At least the first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years was spent learning to be the sort of teacher I wanted to be. I often feel I should apologize to those early-career students, many of whom remain kind and even praising.
Along that journey, I came to realize that the first days of any class or course must be a clear and inviting message to my students about who we are and why we are here.
A watershed moment for me was somewhat an accident. My administration ended the long and tedious tradition of spending the first day or two issuing textbooks by having all students’ texts placed in their locker before they began the year.
With that freedom, I stopped the equally tedious roll call and dedicated myself to conducting class on that very first day in a way that told students what the class/course was going to be about.
As I start my 34th year as a teacher, now a professor teaching two first-year writing seminars as well as a couple eduction courses, I also dedicate the first days of class to practicing what I preach: incorporating one or two different strategies or changes each new course (what I call taking baby steps since no teacher should feel compelled to overhaul entirely their teaching when they feel the need to change).
Here I want examine some first-days texts and activities, not as prescriptions but as models for how any teacher may take this same larger concept of how those first days establish who you are, who your students are, and why you all are on this class journey.
First, some of my new commitments are grounded in being more intentional about inclusive pedagogy, much of which will draw on the guidance of Dr. Anita Davis, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Associated Colleges of the South, who is helping facilitate a year-long seminar for a group of faculty at my university this academic year.
These new commitments allow me to incorporate existing activities and texts in order to improve the inclusive environment of my classes as well as establishing the disciplinary grounding of the courses I teach.
Regardless of the course, I use several of these activities on the first days, but I also will include a writing-specific opening days activity toward the end.
A central message for my students in the first days is that we will be bound to texts, important texts, and then we will also be using those texts for our own discussions and to write. The key texts I currently use for the first days include the following, all of which also model for my students that we are going to explore diverse voices and writers in order to challenge and interrogate our own ideas and assumptions:
- Two chapters from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street: “My Name” and “A House of My Own”
- A poem from Barbara Kingsolver’s Another America: “Naming Myself”
- Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B”
Who We Are
Anita Davis opened her first seminar by explaining that she includes full name citations on her PowerPoint slides, even though most citation styles require last names only and APA hides first and middle names in initials. Davis stressed that names matter, especially if we are seeking to be inclusive.
Over the course of the seminar we also examined that roll calls can be intrusive and even stressful for students who are struggling with gender identification, establishing on that first day a hostile environment counter to our efforts of inclusion.
Part of our goal to be inclusive, we must all be better equipped when our students must name and identify themselves—issues about gender identity and pronoun preferences.
“My Name” (Cisneros) and “Naming Myself” (Kingsolver) are powerful texts for helping students think about how to introduce themselves in the context of a new learning community. I read these short texts aloud to emphasize there will be a common activity in my classes, read alouds.
Then we discuss how the speakers in the novel chapter and the poem emphasize the importance of names and of being named; both texts ask readers to consider sex/gender and race.
As well, “My Name” includes a recognition of how children/young people come to understand themselves in their names while “Naming Myself” challenges social norms of women being erased through re-naming during marriage.
These texts and activities establish that our names matter, but that naming ourselves is more complicated than some students have considered. I also want students to know that I appreciate texts, the read alouds, but that texts are not simply fodder for the sort of narrow analysis they have done in their English classes.
Finally, we introduce ourselves, first in small groups and then as a full class. This semester, I will invite students to talk about their names, and their pronoun preferences if and when this is important to them. I will also stress that our learning community must be a place where we honor confidentiality; we are free to share outside of class the topics we explore, but we should avoid naming our classmates in ways outside of class that breaks confidentiality, that fails to honor each person’s right to speak for themselves.
On the first day, we have avoided the drudgery of calling roll—and engaged in the sort of class dynamic that characterizes my classes throughout the semester. But I now will also establish an environment that honors inclusion more intentionally than I have in the past.
Why We Are Here
While the naming texts and activities are entry points for introductions and creating an inclusive learning environment, that first day also begins a journey into disciplinary expectations—why we are here.
Another first days activity I use is based on Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” but I will now include an activity, “Save the Last Word,” Davis used in our seminar.
“Theme for English B” lends itself well to any class because it investigates the power relationship between teachers and students; like the Cisneros and Kingsolver texts, Hughes also confronts the role of race in that power dynamic.
When I have used Hughes’s poem in the past, I have struggled with students shifting immediately into the literary analysis mode, eager to analyze the poem’s structure and technique to the exclusion of engaging with what the poem’s speaker is saying about power as that intersects teaching/learning, race, and age.
“Save the Last Word” is a wonderful strategy for keeping students focused on what a texts says (not the how of literary analysis) and encourages student voice in the context of that text.
My slight adaptation of the activity includes the following: (1) my read aloud of the poem, (2) asking students to read the poem again silently to themselves, (3) placing students in small groups (preferably of 3), (4) having students copy what they consider a key or challenging stanza on the front of an index card, (5) having students reflect on that stanza in writing on the back of that card, (6) after all students have done this each student shares out to the small group the key stanza so that the other two can respond to that stanza first, and finally (7) each person shares their reflection last for that stanza.
Through a whole-class discussion of “Theme for English B” following the “Last Word” activity, I will share with students why we are here: to take words, each other, and ideas seriously and carefully in the pursuit of our own growth through disciplinary moves as well as our developing literacy.
The course, like the activities around Hughes’s poem, will be both individual and collaborative as well as interrogating and investigating key ideas and concepts.
Why We Are Here (Writing Specific)
Finally, I want to touch on a first writing activity I use in order to highlight how to use the first days to stress the narrow goals of any course or class.
The first writing activity I do with students involves Cisneros’s “A House of My Own”:
- I read the passage aloud.
- Students are instructed to write their own versions of the passage, changing “house” to an object of their choice and then mimicking the passage exactly except for the content. I refuse to give more directions and urge students to trust themselves and complete a draft.
- After most of the students have a full first draft, I ask for volunteers to share their versions aloud. During the sharing I ask the others to compare their drafts to the one being shared.
- Next I ask other students to share or discuss how their version does something different in terms of mimicking Cisneros exactly.
- Always students begin to re-think their mimicking as well as how carefully they read any text for the how (technique) and the what (content).
- Finally, I invite students to revise their versions and send them to me by email for the next class meeting.
This activity stresses the importance of completing a full first draft (especially as a discovery draft not as a process to fulfill a set thesis), the value of peer conferencing and sharing drafts, and the necessity of revising all writing with purpose.
We also begin to look at the craft of language—sentence formation (the entire passage is a series of fragments), rhetorical and literacy techniques, vivid and specific details, grammatical and syntactic awareness.
One unexpected but consistent consequence of this activity is that students often email their revision to me and call the text a poem—even though Cisneros’s mentor text is a prose fiction passage from a novel.
This means the following class allows me to begin a conversation about genre awareness, how we determine the form any text takes (poetry v. prose, fiction v. non-fiction, etc.).
In short, an opening activity models why we are here and how we are going to proceed.
Throughout my career, I have rejected traditional views of the first days of any class or course needing to be about establishing teacher authority (don’t smile until Christmas) and classroom rules or management.
Instead, I am committed to making the first days of class about who we are and why we are here while remaining true to my larger critical philosophical and ethical commitments as an educator and a human.
Inclusive Teaching Resources and Strategies (University of Michigan)
Criticism of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and then president has been intense among university-based academics and scholars across the U.S.
However, the great irony of that fact lies in how President Trump’s “both sides” approach to addressing the Charlottesville, VA, violence is merely a vulgar version of the academic pose found among those academics and scholars—the traditional call for professors and researchers to be politically neutral and objective.
Having been a public school teacher for almost two decades in the rural South and now a university professor for 15 years and counting, I have lived the tyranny daily of being chastised as “too political,” as tarnishing my credibility as a teacher and professor by my writing-as-activism.
I stumbled through a bit more than a decade of teaching before I discovered an organized body of thought that defined for me what I had been practicing, although quite badly—critical pedagogy.
Critical pedagogy acknowledges two powerful and seemingly contradictory realities: (1) all human behavior, including teaching, is inherently political, and thus, the neutral/objective pose is itself a political stance, and (2) indoctrination must be avoided and rejected.
K-12 public education and higher education remain resistant to these concepts, continuing to demand apolitical teaching (or, actually, the appearance of apolitical teaching) and to bristle at teachers and academics as activists.
In fact, teachers and professors take great risk to their careers when stepping beyond the neutral/objective pose, even outside the walls of the classrooms where they teach.
That the norm of formal education remains entrenched in the same sort of “both sides” mentality shared by mainstream journalism is made more disturbing by the dishonesty of that expectation because educators at all levels of schooling do in fact take stances.
For example, history taught through a patriotic lens is a political choice that is allowed to appear neutral, although it is clearly not.
And there are topics, such as the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, that are taught with a clear moral imperative—no “both sides” false equivalence afforded those who believed in exterminating the Jews.
No classes ever treating as equal “both sides” of pedophilia, child abuse, misogyny, rape.
None the less, activist-academics such as Howard Zinn have been and continue to be marginalized as merely activists.
Particularly in higher education, many go about their work as if the real world does not exist, and thus, the ivory tower myth and scathing phrases such as “merely academic.”
But to borrow Zinn’s metaphor, to remain in a neutral/objective pose in the classroom as an inequitable and unjust world charges on is to endorse that inequity and injustice.
President Trump’s “both sides” pose in the face of white nationalism and emboldened racism is inexcusable, but to pretend that Trump somehow sprang out of thin air is an ugly lie, a delusion.
The rise of Trumplandia confirms there is blood on the hands of neutral academics and scholars, just as there is blood on the hands of “both sides” mainstream journalists.
Trump is capitalizing on a vulgar academic pose that must be refuted, but it is equally inexcusable that traditional academic neutrality remains entrenched as if it has no consequences beyond the walls of schools and universities.
The U.S. needs Trump’s vapid logic repudiated: Good causes will always have some flawed and even bad people, as well as bad decisions, but causes dedicated to hatred and racism never include good people.
If educators, academics, and scholars are somehow excluded from taking ethical stands, we have little room to point fingers at Trump and his reign of white nationalism.
Once I posted a reader for Trumplandia, based on the increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 as well as the related thought pieces on important texts from Orwell and other writers, I was not surprised by the expected response calling for teachers and classrooms to be somehow politically neutral.
I have rejected this idea often, focusing on Howard Zinn’s brilliant metaphor of being unable to remain neutral on a moving train. Both calling for no politics in any context and taking a neutral stance are, in fact, political themselves—the former is a political strategy to deny some Others their politics while imposing your own and the latter is the politics of passively endorsing the status quo (in a society where racism and sexism, for example, continue to thrive, being neutral is an indirect endorsement of both).
Education and journalism—universal free public education and the free press—share many important and disturbing qualities: they are essential to the creation and preservation of a free and equitable people, they remain mostly unachieved in the U.S. in practice because they are often the tools of powerful people and forces who distort their ideal contributions to democracy and equity, and at the heart of that failure (we have failed them; they have not failed us) is the shared traditional code of education/teachers and journalism/journalists assuming neutral poses, being forced into a state of objectively presenting both sides in a fair and balanced way.
Particularly in the post-truth times we now find ourselves—and I argue we are here because of our failures in education and journalism—demanding that educators and journalists remain neutral is not the right goal and not actually how either functions.
In fact, education and journalism are always political, and in most contexts, educators and journalists routinely break the rule of neutrality—and thus, when anyone wags a finger and exclaims “We must be fair and balanced! Show both sides!” the truth is not that educators or journalists are being ideological or biased, but that someone in power feels that his/her politics is being challenged.
Let me illustrate in both education and journalism, starting with the media.
As I have noted before, when we compare the Ray Rice inspired public debate about domestic abuse to the Adrian Peterson motivated public debate about corporal punishment, the unbiased press myth is completely unmasked because domestic abuse (men hitting and psychologically abusing women) was entirely examined throughout the media as wrong (no pro-abuse side aired) while that same media almost exclusively presented corporal punishment as a debate with a fair and balanced presentation of both sides to adults hitting children.
What is clear here is incredibly disturbing: The media, in fact, make decisions about when to honor credible positions, when to reject or even not cover invalidated and unethical positions, and when to shrink back into the “both sides” cover.
While decades of research and the same ethical concerns about power and abuse related to rejecting domestic abuse entirely refute corporal punishment, the media have chosen to remain neutral on a moving train aimed at the health and well being of powerless children.
In other words, when media shirks its role in creating and maintaining a free and equitable people behind its tin shield of objectivity—think about always framing evolution or climate change as debates, as if “both sides” are equally credible when they are not—this is a dishonest pose because the media routinely take sides.
Finally, I want to highlight that education represents this same dishonest dynamic—claiming to be apolitical, or aspiring to be apolitical, while often taking sides.
Unless I am misreading the current mood of the country, the rise of interest in 1984 and other works of literature similar to Orwell’s is along a spectrum of concern about to fear of the rise of fascism and totalitarianism. Concurrently, with the public discussions about fake news and post-truth, we are experiencing a renaissance in examining how power and language are inseparable.
So what does it mean when teachers call for presenting both side of this debate when we bring politically charged novels by Orwell or Margaret Atwood into high school and college classes?
Before answering, let me offer a few examples from typical lessons found in high schools for virtually every student.
Both the Holocaust and slavery in the U.S. are taught as foundational content in anyone’s education; these are disturbing topics, and hard issues.
When we teach the Holocaust, notably through Night by Elie Wiesel in an English course, do we rush to have students read Hitler’s Mein Kamft to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?
When we teach U.S. slavery, possibly having students read Frederick Douglass, do we also find eugenicists’ and racists’ declarations demonizing blacks to fairly represent both sides, treating each position as morally equivalent, allowing our students to choose whichever position she/he wishes?
As in the media, educators at all levels routinely take sides—the answer to the two questions above reveal.
And thus, returning to the push back to my Trumplandia reader, I am lost on how or why educators would find ways to present pro-fascist ideas to balance literature study about the threats of fascism and totalitarianism.
Using Orwell and all sorts of powerful literature to help students on the cusp of or early in their roles as active participants in a democracy to better read the world and better act on that world in informed and ethical ways is the very essence of politics, one not corrupted by simplistic partisan politics of endorsing Democrats  or Republicans (which is worth resisting in education and journalism).
In 2017, the U.S. and even the entire world are faced with whether or not we truly believe in freedom and equity, whether or not we are willing to invest in the institutions that can leverage both that freedom and equity—institutions such as formal education and the media. And we have been here before, in the same words and the same actions. 
If the answer is yes, then our resolve must be linked to demanding that our teachers and journalists are grounded in taking informed and ethical stands, not the dishonest and uncritical pose of objectivity.
As I have shown above, neither is really being neutral now, but instead, pulling out the objective card only when it serves the interest of the status quo.
Critical educators and critical journalists must not serve the whims of power and money, and must be transparent in their pursuit of credible evidence and ethical behavior.
To frame everything as a debate with equally credible antithetical sides is dishonest and insufficient for the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Teachers and journalists are always political agents; both professions must choose in whose interest they are willing to work.
The neutral pose by either is to take a seat on the train, to keep eyes down, and to allow the train to rumble along as if the tracks are not leading to a cliff.
Pretending that cliff isn’t now on our horizon will not stop the train from crashing on the rocks of the coming abyss.
 My political work is not partisan, for example, as I have been warning about the Orwellian failures of political parties for many years; see Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures by Paul Thomas.
The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.
The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.
These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.
These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.
The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.
Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.
The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.
Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”
But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.
The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.
Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:
“Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said.
“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.”
The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”
“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.
Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.
What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.
Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.
So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.
At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:
I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.
Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.
This is all cartoon and theater.
The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.
However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.
A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.
For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.
The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.
Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.
I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.
I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.
In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.
Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.
My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.
Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.
Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.
Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.
But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.
The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.
But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.
The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.
“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.
Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.
When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.
To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.
Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.
Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.
From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.
My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”
Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.
I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:
This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.
I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.
I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.
I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).
The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.
But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.
As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:
Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.
But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain :
Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….
Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.
Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:
Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.
Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.
From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.
There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:
Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….
My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.
But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.
Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.
But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.
Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.
We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.
But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.
Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.
And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.
Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.
It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.
I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.
 See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.
We Marxists are rightfully criticized for being idealistic, but we are unfairly demonized by those across the U.S. who wrongly associate Marxism, socialism, and communism with totalitarian governments and human oppression.
You see, Marxism as a scholarly stance is a moral stance—unlike the amoral pose of capitalism.
We Marxist academics and scholars are all about the good, the right, and the equitable—including creating intellectually challenging classrooms in which every student feels physically and psychologically safe.
But this is 2016 Trumplandia, a sort of Bizarro World in which reality TV has become a real-life nightmare, including a professor watch list promoted by an Orwellian right-wing organization that claims to be protecting free speech and academic freedom by identifying dangerous professors.
George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, has responded with the powerful I Am a Dangerous Professor, and my home state of South Carolina has had three professors included on the list.
The responses to the list have run a range from fear (because professors have received very serious threats) to bemusement to anger about not being included.
I am a white male full professor with tenure, but I teach in the South—where before I joined a university faculty, I was an intellectually closeted public school teacher for 18 stressful years.
As a leftist and atheist, I was constantly vigilant to mask who I was, what I believe and live, because I was fearful of losing my job and career (SC is an Orwellian-named “right to work” state) that I dearly love.
When I interviewed for my current position, I was about as naive and idealistic as a person could be about the golden fields of higher education.
During my model lesson for my day-long interview, I explained to the class I was a critical pedagogue, and thus offering a Marxist perspective on literacy and power.
Later in the day, at the debriefing and in hushed tones, I was told I may want to not share the whole Marxist thing if hired at the university.
I was hired—although my being a critical educator, scholar, and public intellectual have all been problematic throughout my second career as a professor.
And I have bull-headedly remained true to my ethics as both a professor/teacher and a critical pedagogue, best expressed by my dear friend and mentor Joe Kincheloe:
Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive. (p. 2)
Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….
In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)
In fact, yesterday in my foundations of education course, I reiterated to the class that as a Marxist I often seem obnoxious, even dogmatic because I teach and speak with a moral imperative, an impassioned moral imperative—seeking that which is right, good, and equitable.
About this watch list, then, I am torn, struggling between embracing Yancy’s brilliant rebuttal and my own belief that I am in fact not the dangerous one because the dangerous thing about this world is to remain both ignorant and without a moral grounding.
As a Marxist educator and scholar/public intellectual, as a critical pedagogue, I am not the person hiding who I am or what I am seeking.
The dishonest are those who claim to be objective when in fact they are endorsing uncritically an inequitable status quo.
The dishonest are those claiming a non-political pose that is itself a political pose.
The dishonest are waving flags and chanting the entirely dishonest “Make America Great Again.”
That is dangerous stuff—endangering the faint promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I, in fact, hold sacred.
So I am left with this paradox: I, too, am a dangerous professor if you covet ignorance, hatred.
If you are seeking the Truth, however, as well as the right, the good, and the equitable, please call me comrade because I am no danger to you at all.