Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment

To whatever degree I have been an effective teacher over a 33-year (and counting) career directly and indirectly connected to teaching literacy has been grounded in my inclination to assess constantly my practices against my instructional goals.

Teaching is some combination of curriculum (content, the what of teaching), instruction (pedagogy, the how of teaching), and assessment (testing, the monitoring of learning). When I was in teacher education as a candidate, the world of teaching was laser-focused on instruction—our learning objectives scrutinized and driving everything.

Over the three decades of accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing, however, and the rise of backward design, both how students are tested (test formats) and what tests address have become the primary focus of K-12 teaching.

Accountability’s state and national impact has increased the importance of standardized testing—the amount of tests students are required to take but also the format of in-class assessments teachers use to prepare students for those tests.

High-stakes and large-scale testing is governed in many ways by efficiency—formats such as multiple choice that can be marked by computer; and therefore, many K-12 teachers model their assessment content and formats on what students will face in these high-stakes environments.

Over my career, then, I have watched teaching to the test move from a practice shunned by best practice to the default norm of K-12 education.

As a committed practitioner of de-grading and de-testing the classroom, I offer below some big picture concepts that I believe every teacher should consider in order to improve the quality of grading and testing practices, in terms of if and how our assessments match our instructional goals instead of how efficient our tests are or how well our classroom assessments prepare students for (really awful) large-scale high-stakes tests.

The principles and practices below are imperative for literacy instruction and learning, but apply equally well to all learning goals and content.

Holistic v. skills (standardized tests). Let’s imagine for a moment that you wish to learn to play the piano, and you are given lessons on scales, proper fingering, etc., using worksheets. After a unit on playing the piano, you are given a multiple-choice test on that material, scoring an A. 

Having never played the piano or practiced at the piano, what do you think of that A?

To be proficient in the context of efficient skills-based tests is not the same as being proficient in holistic behaviors. While the testing industry has sold us on the idea that efficient skills-based tests (usually multiple choice) correlate strongly with the authentic goals for learning we seek, we should be far more skeptical of that claim.

Along with the problem of efficiency in standardized tests and selected-response tests in class-based assessment is the historical and current purposes of large-scale testing—for example, IQ and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.

IQ testing has its roots in identifying low academic ability (identifying people who were expendable) and has never overcome problems with race, class, and gender bias.

College entrance exams began as a process for distinguishing among top students; therefore, test items that create spread are “good,” regardless of how well the question achieves our instructional goals.

For classroom teachers who seek assessments that support better teaching and learning, then, we should be seeking to assess in holistic ways first, and then to expose students to the formats and expectations of high-stakes testing.

One goal for rethinking assessment is to emphasize allowing and requiring students to practice whole behaviors (composing original texts, reading full texts by choice, etc.) and then to assess students’ levels of proficiency by asking them to repeat whole behaviors in testing situations.

Accomplishment v. deficit perspective. I am certain we have all experienced and many of us have practiced this standard approach to grading a student’s test: Marking with an “X” the missed items and then totaling the grade somewhere on the sheet, such as 100 – 35 = 65.

Let’s consider for a moment the assumptions and implications (as well as negative consequences) of this process.

First, this implies that students begin tests with 100 points—for doing nothing. Further, that creates an environment in which students are trying not to lose something they did not earn to begin with.

Now, a much more honest and healthy process for all assessments is that students begin with zero, nothing, and then the teacher evaluates the test for what the student accomplishes, not looking for and marking errors (something Connie Weaver calls, and rejects, as the “error hunt”).

By avoiding a deficit perspective (starting with 100 and marking errors) and embracing an accomplishment perspective (starting with zero and giving credit for achievement), we are highlighting what our students know and helping them to overcome risk aversion fostered by traditional (behavioral) practices in school.

Moving toward an accomplishment perspective is particularly vital for literacy development since taking risks is essential for growth. It is particularly powerful when giving feedback on and grading student writing (I learned this method during Advanced Placement training on scoring written responses to the exam).

Collaboration v. isolation. “[T]he knowledge we use resides in the community,” explains Gareth Cook, examining Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, adding, “We participate in a community of knowledge. Thinking isn’t done by individuals; it is done by communities.”

However, traditional approaches to assessment are nearly always done in isolation; collaboration in testing situations is deemed cheating, in fact.

Consider for a moment your own lives as readers and writers. What do we love to do when reading a new novel? Talk with a trusted friend about the book, right? Community and collaboration fuel a better understanding of the work.

When writing, feedback is essential, another eye on our ideas, an uninvested editor to catch our mistakes.

While many of us have embraced community and collaboration in our instruction—implementing workshops or elements of workshops—we rarely allow collaboration in assessment.

See this post for an example of collaborative assessment in my introductory education course.

Feedback v. grades. One of the most frustrating aspects of practicing a de-graded classroom is that my students often identify on their opinion surveys of my courses that I do not provide adequate feedback—because they conflate grades (which I do not give throughout the semester) with actual feedback on their assignments (which I do offer, abundantly and quickly).

Most teachers, I believe, spend far too much time grading and then students receive insufficient feedback that requires them to interact with and learn from that help.

One element of my concern is that when teachers provide extensive feedback on graded work, most students check the grade and do not engage at all with the feedback; this is a waste of the teacher’s time and not contributing to student learning.

Ideally, we should be providing ample and manageable feedback on work that requires students to address that feedback, either in some response or through revision (see below).

For literacy instruction, fore-fronting feedback, requiring and allowing revision, and then delaying grades all support a much more effective process than traditional grading.

Revision v. summative assessment. That process above embraces revision over summative grading.

Whole literacy experiences, low-stakes environments that encourage risk, high-proficiency modeling and mentoring, and then opportunities to try again, to revise—these are the tenets of powerful and effective literacy instruction and assessment.

When students experience reading and writing as one-shot events mainly produced to be graded, they are cheated out of the awareness that literacy is cyclical, and recursive—to read and then to read again, to write and then to write again.

For Paulo Freire, literacy is agency, empowerment; we must read the world and re-read the world, write and re-write the world.

At the very least, we should decrease summative assessments and grading while increasing how often we require and allow revision.

Many argue that reducing grading also removes necessary accountability for student engagement, and while I find these arguments less compelling, I do replace my use of grades with minimum requirements for credit in any class or course. And I use those minimum requirements to emphasize the aspects of learning experiences I believe are most important.

Therefore, drafting of essays and revision are required, just as conferencing is.

Ultimately, our assessment and grading policies and practices send very strong messages about what matters in our classes; we must be diligent we are sending the messages we truly embrace.

Recalibrating grade scales (with a caveat) and no more averaging grades. Debates and policies about what numerical grades constitute each letter grade—such as whether a 90, a 93, or a 94 is the lower end of the A-range—are little more, to me, than rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

Instituting uniform grade scales in schools, districts, or entire states is unlikely to produce the results proponents claim; however, some policy moves concerning grades are both warranted and highly controversial—such as creating a floor score (such as a 50 or 62) for an F.

Rick Wormeli and others have very effectively demonstrated the inequity of traditional grading scales that have about 10 points per letter grade until the F, which may have 50-70 points.

Low numerical summative grades and the flawed practice of averaging grades have very negative consequences for students—the worst of which is creating a statistical death penalty for students early in a course that may encourage those students to stop trying.

Creating a floor grade on F’s is instructionally and statistically sound, then, but only if combined with the minimum requirement concept discussed above. In other words, converting a zero to 50 or 62 when a student does poorly on an assignment is not the same thing as converting a zero to 50 or 62 when a student submits no work at all.

The latter must not be allowed since students can game the system by doing no work until late in the grading period and depending on averages to produce a passing grade for the course.

Therein lies the failure of averaging grades.

Averages skew the weight of grades earned while learning instead of honoring the assessment or assessments after students have had ample time to learn, practice, and create a showcase artifact of learning.

As well, averages are not as representative of reality as modes, for example. Consider the following grades earned by a student: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100.

The average for these grades is 73, but the mode is 85, and if these grades are earned in this order (10 early and the 100 last) on cumulative assessments, the 100 is also a potentially fair grade.

Grade and grade scales, then, are incredibly flawed in their traditional uses. Combining a revised, equitable numerical/letter grade structure (with minimum requirements of participation included) and choosing modes over averaging or portfolio assessment instead of averaging is recommended if de-grading is not an option.

The concepts above about rethinking assessment are effective ways to interrogate current assessment practices, and they are urgent for improving literacy instruction.

I do urge seeking ways to de-grade and de-test the classroom regardless of what is being taught, but in the real world, I recognize that goal may seem impossible.

The ways I offer above to rethink assessment, I believe, are quite practical and certainly are justifiable once we consider if and how our assessment practices do or don’t reflect our teaching and learning goals.

And thus: “A critical pedagogy asks us to reconsider grading entirely,” argues Sean Morris, “and if we can’t abandon it whole-hog, then we must revise how and why we grade.”

Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Discussing scholars as writers, Michael C. Munger explains, “We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

And that practice, Munger argues, must be “like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days….Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.”

This interview about the intersection of scholars (academics, professors) and writing wades into a fascinating and troubling phenomenon that I expose first-year writing students to in their seminar midterm. I ask them to choose a professor on campus in a discipline they are considering for their major, and then to interview that professor about writing as a necessary aspect of being a scholar.

My students discover, and are surprised to discover, that most of the professors openly share that they dislike writing, struggle with writing, and/or simply tolerate having to write in order to have their research published.

A parallel reality exists in K-12 education. During my current graduate course in literacy, I asked how many of the eleven students had ever been participants in a writing workshop; none of them raised a hand.

Taken together, we are faced with a important hurdle in the teaching writing: at all levels of formal education, writing is taught by scholars/academics and teachers who themselves are not writers, who have had no or very little direct instruction in being writers (as noted by Munger above).

Some of the questions we must investigate, then, include the following:

  • Must anyone who teaches writing be a writer?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster the teaching of writing among those who are not writers, who struggle as writers, and who see writing as a necessary evil?
  • How can and should we support those who write by necessity but never feel compelled as writers (a reality that comprises most students and many scholars and teachers)?

Having been a writer and a teacher for about the same amount of time—37 years writing and 33 years teaching—and since my primary focus as a teacher has been the teaching of writing, I often wrestle with the questions above, but during the last decade while I have been teaching first-year writing at the university level and also providing faculty development for professors teaching writing, I have come to understand better that there are more disjunctures than intersections among scholars, teachers, and writers.

As a high school English teacher for 18 years, I had to fight for time to write; my life as a writer, in fact, intruded on my work as a teacher in direct and indirect ways (about the latter, I suffered subtle and not-so-subtle antagonism from some colleagues for publishing). When I moved to higher education, writing became something valued as part of my work, my schedule allowed ample time for me to do as Munger suggests and write daily, and the expectations for being a professor (teaching, scholarship, and service) included explicitly scholarly publication.

However, lest you believe higher ed to be some sort of writer’s Shangri-la, being a productive writer and writing for the public have also created tensions for me in academia, where a very narrow expectation for being a writer persists (being prolific viewed with skepticism, hints that one cannot write that much without sacrificing something such as teaching; public writing viewed as frivolous use of a scholar’s time and too political).

As noted above, though, what links my K-12 and higher ed experiences is that most teachers/professors charged with teaching writing are not themselves writers—although most professors are more likely than K-12 teachers to write by necessity.

Here is a lesson I now see more clearly: We have failed, mostly, to confront directly that writing is typically taught by those who aren’t writers, but we have implicitly addressed that disjuncture by attempting to make the teaching of writing teacher-proof.

To teacher-proof writing instruction, we have chosen, as Johns examines, genre acquisition over genre awareness [1].

Briefly, that means in-school writing instruction tends to assign writing in template form (five-paragraph essay and its cousins) and to reduce all writing to that artificial form (in terms of what “essay” means to students as both writers and readers).

In effect, teacher-proofing writing instruction removes most of the instructional decisions from teachers and almost all of the writing decisions from the students-as-writers. As well, both writing instructors and students-as-writers are primarily complying with directives that are artificial (or as Johns notes, “‘staged'”).

To foster the most effective writing teachers—and thus to foster students-as-writers—a few key approaches are warranted:

  • Couch calls for writing instructors to be writers in the acknowledgement that most are not, and may not feel compelled to be writers.
  • Be aware of and avoid shaming writing instructors who are not writers or who see writing as merely functional to other pursuits.
  • Provide all writing instructors with authentic experiences in direct writing instruction themselves; teachers of writing need to have had experiences as writers and students in the instructional practices they should use with their students.
  • Reject the traditional efforts to teacher-proof writing instruction and begin to build for teachers and students a broad range of experiences with genre awareness grounded in the disciplines and so-called real-world writing.
  • Revitalize reading and text experiences in formal schooling from K-12 to college so that students experience powerful models for the ways in which writing occurs, both within and against a manageable toolbox of conventions linked to the disciplines and published writing.
  • Include for all teachers/professors, K-12 and college, expectations for writing, professional rewards for writing, and then the sort of time and administrative support needed to fulfill writing obligations without impinging on primary obligations to teach.

The irony, I believe, is that the road to effective and empowered writing teachers is as nuanced and complex as the sorts of lessons we need to teach about writing, a many-headed beast that is often hard to wrangle, much less understand.

We can and must admit that more disjunctures than intersections exist among scholars, teachers, and writers. Bridging those gaps is a daunting challenge, but traditional teacher-proof approaches fail both teachers and their students.

Both writing instruction and how writing is viewed by teachers/professors and students require that we step away from many reductive and ineffective assumptions so that we can start again for the first time more honestly and newly committed to teaching and writing as valuable but complex endeavors.

Suggested

The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham


[1] From Johns:

GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….

GENRE AWARENESS…is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts.

Our Gladiator Culture: On “Grit,” Competition, and Saving Future Generations

my father moved through griefs of joy;…
his shoulders marched against the dark

“my father moved through dooms of love,” e.e. cummings

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

“Good Bones,” Maggie Smith

While sitting in the ER with my father a few nights ago before he was admitted into the hospitals’ heart center—a few days after my mother’s stroke sending her to another, larger hospital 40-minutes away—I was reminded of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, a novel, among other things, about the abusive power imbalance between men and women.

Late in the novel, Celie explains to her sister Nettie: “Take off they pants, I say, and men look like frogs to me. No matter how you kiss ’em, as far as I’m concern, frogs is what they stay.”

The most powerful and imposing man in my life, my father, sat in the ER—stooped, shrunken, pot-bellied, tongue hanging out of his mouth and bowed head like an aged human-sized toad somehow in a wheelchair. My father has always been my physical and athletic superior, despite my being in my mid-50s and quite successful in my career and my athletic hobby; he has always cast a shadow, darkening my lingering insecurities and anxieties.

This morning, Father’s Day 2017, I visited my father still in the heart center after spending almost all my time at my mother’s side as the number of family members able to help has dwindled as the day-count grows. Although improved, frog-like and frail, my father declared to me: “Nothing is wrong with me. I need to go home.”

For some time now, his heart has been working at only about 33%, wearing him and his pacemaker out at an accelerated rate.

In times of great medical stress, when families are brought together, stories spring forth to stabilize the chaos and restore our delusion that we have some sort of control.

One of the many myths of my father: In high school, because of fights and sports (my father was a four-sport letterman and captain of his high school’s first state championship football team in the 1950s), by age 18, my father had a full set of false teeth. So many teeth had been knocked out, his dentist eventually pulled the remaining 10 or 12 one day.

After the procedure, my father played in a baseball game, prompting his father to track him down, trying to make him come home to rest.

Like him, my mother is a gendered twin of the fanatic 1950s template for self-sacrifice, rugged individualism, and blind faith in the whitewashed American Dream—the racialized lie about hard work paying off and good guys winning.

I believe I am not being hyperbolic to recognize that my parents lie now in hospitals, broken and frail, because they bought the hokum, the hard-work hokum that makes people define their dignity in how fervently they sacrifice themselves, in how they work moment by moment to prove they are not lazy, soft, or in any way dependent on others.

My parents passed onto me a neurotic work ethic; my father instilled in me an incredibly unhealthy obsession with being athletic as proof of my manhood.

Although I have been trying to ween myself off sports fandom, I remain often connected to the sports fanaticism of the U.S.—one most solidly grounded in college and pro football, the perfect metaphor for the gladiator culture that defines us.

Dragged kicking and screaming, college football and the NFL have begun paying lip-service to acknowledging that [gasp!] the sport is cruelly violent, that football players are turning their brains into mush because of the relentless concussions that are simply part of the game.

The stories linked to the concussion debate in football are powerful and disturbing because they reveal a subtext that also came to mind as I sat with each of my parents: pro football players, many retired, admit that they have and would continue to lie about concussion symptoms to remain on the field.

The gladiator culture of the U.S. is replicated exponentially in the NFL [1]—toxic and hyper-masculinity, anything necessary including sacrificing health and even life.

And while the NFL and football mania of the U.S. are disturbing, the most troubling reality is that our neo-work-ethic of the twenty-first century targets children, specifically black and brown children from impoverished backgrounds.

The “grit” and growth mindset movements have become (mainstream) socially acceptable ways to wink-wink-nod-nod that black, brown, and poor people are simply too lazy, unwilling to work themselves, like my dad and mom, into decrepitude for the 1%.

Frantic—we are a nation with a ruling class snowblinded by their own privilege and terrified they won’t have a servant class—the whitewashed American Dream for black, brown, and poor children.

The U.S. has devolved into a perverse and inverted gladiator culture with the 1% in the stands and the rest of us reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence, an artificial and unnecessary dog-eat-dog existence.

Visit the elderly of this country, worn down by the demands that they work hard and depend on no one.

Look into their faces and if you can their eyes.

This is the future we are demanding of “other people’s children.”

But it is also a future we can reject, choosing instead an ethic of community and compassion.

As I look at my parents—discardable white working class Americans—I think that they deserved better, despite their own culpability in our whitewashed American Dream.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I would prefer above all else to be on the couch with my granddaughter, who yesterday kept imploring me “Wake up, Papa!” as I tried to doze between sessions with my mother, as she snuggled against me, her futon.

I know she deserves better—as does every single child having come to this planet and country by no choice of their own.

“This place could be beautiful,/right? You could make this place beautiful”—a haunting image of everything that I wish for this world in a poem by Maggie Smith that confesses:

The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.

On this awful Father’s Day 2017, I have kept much from my father and my mother in ways substantial and indirect.

But there is no way to justify the lies we tell children—that they fail to work hard enough, that they are somehow not good enough unless they act as if they do not matter, that they should shut up and suck it up.

Few things are worth fighting for, but one is to keep every child from the gladiator’s ring, to promise every child if not a beautiful world, at least the possibility of one.


[1] In the same way the NFL promotes the great lie that the U.S. is a meritocracy:

Despite this, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected on Friday the idea that any kind of blackballing was taking place. He called the NFL “a meritocracy,” saying, “If they see an opportunity to get better as a football team, they’re going to do it. They’re going to do whatever it takes to make their football team better. So, those are football decisions. They’re made all the time. I believe that if a football team feels that Colin Kaepernick, or any other player, is going to improve that team, they’re going to do it.”

The Hollow Nation

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

“The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for eleven years….Carers aren’t machines.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”

It has been almost seven months since a motorist struck a pack of cyclists I was riding with on Christmas Eve 2016, injuring four of us—two seriously and permanently.

The motorist was deemed at fault on the scene, but received only a $76 ticket, less than the monthly payments I am making on my remaining medical bills since the insurance claim for the accident has yet to be settled.

My own insurance has paid much of the cost, but I am required to repay those payments once I have a settlement. The orthopedist, as well, overcharged me during my fracture treatment, refunding that amount more than six months later.

Nine or ten insurance companies and multiple lawyers have been wrestling with this accident, and the other injured cyclists and I have received a barrage of bills and notices from the ER, the hospital, the ambulance service, and numerous doctors. One cyclist was airlifted from the scene, and since the motorist had minimum coverage, his portion of that insurance likely was erased immediately in that urgent care.

This recent Monday morning, my mother was found unconscious by my youngest nephew, her grandson. She had a stroke, requiring an ambulance to transport her to our local hospital that then had her airlifted to a larger hospital nearby for emergency surgery on the clot discovered in her brain.

She has been in neurological ICU, and now a regular hospital room since Monday—but soon she will be transferred again to a rehabilitation facility for 2-3 weeks.

My father has been quite unwell recently; therefore, we are guiding him around in a wheelchair, circling our own wagons because my mother’s stroke creates a new and terrifying reality: she was his caretaker, and the family now must seek ways to provide both of my parents care.

Working-class children of the 1940s and 1950s, my parents have only Social Security and Medicare to sustain them.

Our next steps are swamped by if and how well their insurance and social services cover the medical care and rehabilitation my mother needs, if and how well my father can receive the daily care she has been providing.

My accident and my mother’s stroke are not nearly as extreme as the terrors of the healthcare system in the U.S. that countless people suffer daily. But these “terrors” are not really about the healthcare.

The treatment my mother has received, the seemingly miraculous surgery, has been the sort of kind and skilled medicine that leaves you mesmerized by the power of humans to make this world work in ways that are good and right and life-affirming.

But that care, I am afraid, is an isolated outlier in a calloused and awful system of administration, bureaucracy, and dehumanization caused by our lack of political courage as a people, as a country.

The power of universal healthcare and a single-payer system to provide humanity and dignity to the amazing medicine and brilliant healthcare providers already in the U.S. is left in the wake of our hollow nation.

A nation that is the wealthiest and most powerful in human history.

A nation that allows more than 1 in 5 children to live in poverty.

A nation of heartless and vicious partisan politics poised to dump an already inadequate system into the laps of caretakers, family members.

My accident exposes the hollowness of calls for individual responsibility; the system is designed to allow serial carelessness that leaves innocent victims responsible.

My mother’s stroke exposes that we as a nation genuinely do not care about a generation of people who may have bought the American Dream myth most sincerely—people such as my parents who were buoyed by white privilege they denied, who preached and practiced  the rigged rugged individualism scarred by racism with the faith it would pay off as they decline into their new reality of being dependent on the kindness of not only family, but the kindness of strangers.

Wealth and security are hoarded by a few, a vicious tribalism of a country that denies community, the power and dignity of everyone caring about everyone—not just the tunnel vision quest of “me getting mine,” the mean-spirited Social Darwinism that lurks beneath our national platitudes about working hard and fair play.

A hollow nation that denies the humanity of all sorts of “others” because of race and religion, but also culls away many at the edges of white privileged—white poor, white working-poor, white working class.

My parents represent that even the wink-wink-nod-nod promise of the American Dream (the white nationalism of “Make America Great Again”) is a lie, a calloused lie within the larger lie to the tired, the poor, the huddled massed—and especially a bald-faced lie about the so-called melting pot, a metaphor more accurate if named a witch’s cauldron.

With these realities before me, it is tempting to call for the removal of the Statue of Liberty, but at least, we must strip it of the poem inscribed at the base and post instead:

We are the hollow nation. We are the stuffed nation, “Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw.”

14 June 2017 Reader

How to Call B.S. on Big Data: A Practical Guide, Michelle Nijhuis

Mind the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, articulated by the Italian software developer Alberto Brandolini in 2013: the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than that needed to produce it. Or, as Jonathan Swift put it in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”Plus ça change.

Who Is Dangerous, and Who Dies?

ERROL MORRIS: I found an innocent man who came very close to being executed. [Adams’s execution was scheduled for May 8, 1979, but Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. ordered a stay only three days before he was to be strapped into the lethal-injection gurney. Ultimately, the court overturned his death sentence, but not his conviction.] I uncovered all of these appalling details 30 years ago and then opened up a newspaper recently and read about Buck. It’s as if nothing ever happened. That’s both depressing and infuriating. Mitt Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, was told that the death penalty is problematic because it’s fallible. You could execute an innocent person, and given our current state of knowledge, there is really no way to bring them back. Once executed, they stay executed.

CHRISTINA SWARNS: And so what was Romney’s reply?

ERROL MORRIS: He said: Oh, that’s simple. We’ll just make it infallible. We’ll make it foolproof. You said it’s fallible. We’ll just fix that.

Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich, Richard V. Reeves

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their children to $30,000-a-year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency. In particular, the upper middle class is solidifying. This favored fifth at the top of the income distribution, with an average annual household income of $200,000, has been separating from the 80 percent below. Collectively, this top fifth has seen a $4 trillion-plus increase in pretax income since 1979, compared to just over $3 trillion for everyone else. Some of those gains went to the top 1 percent. But most went to the 19 percent just beneath them.

50 years after the Loving verdict, a photo essay looks back on their love, Priscilla Frank

Monday, June 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which quashed anti-miscegenation laws in 16 states around the nation, ushering restrictions against interracial marriage to the wrong side of history.

The date is now remembered as Loving Day in honor of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple who defied the state’s ability to dictate the terms of their love based on their skin color. Mildred, who was of African American and Native American descent, and Richard, who was white, wed in 1958 in Washington D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in their native rural Virginia, as well as 15 other Southern U.S. states.

When the Lovings returned to Virginia, however, local police raided their home one early morning after being tipped off by another resident. They declared the Lovings’ marriage license invalid within the scope of the state, placing the couple under arrest.

What counts as language education policy?: Developing a materialist Anti-racist approach to language activismNelson Flores and Sofia Chaparro

Abstract: Language activism has been at the core of language education policy since its emergence as a scholarly field in the 1960s under the leadership of Joshua Fishman. In this article, we seek to build on this tradition to envision a new approach to language activism for the twenty-first century. In particular, we advocate a materialist anti-racist approach to language activism that broadens what counts as language education policy to include a focus on the broader racial and economic policies that impact the lives of language-minoritized communities. In order to illustrate the need for a materialist anti-racist framing of language education policy we provide portraits of four schools in the School District of Philadelphia that offer dual language bilingual education programs. We demonstrate the ways that larger societal inequities hinder these programs from serving the socially transformative function that advocates for these programs aspire toward. We end by calling for a new paradigm of language education policy that connects language activism with other movements that seek to address societal inequities caused by a myriad of factors including poverty, racism, and xenophobia.

The difficulties scholars have writing for a broad audience, Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost

Scholars have insights, experience and research that can help the public navigate the contemporary world, but scholarly work all too often goes unseen. Sometimes it gets sequestered behind exorbitant paywalls or prohibitively steep book prices. Other times it gets lost in the pages of esoteric journals. Other times yet, it’s easy to access but hard to understand due to jargon and doublespeak. And often it doesn’t reach a substantial audience, dooming its aspirations to impact public life.

How can scholars write for wider audiences without compromising their lives as disciplinary researchers?

The Confederate flag largely disappeared after the Civil War. The fight against civil rights brought it back, Logan Strother, Thomas Ogorzalek, and Spencer Piston

But what is less well-known is the actual history of these symbols after the Civil War — and this history sheds important light on the debate. Confederate symbols have not always been a part of American or Southern life. They largely disappeared after the Civil War. And when they reappeared, it was not because of a newfound appreciation of Southern history.

Instead, as we argue in a newly published article, white Southerners reintroduced these symbols as a means of resisting the Civil Rights movement. The desire to maintain whites’ dominant position in the racial hierarchy of the United States was at the root of the rediscovery of Confederate symbols.

Pride or Prejudice: Racial Prejudice, Southern Heritage, and White Support for the Confederate Battle Flag, Logan Strother, Spencer Piston, and Thomas Ogorzalek

Abstract: Debates about the meaning of Southern symbols such as the Confederate battle emblem are sweeping the nation. These debates typically revolve around the question of whether such symbols represent “heritage or hatred:” racially innocuous Southern pride or White prejudice against B lacks. In order to assess these competing claims, we first examine the historical reintroduction of the Confederate flag in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s; next, we analyze three survey datasets, including one nationally representative dataset and two probability samples of White Georgians and White South Carolinians, in order to build and assess a stronger theoretical account of the racial motivations underlying such symbols than currently exists. While our findings yield strong support for the hypothesis that prejudice against Blacks bolsters White support for Southern symbols, support for the Southern heritage hypothesis is decidedly mixed. Despite widespread denials that Southern symbols reflect racism, racial prejudice is strongly associated with support for such symbols.

More on White Men of Academia: Student and Self Evaluation Follies

“Higher education too can make a fetish out of ‘objectivity’ and ‘rationality,'” observes John Warner, confronting specifically The Pitfalls of “Objectivity” in teaching composition.

Warner’s argument is a subset, however, of the larger problem with the white men of academia, as I have examined recently: Concepts and terms such as “objectivity,” “scientific,” “valid,” “reliable,” and “rationality” prove to be extremely powerful in academia and scholarship, yet the great irony of that power is that these concepts and terms are veneer for maintaining white male power—inequity grounded in the racism and sexism that academics are prone to refute in their rhetoric while maintaining in their practices.

“Objectivity,” for example, frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus “objective”), rendering racialized (non-white) and genderized (non-male) subjectivity as the “other,” as lacking credibility.

Explore the history of what research paradigms count, and you confront the bias in favor of quantitative (experimental and quasi-experimental) research (paradigms created by and maintained by men) over qualitative research (paradigms championed by women and racial minorities)—the former is “hard,” “scientific,” and “objective” while the latter is “soft,” “personal,” and “(merely) anecdotal.”

In an institution created by white men, academia, where their claim is that everything is based on empirical evidence filtered through the rarified lens of objectivity, we run into a real conflict when unpacking the evidence—for example, the annual/bi-annual self-evaluation process linked to promotion, tenure, and merit as well as the embedded key element of student evaluations of faculty.

As a tenured full professor, I am currently drafting my bi-annual self-evaluation, a process I have been using as a political document to confront the inherent inequity in both the faculty evaluation process and the traditional use of student opinion surveys.

The self-evaluation is flush with traditional norms about what counts as excellence—peer-reviewed publications, for example, but not public intellectual work. And as is the case at many colleges and universities, student evaluations are central evidence in the entire faculty evaluation process.

We are directed in our self-evaluations to “include numerical results from student opinion survey forms”—the double whammy of quantitative and the ubiquitous student evaluations. The narrative at my small selective liberal arts university is that of the three areas of evaluation—teaching, scholarship, and service—teaching remains primary; therefore, I make my strongest advocacy case (nearly equaled by my argument for valuing my public intellectual writing) about how we determine faculty teaching quality.

My opening to my teaching effectiveness self-evaluation begins, then:

My teaching effectiveness has exceeded [our] high standards for teaching over the past two academic years. As evidence below, I will not refer to student opinion surveys because they have been shown to be biased (against women and faculty of color) and poor indicators of student learning [1]. Since I strongly support concerns raised in our Gender Equity study and FU’s Diversity and Inclusion initiative, I believe use of the student opinion surveys are contradictory to those goals.

If, I argue, our university has gender equity and diversity/inclusion initiatives, then using student opinion surveys contradicts those goals because the evidence is overwhelming that these student surveys are gender and race biased; they serve the interests of white male academics.

Here, then, are some key readings and research to support rejecting and resisting student evaluations of faculty:

As a white man in academia, if my claimed scholarly focus and agenda are grounded in equity, social justice, and not only naming but also dismantling racism, sexism, and white privilege, then I am beholden to both word and action in those pursuits.

In the ideal, yes, academia has the potential to be a model for equity and justice; in reality, academia is more often than not a white man’s world with garnishes of elevated rhetoric.

As Warner concludes in his interrogation of “objectivity,” students deserve a commitment to their “agency that allows them to make space for their ideas in the world,” adding what we can and must extrapolate to all of academia:

In this context, “objectivity” is not a value, but a pose, and one that’s usually sussed out by students as phony. They easily recognize it as a confidence game because it’s a game they’d previously been trying to practice, and during that practice they knew it was a pose.

Too often this pose in higher education is that of a gatekeeper, a position garnered through privilege but flaunted as merit.

If it were only phony, maybe we could brush it aside, but this pose of white male academics is determinant—it shapes, defines, and controls the careers and lives of everyone.

Changing academia in the pursuit of equity must be the work of white men, and two ways to begin that shift is to reimagine faculty evaluations and to end the use of student evaluations of faculty in that process.


[1] The footnote I provide includes the bulleted research and links above.

Loss in an Era of Digital Music

…the blasted song in my head is receding but not leaving.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

I came to popular music in an era of albums, 1960s and 1970s, what people now call “vinyl.”

Albums were glorious things. The Ohio Players issued fold out albums that were erotic and taboo for a teenager growing up in the redneck Deep South:


And few experiences equaled the rush of liner notes tucked away with the album sleeves or filling the spaces of those double albums folded out:

I have lived in and through the eras of making mix tapes, cassettes, and mix CDs—what now have become play lists.

My adolescence was defined by committing to 8-track tapes, rectangular things that produced loud “clunks” when changing tracks—even though their smaller size already hearkened the loss of the beauty that is an album cover.

I recall vividly when my best friend from high school bought a cassette player and announced the death of 8-tracks. I was angry and recalcitrant; although it would not be long before I included my 8-track collection lying in the back seat of my car in the deal when I sold my red and white 1973 Gran Torino in the days of Starsky and Hutch.

My next car had a cassette player.

I can count my years, and losses, like rings in a tree cut down near the base, by how music is packaged: album, 8-track, cassette, video, CD, digital.

These media and mechanisms of loss, and love.

A privileged survivor living beyond the curve of the dying earth, Christine, in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, dictates in the opening chapter, “Everyone’s last wish turned out to be love:”

may I be consumed by the simplicity and purity of a love story, any love, base love or heroic love or transgressive love or love that is a blind and lame and ridiculous lie—anything the opposite of alone and lonely and sexless, and the absence of someone to care about or talk to. The hunger for love replaced the hunger for god or science. The hunger for love became an opiate. In a world that had lost its ability to procreate, the story of love became paramount.

I began reading this new novel in the wake of a friend, a few generations younger than I, who texted me distraught; they seemed to have lost all their music, an iTunes fail—first the music gone from the cell phone and then the computer.

Loss in as era of digital music.

Stressed, anxious—this friend was unable to sleep since the realization had occurred late at night; and then my friend explained.

Some of the lost music was gifted music; this was a loss of connectedness; this was a symbolic loss of the affection we, regardless of generation, regardless of media or format, package in the music we share.

A mix tape or CD gifted is an act of love, like buying someone the novel you have just read—or giving blood.

But losing an iTunes library? When digital music doesn’t really seem to exist in any physical form anyway?

I have 1000s of songs, several 100s of albums, on an iPod smaller than a cassette tape I easily carry around all the time.

Easily carried is easily lost, a flicker, and then nothing, silence.

I have done the only thing I can do. I gathered two armfuls of CDs to take to the friend, an offering for this ritual of rebuilding a digital music library.

And there is also vinyl, sitting on a shelf, unplayed, collected like the comic books of my youth and the walls of books over my entire life.

The vinyl will be gifted as well because this is how we remain human against loss in era of digital music.