Reader 22 May 2017: Connecting Dots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstract

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


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

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

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

See: Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse, Mike Taylor

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

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

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

 

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

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

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

Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document

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

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

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

“Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

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

Elite or Selective?: Reconsidering Who We Educate and How

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the inevitable happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is what was lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Becoming and Being a Writer

She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
Man I wish I was beautiful

“Mr Jones,” Counting Crows

For two summers overlapping with my last two years as a high school English teacher before moving to higher education, I was a lead instructor for the summer institute of the Spartanburg Writing Project.

Hindsight can be a powerful thing, and through that lens, I am not being hyperbolic or nostalgic when declaring that was a powerful transition in my life as a writer: Teaching as a writer while mentoring and fostering teachers as writers.

That first summer, I can still recall vividly working with a beginning teacher (now a dear friend and amazing educator/writer) who was eagerly seeking how to become and be a writer. She shared with me a redneck past (our birth-homes relatively close in the rural upstate of South Carolina) and a deep love of books, reading, and language.

Her prose was beautiful and compelling, and narrative seemed to flow almost effortlessly from her. The writer problem she faced, however, was how to write poetry.

I set out to help her develop a foundational writer move—the form our writing takes is, in part, driven by the conventions we associate with the form. Prose (whether fiction or nonfiction) rests inside a sense that expression is bound by forming sentences and paragraphs.

The poet steps away from paragraphs, remains bound to sentences, and then begins to shape something within poetic constructions—lines and stanzas, how language sounds aloud, how words look on the page.

We set out, then, that summer investigating lination, how a writer begins to think as a poet nested within thinking like a writer.

#

Becoming a writer, I think, tends to come about in two way. One is by necessity, which is the path for many academics and scholars, and another, by recognition, something in the bones that you either embrace or try to ignore like that same place that itches in the middle of your back.

I am not convinced, however, that the becoming and being a writer is any different for those in either category.

The difference seems to be mostly internal. For most moments of my life since I was in my late teens or early 20s, I have existed and still exist in a continual state of words that want to be formed into something else I will write.

This is an auto-state, not a conscious or even welcomed state. It is a sort of running monologue in my mind that I somewhat meta-think about as recognition that I am writing something.

As a writer and a teacher, I am often asked about how anyone knows they are writers, and this is one of the ways in which I try to explain the recognition, and that this is distinct from those of us who must write as part of a separate calling (again, academics and scholars).

Here is what it is like for me in 2017.

Words and phrases just come to me, often in the hazy transition from sleep to waking. A couple days ago “i bought boxes of sequins and glitter” came to me. It seemed silly and likely just my brain working overtime after a very fertile day of writing a new poem.

I began playing with the idea of “filled to bursting” and that resulting in someone exploding into a shower of sequins and glitter. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of poetry I write, or type of ideas that tends to compel me so I just pecked out a stanza that I believed was no more than a little word game, an insignificant aftershock of more substantial writing:

i bought boxes of sequins and glitter
because you fill me near to bursting
and if i explode
when i explode
it might as well be a party

However, that next morning, a related image came to me as I was waking up—a stanza I quickly typed into the Notes App on my phone and emailed to myself (this, my friends, is how I write, frantically typing into Notes and sending to myself):

covering my mouth
i cough
and then wipe glitter from my palm
across the thigh of my pants
as i hum “happy birthday”

Still, this seemed less like a serious piece and more like my writer-brain in overdrive (The National released a new song, I had just received Haruki Murakami’s new volume of short stories), but the monologue continued as I drove to work, my brain slipping into dialogue about driving toward a full moon at dusk with the sun rising and reflected in the rearview mirror.

I began to recognize patterns of size and color, but more importantly, this initial patchwork of seemingly silly words and images had demanded that it was a poem, something rich and filled to bursting itself:

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To become and be a writer, then, is about giving into the writerly moment or creating the writerly moment.

Neither is necessarily easy or pleasurable. Being a writer is always a luxury of sorts, and there is little about the realities of life that defer to something as removed from those realities as writing.

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Although I suspect this isn’t unique to writing, I can attest to a fact: writing is a terrible combination of arrogance and crippling insecurity.

My foundational moment of knowing I am a writer is that I am a poet; poems simply come to me, demand they be written, and then I am compelled to follow through. But along with the compulsion to write (as opposed to the practical necessity to publish ones scholarship) is the compulsion to have readers, to publish.

Tremendous amounts of time and energy were spent in my 20s and 30s submitting work for publication—mostly short fiction and poetry, but one novel manuscript as well. This Sisyphean adventure wore thinner and thinner, eventually soothed when I moved to higher education in my early 40s and found I was much more adept at academic publishing.

I think I can make this claim while also not sounding arrogant, so I believe I can safely say I am well-published; I also have little trouble finding places for much of my work.

Despite this great fortune (one spurred by the late and wonderful Joe Kincheloe), I routinely find myself deeply despondent, work rejected. I try to move my public work (on my blog) into more formal publications, and despite my resolve to avoid this painful process, I occasionally submit poems to journals.

Silence. Rejection.

Writing is a terrible combination of arrogance and crippling insecurity.

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With regularity, I hear these words: How do I become a writer?

It begins with confessing why you ask that in the first place. Have you found yourself a writer by necessity or have you finally recognized in yourself the compulsion to write?

Here a fork in the road appears.

If you write out of necessity, my answer is as practical as the writing before you: Create and meet a process and schedule. This is the becoming and being a writer of necessity that really is about meeting an external obligation.

If you write out of compulsion, my answer is much more esoteric.

Give into and create the writerly moments; cultivate them as often and for as long as you can.

Becoming and being a writer is a concurrent condition without a final destination.

It is reading, listening, watching, and thinking as a writer. Eating dinner as a writer. Drinking a pint as a writer. Sitting on the floor playing with a child as a writer. Kissing an intimate’s lips as a writer.

This is the disembodied tyranny of being a writer, inescapable.

It is writing, and writing, and writing—with both the hope of readers and publication as well as doing so without any hope of readers or publication.

Regardless of the reason for the question, this is a solitary adventure in most ways, especially the act itself. And there isn’t a single fun thing about it—although it can be fleetingly satisfying.

Until the crippling insecurity swoops back in, snatches the satisfaction in its claws, and screeches off into the distance.

Teaching Grounded in Compassion

For almost five months now, I have been mourning the premature demise of my road cycling life, brought about by the negligence of a motorist.

Cycling has been a tremendous part of my recreation and social life for over three decades; for more than the last decade, in fact, I have been cycling about 8,000-10,000+ miles per year.

The cycling community is a wonderful and diverse group of people, but we are often bonded by a not-so subtle type-A predisposition to obsessive and extreme physical efforts, especially among those who compete and those drawn to endurance sport.

Cyclists in our group range from their teens and 20s through many in our 50s and 60s, and while in organized groups, we often ride at high speeds and intensive intervals as well as extremely long days in the saddle, notably an annual 220-240+-mile ride over about 11-12 hours of cycling in a 14-15-hour days.

To understand cycling culture, you should peruse The Rules, part brutal Truth about cycling and cyclists, and part parody of that Truth.

The essence of cycling culture is Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up, which we soften to “HTFU” for public consumption.

When new people have joined our cycling group, especially when they ask to be a part of the weekly zone rides that include attack sections in which stronger riders leave slower ones behind (before we regroup), we offer something similar to The Rules’ mixture of Truth and satire: “When you feel like you are getting dropped,” we say with straight faces, “pedal faster.”

This is mostly bluster, however, since most of the elite and veteran riders are more than eager to mentor new and developing cyclists. “Mostly bluster” is key here because in its essence cycling is a very demanding and harsh sport at elite levels of competition and endurance events.

You simply cannot be an cyclist and avoid the need to have a high pain threshold while also maintaining a strict level of focus on yourself and the pack along with prioritizing many simultaneous cycling-specific skills (holding your line, braking, shifting gears, communicating with other cyclists).

Over the more than three decades of my life as a road cyclist, I aspired to and then was a vocal embodiment of HTFU. Suffering, I discovered, was the one athletic skill I was fairly good at doing in my lifelong quest to be a good athlete.

While I find the Social Darwinism and HTFU-culture of cycling endearing, something I genuinely believe has enhanced me as a person, I am routinely mortified that this same dynamic often drives how most adults interact with children and how many teachers deal with students.

I must fully and clearly reject that contemporary child rearing and formal education must function in a way that tempers children and students for surviving in a harsh and calloused world.

To be blunt, the world, life, simply doesn’t have to be that way.

Since I often interact with teachers and professors working on their teaching and assessment practices, I witness far too much anger, far too many attitudes about “teaching students a lesson” in the most pejorative way that can be expressed—punishment as preparation for a life of punishment.

As an existentialist, I have always suffered under the complete mainstream misunderstanding of what I do believe; yes, life itself is hell, and, yes, hell is other people, and, yes, our passions are our sufferings.

Existential philosophy, however, is about acknowledging these facts of the human condition as a salve, not as a fatalistic excuse to perpetuate human pain and suffering. Think about the Bergens in Trolls:

So I have taken a long route here to make a plea that teaching (and child rearing) must always be grounded in compassion—that we must resist the urge to temper children for the cold cruel world.

As adults, we can and should be working to lessen and then eradicate the coldness and cruelty of the world; concurrently, we can and should be nurturing children, offering them the sort of ideal modeling of how the world can be in our teaching and parenting.

The tension between the Trolls and the Bergens (and within the Trolls, in fact) is the possibility of the good life against the fatalism of life without happiness. This is a child’s film with many of the Trolls embodiments of the most wonderful qualities associated with childhood (poo-pooed as “childish” by those embittered with the Bergen angst).

Teaching (and parenting) is about the possibility of the good life, an enduring faith in the light in the human spirit that is often brilliant in children and young people if we are willing to see and celebrate it instead of being the sacrificial messenger of doom.

If we are not teaching always grounded by compassion, we should not be teaching.

Let me emphasize here that this is not about not challenging students (we must challenge), about not being demanding (we must be demanding).

But, as LaBrant admonished, “we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards [or high expectations], merely pass along adult weariness.”

The HTFU approach to teaching is exposed by its commitment to rigor, a word rooted to rigor mortis (that which is stiffened by death).

I must admit that the cupcakes-and-rainbows approach to life by the Trolls is simply not my thing; this is not about breaking into song and dance, decorating the world in glitter, or being idealistic to the point of being naive.

This about teaching grounded in compassion and patience, teaching committed to the possibility of a good life.

Life, I regret, is far too often cruel and horrible for far too many people, disproportionately children and young people. I have no interest in ignoring that fact, or lying to children about the inequity of privilege and poverty.

But acknowledging the harshness and inequity of the human condition must not be the boulder that traps us in fatalism about now, preventing us from teaching committed to the possibility of the good life, for everyone.