strategically limited to only white males due to, in part, delegates from South Carolina who balked on including language rejecting slavery.

My home state of South Carolina was also first to secede from the Union, hand-in-hand with Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia in, explicitly, defense of slavery. South Carolina rebuked the Union for its “deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States,” such as Mississippi who declared bluntly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”

Even as slavery began to collapse under the weight of its inhumanity and immorality, free whites in South Carolina increased the number of slaves—with nearly half of families owning slaves by 1850—at the beginning of the Civil War.

My home state of South Carolina also offered the political world John C. Calhoun, Ben Tillman, and Strom Thurmond—embodiments of racism as political capital.

And in the past few days, my home state of South Carolina has once again paraded in front of the U.S. and the world the bitter clinging to tarnished symbols and strident shouting of empty slogans that temporarily stalled the long-overdue act of bringing down the Confederate battle flag from state grounds.

#

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in the rural upstate South Carolina high school I attended as a student.

One of my non-fiction units for American literature included a consideration of persuasive writing, beginning with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and then examining Thoreau’s influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The last works of that unit focused on Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, King, and Malcolm X—a dedicated and extended honoring of black history and debate that was much more than a token nod such as black history month.

One moment when I was handing out King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” remains with me to this day.

A white male student brushed the photocopy of King’s letter off his desk top and into the floor with a hissed, “I ain’t reading that nigger.”

My class included black students, but my being white and this student’s own life experience had taught him his perverse righteous indignation was entirely justified; he might as well has snarled “heritage, not hate.”

More calmly than I should have, I returned the handout to his desk with my hand on the papers, and looking him in the eye explained he would never say that word again in my room, and he would in fact read what I had assigned.

For many if not all of my students, this was probably the first time they had witnessed a white male—from their home town, in fact—take such a stand.

In all-white situations throughout my life in the South, racist slurs and veiled racist comments and jokes have been and remain a cruel norm.

#

The debate about removing the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina state grounds has not been the shining moment our state or the nation deserves. The rhetoric has too often been lies about the flag somehow not being a racist banner of slavery from the beginning, the narratives have mostly omitted the racist intent of resurrecting that flag in the early 1960s as an ugly middle finger to desegregation and civil rights for blacks, and the state representatives and senators who were democratically elected but chose to clutch still that flag have exposed ugly truths about denial and racial inequity surviving and even thriving today.

Bringing down that flag is a symbolic act itself, but it is also a movement that must continue to include real admissions about race inequity and new policies that make this world a better place.

To bring down a flag, to change the names of buildings, to remove statues—these are necessary acts of facing, not erasing, history.

Memorials that honor the dishonorable are indignities to the true value of history, or even heritage.

There is no dishonor in admitting our failures; in fact, facing our past and acknowledging man’s inhumanity to humans (and such gender-biased language is suitable here) is the most honorable thing we can do.

If there is any dignity in democracy, the next step after symbolically removing that flag must be removing the elected officials who have tied their voices and their names to a lost cause that was corrupt from the beginning.

See

Here are the 20 lawmakers who voted against removing the Confederate flag