The Academy: Razing the Old to Raise the New

Since I feel skepticism on the verge of antagonism toward tradition, I have struggled with the responses to the fire consuming Notre-Dame.

I certainly find the lost unfortunate, but I wonder how the opulence of the structure and the tremendous social inequity that spawned it remain mostly unacknowledged as the vast majority of people see this as a tragedy and hundreds of millions of dollars have already been donated to rebuild the cathedral.

Grand tragedy moves us, I realize, while gradual and persistent suffering seems to numb us; those hundreds of millions could better serve the destitute and hungry, human beings and not mere material monuments.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, many humans remain too often disturbingly un-self-aware: “‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

But there is more to consider since this grand fire has occurred in the context of three church fires in Louisiana, arson rooted in racist hatred. The attention and responses are of much different scales because the contexts of each are of much different scales driven by tremendous historical inequities that linger, especially in the U.S.

I am drawn to my conflicted feelings about Notre-Dame as I consider the online responses to Rebecca A. Reid and Todd A. Curry’s The White Man Template and Academic Bias. Reid and Curry build on some of my work:

Higher education’s white male template, as P. L. Thomas, professor of education at Furman University, calls it, insidiously produces barriers for scholars throughout their entire careers, disproportionately affecting women and people of color. This template dictates certain research agendas, epistemologies, and methods as legitimate while discarding or marginalizing those that do not fit neatly within this framework. In essence, Thomas says, it “frames a white male subjectivity as the norm (thus ‘objective’), rendering racialized (nonwhite) and genderized (nonmale) subjectivity as the ‘other,’ as lacking credibility.”

And their central argument concludes: “Scholars who focus on critical theory, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and identities, qualitative methods and the like are marginalized because their work is supposedly not ‘objective’ science. Rather, it is political advocacy masquerading as scholarship — attractive only to specialized audiences and self-serving.”

This is ultimately a challenge to the Old Academy [1] and a call for the New Academy, suggesting, I think, that the only way to raise the New Academy is in the ashes of razing the Old Academy—something metaphorical against the very real burning of Notre-Dame.

The comments, as well, are parallel reactions to the hundreds of millions of dollars pouring in the from the cultural elite to rebuild Notre-Dame; many of those responses are vigorous and shallow defenses of the Old Academy, masked as arguments for rigor and high scientific ideals.

One of my responses prompted more ire:

Many of the comments prove the points posed by Reid and Curry even as the anonymous posters believing they are disputing them. This is the exact dynamic this article addresses. A total lack of self-awareness by the white/male elites who want to pretend they are the ones being objective and they are the ones meeting high standards. From educated people, these responses are sadly embarrassing.

I do in fact find these comments embarrassing in the same way Ozymandias’s words echo inside the hollowness of his defunct glory:

“…Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Academics posting on Inside Higher Ed should know better, but one thing I have learned over the past 17 years is that the so-called Ivory Tower is just as petty and flawed as the general population; we are just people after all—although one would hope many years of learning could spark a soul in a few more people.

Some of the comments make errors in logic and argument that many of us who teach first-year writing wouldn’t allow: misrepresenting Reid and Curry in order to attack the misrepresentation among the worst.

So I have tried to offer a couple clarifying comments of my own:

…The article above calls for both a critical reconsideration of the imbalance of power and authority allowed for so-called objective research and a more equitable understanding and greater space for so-called subjective research BECAUSE the objective is in fact not any less subjective than the so-called subjective; the imbalances of power in the academy are gendered and racial and the current dynamic of what research counts is both a result of those imbalances and a cause of perpetuating them. The rebukes posted here are often myopic, self-serving, and petty, mostly very shallow defenses of the current power imbalance under a thin veneer of defending rigor and scientific standards.

And:

For example, claims of objectivity and being scientific created and perpetuates scientific racism; the introduction of critical race theory, then, provides the platform for unmasking scientific racism and thus racism. This is an argument for allowing a larger space of what counts so that all types of research have greater fidelity and validity. See The Lingering, and Powerful, Legacy of “Scientific Racism” in America.

I function in two contexts that represent the conflict exposed in Reid and Curry’s article. I am the embodiment of the “white male template” and a critical scholar/activist.

As a result, I recognize that I both worked incredibly hard to achieve my academic success, my degrees and ultimately my tenured position as a full professor along with my publishing record, and benefitted from even greater privilege along all of those paths to accomplishment. As well, left mostly invisible, many of my accomplishments necessarily mean that I inhabited spaces denied to people being marginalized—women, people of color among many others.

I didn’t ask for anyone to be denied or erased, but I mostly failed to recognize those denials and erasures in my zeal for personal accomplishment. And I can attest that very few people have the moral fortitude to tumble the structures that benefit them—myself included.

Winners always think the rules of the game are fair and believe they earned their trophies by being better than the vanquished while never even considering those not allowed in the contest.

There is a great irony in the resistance to the New Academy, the clinging to the Old Academy like Emily sleeping each night with the corpse of a murdered lover who betrayed her: The New Academy will be far more demanding because of the influx of diversity and the expansion of what counts as credible research along with whose voice counts.

The Old Academy and lazy narrow conceptions of objective and scientific are ultimately simplistic and inadequate for the human experience and the pursuit of knowledge.

The Old Academy is primarily valuable to those already there; it is a security blanket of confirmation bias for the privileged who think they hit a triple when they were in fact born on third base.

Change is frightening for those made comfortable by the status quo. What Reid and Curry are calling for, the New Academy, deserves not the resistance of the white male template but the wonder and excitement of Miranda:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!


[1] The Old Academy, of course, is the current academy:

 

profs-gender

 

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Politics of Compliance v. Politics of Resistance: “We don’t need no education”

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave the kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” Pink Floyd

The December 2018 incident involving high school wrestler Andrew Johnson being forced to cut his hair in order to compete continues to draw attention. Erik Ortiz reports:

But following outcry from the community and the opening of a state civil rights investigation, an attorney for wrestler Andrew Johnson claims officials and referees are still giving him grief over his hair and have an “unrelenting fixation” with him….

Then, on Monday, an official with the state association that regulates athletics and conducts tournaments sent an email to state wrestling officials detailing which hairstyles require the hair to be covered. One image, according to NJ Advance Media, which reviewed the email, was of an unidentified black person with short, braided or dreadlocked hair and closely shaved sides.

More recently, Josh Magness details:

Police say the 11-year-old student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland said he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because the flag is “racist,” according to WTSP.

Ana Alvarez, a substitute teacher in the classroom, said she was offended by this comment and asked the student, who is black, why he didn’t leave the country, as reported by The Washington Post.

A teacher from Los Angeles, Larry Strauss, has subsequently weighed in on how the 11-year-old was treated:

When children in a class — of any age — assert their political views, they are giving you an opportunity to teach. Not to teach them to shut up and obey you, but to teach them that they live in a free country where everyone has a say in how we govern and where criticism is welcome, or supposed to be.

Both of these instances represent a truism about formal schooling that works against our claimed beliefs about formal schooling: Although many argue education is a “game changer,” in fact, formal schooling mostly reflects and perpetuates social norms, including the inequities such as racism, classism, and sexism.

Tracking, gate-keeping in elite programs, teacher assignments, standardized testing, discipline, and school funding all reflect that public school policies are grounded in racism and classism.

School dress codes remain biased, as well, by gender and race, disproportionately impacting girls and young women, particularly those of color.

The drivers of these realities, and essentially what erases the ideal of education being revolutionary, are embedded in what appears to be a defense of the 11-year-old refusing to do the pledge of allegiance—Strauss’s framing of “[w]hen children in a class — of any age — assert their political views.”

Consider here that Strauss is positioning a child’s act of not complying with the pledge as political, and in effect, asserting that those administrators, teachers, and students participating in the pledge are somehow not being political.

Here, we have evidence that formal schooling reflects and perpetuates society since this pledge controversy is nearly identical to the National Anthem controversy in the NFL involving, notably, Colin Kaepernick.

We must not ignore that these events are deeply racial (and racist) and reflect that power and normalization treat compliance as invisible (not political) and resistance as not just hyper-visible, but offensive (political).

Here is another truism about formal schooling: Everything everyone does in any school is inherently political, some negotiation of power, some acknowledged or ignored act of compliance or resistance. Yet, in school, as in society, only acts of resistance are seen as “political,” and thus, triggers for punishment, even being ostracized (denied the right to compete, ushered from the school by law enforcement).

Poet Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150)—and let’s recognize how this is often reflected in formal schooling.

Educator and activist Bill Ayers (2001) confronts the silencing purposes of education:

In school, a high value is placed on quiet: “Is everything quiet?” the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children—considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here—become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it. (p. 51)

Cutting the wrestler’s hair and arresting an 11-year-old seem extreme, but to understand these reactions as representative of how power (often white or in the service of whiteness) functions, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility explains:

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways….

Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality (McIntosh, 1988). The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life.

Unspoken, invisible—and thus rendered not political against the spoken and visible as political. Not political as right, preferred against political as wrong, to be punished, banished.

The compliant students (and teachers, administrators) are being just as political as the ones who are resisting. Calls for anyone—student, teacher, or citizen (including NFL players)—to be not political is itself a political act and a failure to acknowledge that the offended are not against being political, but against someone else’s politics.

As a critical educator, then, I am grounded in another kind of idealism expressed by Ayers, the ideal that current formal education not only refuses to seek but tends to erase, silence, render invisible:

Education tears down walls; training is all barbed wire.

What we call education is usually no more than training. We are so busy operating schools we have lost sight of learning. We mostly participate in certification mills, institutions founded on notions of control and discipline, lifeless and joyless places where people serve time and master a few basic skills on their way to a plain piece of paper that justifies and sanctions the whole affair. Sometimes, these places are merely mindless, and sometimes they are expressly malevolent.

“Malevolent,” like the wrestler’s hair being sheered, like a child being arrested.

We are faced, then, with the politics of being another brick in the wall or joining in with the politics of resistance: “Tear down the wall!”


References

Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a teacher. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the possible: Essays and conversations. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.


(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics


(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.


(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they didn’t listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

Blue Scholars

Throughout the early 2000s, a conservative student group at my university was very aggressive—attacking faculty through online forums (using anonymous screen names), creating lists of faculty conservative students should avoid, and sponsoring an inordinate number of Cultural Life Programs (CLP). This group had significant outside (also anonymous) funding as well.

Once, the conservative antagonist Ann Coulter was a sponsored speaker on campus by this group. I mentioned this in a class, noting her lack of credibility, and a student responded with, “But her books have footnotes.”

I think about this exchange often because the student was recognizing the conventions of scholarly work, conventions that are apt to supersede in a superficial way the credibility of the scholarship or the scholar; footnotes denoted for the student credibility—without the student considering whether or not the sources were credible, whether or not the conclusions and claims made by Coulter were credible.

In this era of Trumplandia, the tired but resilient claim that universities are liberal and that conservative scholars are nearly absent or at least ostracized is once again gaining momentum. As well, the resurgence of the oppressed white male has gained momentum.

Those contexts are also driven by calls for free speech, allowing all sides a voice, and mostly superficial arguments about the tension between academic freedom and politically correct speech and concepts such as safe spaces.

Here, the post title, “Blue Scholars,” is not yet another addition to the “quit lit” genre, but an investigation of the race and gender implications of respectability politics in the work of scholars.

Consider the issues raised in these two following Tweets:

The expectations around social scientist Crystal Marie Fleming—the chastising of respectability politics, not what she claims but her prfanity—are quite distinct when compared to calls for civil discourse as a response to Jordan Peterson, a public scholar who has been thoroughly discredited while also being quite popular outside of academia.

Fleming is facing the academic and public stigma about working blue—the use of profanity superseding the content of her discourse. Peterson, a misogynist cloaked in academic garb and discourse, benefits from calls for civil discourse, a subset of respectability politics, because his language and the language of his detractors allow reprehensible ideas a stage more prominent than they deserve.

Fleming’s experience as a scholar parallels Colin Kaepernick’s confronting arguments that his message was not the problem, but how (and when) he was conducting his protests.

Beneath calls for respectability politics and civil discourse, then, are the interests of white and male privilege; the existing power structure always benefits from a demand for resect by default and for civility, the antithesis of protest.

Language and content, as I have examined in terms of stand-up comedy, are always about race, gender, and social class. The how of language, invariably, becomes the focus as soon as any marginalized group becomes confrontational, critical, empowered.

“Don’t speak or write that way” and “Don’t act that way” are always about the status of power—not about right or wrong, credible or baseless.

The criticism leveled at Fleming and the calls for civil discourse to allow Peterson’s vile arguments are windows into the failure of academia, an Ivory Tower trapped still in Medieval paradigms of authority, rhetoric, and deference.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” (p. 129)

A moral imperative wrapped in blasphemous language.

I prefer the moral imperative, and I prefer the critical scholar working blue while rejecting the false calls for civility that foster scholars pandering to the worst among us.

If there are words that should give us pause, they are “respect” and “civil discourse”—not the seven words you can’t say on television.

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”