Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”


Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Mix all the colors of light and we see white; the absence of light is black.

Mix all the colors of pigment and we see black; the absence of pigment is white.

This paradox of how we see color often is the source of debate; I’ve heard students complain about being taught different facts in art and physics classes. But it also serves as a useful metaphor for the problem of color as a foundation of race and racism.

When I was young and still discovering and shaping who I am (and necessarily coming to terms with race in the deep South), I was profoundly influenced by stand-up comedians—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin among the most influential.

Martin’s 1979 comedy album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, is a prescient title for two contemporary stand-up comedians whose routines, viewed together, capture nearly perfectly everything that is wrong with contemporary understanding about race and racism: Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney.

Having recently watched Chappelle’s and Mulaney’s newest specials, I was struck by how many of their bits were similar—both used their wives’ minority status to tread on dangerous material, both depended on meta-jokes based on reactions to their routines, both weaved in political humor with the autobiographical, both worked blue, and each addressed race.

However, these two men and their routines are also profoundly different—Chappelle is very much a black comedian (think Pryor), and Mulaney is very much white (think Jerry Seinfeld).

And I imagine anyone knowing these comedians finds this distinction a bit simplistic, even bordering on crass, but I want to argue here that race becomes the defining element of their work, and as such, exposes a central problem in public discourse about race and racism: Many whites are apt to resist discussions of race and racism with “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “I don’t see color.”

Let’s start with a few clips, a shortened version of Mulvaney’s Trump skit (here on TV, but expanded in his new special) and a couple clips from Chappelle on Netflix:

Mulaney’s political humor is indirect; it is metaphor—in a similar way his profanity is rare and his special includes one direct reference to being white.

Chappelle’s political humor, profanity, and race, by comparison, are direct, even blunt, and pervasive. Consider especially the second clip above.

Because of his whiteness, his privilege, Mulaney is afforded the space of being indirect while Chappelle, even as he acknowledges his wealth privilege, cannot risk these subtleties.

The paradox of race/racism in human behavior is parallel to the paradox of color in light/pigment: For whites, race seems always invisible because white is the norm of U.S. culture (the absence of race is white), but for blacks, race is a constant reality, something always visible (the presence of race is black).

The media rarely identify race for whites, but nearly always do for black and brown people—especially in criminal situations.

Whites, then, watching Mulaney are apt to see the routines as not about race (even though the entire routine is imbued with whiteness) and mostly not political (although, again, his entire routine is a political commentary); those same whites, we can guarantee, would see Chappelle as racial (if not, to misuse the term, racist) and strongly political.

The problem with race/racial/racism as that intersects with political is that everything in human behavior includes both, but the norms make one invisible to the dominant race (white) and omnipresent to the marginalized race (black). And thus, all human behavior is political either by omission (maintaining those norms) or by confrontation (changing the norms).

Mulaney, in his whiteness and the primary state of omission, becomes a seemingly less radical comedian; Chappelle, in his blackness and confrontation, becomes a seemingly more radical comedian.

I include “seemingly” because, as Chappelle acknowledges, both comedians work with wealth privilege—even as Chappelle is not afforded through that to rise about his being black (see his skit about being pulled over by the police while a friend is driving for him).

Almost 40 years past Martin’s visual gag (and he too may seem less political in his whiteness), Chappelle and Mulaney offer by comparison comedy that is not pretty, but is pretty sharp in terms of modeling the lingering problems with race and racism in the U.S.

Draconian: of, relating to, or characteristic of Draco or the severe code of laws held to have been framed by him

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in the public high school I had attended. The town and schools were the sort of traditional Southern environments that probably would seem to be caricature or even satire to someone not from the mid- to late twentieth century South.

I had been a very successful student at the school, graduating eighth in my class, but except for a few wonderful and life-changing teachers, I had found school to be mostly something to endure, especially high school as I became more and more recalcitrant.

When I began teaching there, several administrators and many teachers remained from my time as a student; while the traditional norms of the town and school endured—the greatest sources of my discomfort, having realized I was almost entirely unlike what was considered normal—I discovered as a teacher that I simply could not comply with the authoritarian disciplinary codes of the school.

We used a demerit system, and eventually adopted both in-school suspension and an after-school homework detention. Many of the demerit guidelines were automatic penalties—for chewing gum or eating in class, being late, and any restroom visit during class time.

Teachers monitored their doorways and the halls during class changes, and were themselves monitored by administrators for compliance with these rules.

Over nearly two decades, then, these authoritarian (and ridiculous in my view) policies were the source of my constantly being reprimanded for not enforcing the rules. Late students entered my class, usually without disturbance, and took their seats; students also with almost no disruption ate occasionally in class (although one group of students began to organize bringing snacks for their groups and had something nearly akin to a picnic many days during writing workshop).

But the most egregious flaunting of the rules in my classes was my approach to students going to the restroom.

In a school where the principal had his own private restroom in his office, going to the restroom was a manufactured and persistent source of anxiety for students (and even teachers who had very little personal time during the day).

Thus, I never turned students in, but I also created a process in which I had permanent passes on my desk that students simply took before excusing themselves to the restroom—all of which occurred without them having to ask, resembling what some of us may associate with simply leaving class while in college.

Early in my career, part of this commitment to the dignity of my students was grounded in the very real and very publicly difficult process adolescent women face during their periods. No one, I decided, should ever have to fret over going to the restroom, regardless of the need, but my female students were among the ones most appreciative of being able to attend to their needs without question or public announcements.

In fact, my female students began keeping a supply of tampons in my desk; there were times students I had never taught would swing by my room and simply ask to have access to my desk.

This is what I am most proud of about my 18 years teaching high school: I was not perfect, and I certainly can confess to many mistakes, but on balance, students recognized that my room was mostly theirs and it also was mostly a safe haven for their ideas, their words, their genuine selves, and their human dignity.

I must add here that what I am most ashamed of during those years are the times I failed that commitment. I believe I can name all of them, all of the students involved, and I deeply regret my failures.

This came rushing back to me as I have been reading reactions to the “no excuses” unmasking of Noble Network of Charter Schools—the most disturbing example being:

One described an issue raised by others at some Noble campuses, regarding girls not having time to use the bathroom when they get their menstrual periods.

“We have (bathroom) escorts, and they rarely come so we end up walking out (of class) and that gets us in trouble,” she texted. “But who wants to walk around knowing there’s blood on them? It can still stain the seats. They just need to be more understanding.”

At certain campuses, teachers said administrators offer an accommodation: They allow girls to tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains. The administrator then sends an email to staff announcing the name of the girl who has permission to wear her sweater tied around her waist, so that she doesn’t receive demerits for violating dress code.

Maybe because of my own discomfort as a student, maybe because my years teaching high school confirmed for me that the human dignity of students trumps everything else—everything else—I have been an early and persistent critic of “no excuses” ideologies, prominent in the charter school movement and championed by KIPP.

Because I have been a critic, I have been publicly attacked and falsely demonized in print by “no excuses” advocates and apologists who steadfastly deny the exact problems exposed in the coverage of Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Now, there may seem to be little to compare except for the poverty between student populations in my hometown, mostly white working-class and poor, and the majority-minority students served by “no excuses” charter schools. But I think we should all consider how authoritarian discipline (“no excuses,” zero tolerance, resource officers, metal detectors, suspension/expulsion) are disproportionately implemented with black, brown, and poor students.

At the core of this dynamic is a belief that some children are naturally defective, needing to be corrected, or because of cultural and racial stereotypes, that some children are reared to be defective, also needing to be corrected.

Affluent and mostly white students at elite private schools are exempt from being subjected to “no excuses” ideologies for a reason.

One of my favorite words has always been “draconian” because it fits into that small camp of words that sound like their meaning (“awkward” is among the greatest of these because what is more awkward to English speakers than “wkw”).

Draconian schooling, like draconian parenting, are among the most vile behaviors by adults. Authoritarian adults are petty humans, and their lust for power over those already weaker than them is a reflection on their own pettiness, their own insecurities.

On balance, there is no excuse for “no excuses” practices at any schools, but that is even more significant for our vulnerable students, the ones made vulnerable because of the poverty in their homes and communities, the ones made vulnerable because of the lingering inequities of this country (and the powerlessness of schools to change that), the ones made vulnerable by their sex or gender.

Noble Network of Charter Schools are not outliers; they are a harbinger of everything that is wrong with the charter school movement as well as our failure to create schools—public, charter, or private—that at their core protect the human dignity of all students.

Noble Network of Charter Schools is a real-life allegory confirming a central theme found in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which warns through Offred how authoritarian practices create violent fantasies and behaviors; as one Noble teacher explains: “‘One student says it best,“When you treat us like animals, what do you think we are gonna act like?”’”

There is nothing noble about “no excuses” for our children and teens when the adults behind those practices are themselves above the moral and ethical standards they claim to be demanding of students.

If You Are Grading, You May Not Be Teaching

Throughout my career of about two decades as a high school English teacher and then approaching another two decades in higher education (as a teacher educator and first-year/upper-level writing professor), I have avoided and delayed grading as well as eliminated testing from my classes.

My experiences with first-year and upper-level writing instruction have further confirmed that if you are grading, you may not be teaching.

Specifically, teaching citation and scholarly writing has revealed a problem that directly exposes why grading often works against our instructional goals.

First, let me stress again that the essential problems with grading include how traditional practices (such as assigning grades that are averaged for quarter and/or semester grades that are then averaged for course grades) tend to blur the distinction between summative and formative grades, inhibiting often the important role of feedback and student revision of assignments.

The blurring of formative and summative grades that occurs in averaging, as I have confronted often, deforms teaching and learning because students are being held accountable during the learning process (and thus discouraged from taking risks).

To briefly review the problems with grades and averaging, let me offer again what my major professor argued: Doctors do not take a patient’s temperature readings over a four-day stay in the hospital in order to average them, but does consider the trajectory of those readings, drawing a final diagnosis on the last reading (or readings). Thus, averaging is a statistical move that distorts student growth, deforms the value of reaching a state of greater understanding.

As I have detailed before, consider a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment could be 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

But another problem with grades and averaging that speaks to this post is something my students taught me when they complained about their math classes. Several students informed me that they had never passed a single math test, but had passed math courses.

The trick? Students earned bonus points for homework, etc., that were added to each test, on which students never reached a passing score.

This process means that cumulatively students never acquired so-called basic or essential math skills, but passed the courses, resulting in course credit that grossly misrepresented student learning.

Therefore, returning to my claim that grading may not be teaching, when we subtract for so-called errors to assign grades, we are allowing students to move through the learning process without actually learning the element being graded. In most cases, I believe, that strategy is teaching students that the element really doesn’t matter.

This dynamic is particularly corrosive when teaching scholarly writing and citation. Citation is one area of writing that doesn’t have degrees; you either cite fully or you don’t.

Many students, similar to the math students noted above, have never reached any level of proficiency with citing because they have mostly had points deducted for improper citation and then gone on their merry way, never having learned to cite fully.

If citation is essential, to grade and never require mastery of citation have two very negative consequences: (1) students do not attain an essential skill (and may exit formal education without the skill), and (2) students fail to understand the importance of drafting, receiving feedback, and revising.

Academic writing is challenging for developing young writers since it demands complex technical demands (such as citation and document formatting) and high expectations for content and style. Students need years and dozen of experiences reading and writing academic writing across multiple disciplines and varying conventional expectations.

But we cannot expect students to acquire the nuances of citation if we simply grade and never allow or expect them to cite fully and properly as an essential aspect of an academic writing experience.

As I make this case, I want to stress that as writing teachers we are trying to balance expectations for students and provide them low-stakes opportunities to draft with little or no consequences.

Students should have both writing assignments that demand minimum proficiency with key skills such as citation and writing contexts that foster and allow taking risks and working outside conventions.

Grading, I witness daily, inhibits both of those in ways that suggest the non-graded writing class is the best opportunity for students to learn in holistic and authentic ways that reveal themselves in student writing samples.

Because of their experiences being graded, I struggle to help students see that citation, grammar, mechanics, style, and content all work in unison either to support or erode their authority as writers and scholars.

I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessary areas to learn, grow, and excel.

As I end my thirty-fourth year teaching, I cannot stress hard enough that if you are grading, you may not be teaching, and your students likely are not learning the very things you value enough to assess.

Beware the Disciplinary Blame Game

Over the late 1970s into the early 1980s, I made a practical and somewhat spontaneous decision that would shape my life and career. When transferring from junior college to a local satellite of the state university, I declared as a secondary English education major designed to provide certification to teach high school English.

I had gradated high school committed to being a physics major, but discovered I was a writer and was inspired to teach while tutoring for English courses at that junior college. As a naive junior in college, however, I was already skeptical of the practical aspects of being (as was the language of the time) a straight English major.

English education was about entering a profession.

Class after English class at the university, I was prompted to announce in front of the professor and students that I was just an English education major, typically surrounded by the more lauded straight English majors.

Once I began teaching high school English, I essentially taught myself to be a composition teacher, further eroding my disciplinary credibility (within the English discipline, composition ranks beneath literature).

As a result, I have throughout my nearly four decades as a teacher then professor identified with and been an outsider to two disciplines—English and education.

I will not detail it all here, but my insider status in both qualifies me to confess that English and education as disciplines have many flaws that routinely are not addressed—the schism between literature and composition in English and the fatal influence of certification and accreditation in education, to note some foundational problems.

So I have a particular interest in Lyell Asher’s How Ed Schools Became a Menace, a disturbingly lazy take that really should have never been published by The Chronicle.

In fact, Asher, an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College, I suspect from comments on Rate My Professor [1], would not accept the sort of overstatement, lack of evidence, and ideological dishonesty in his own first-year writing students (if he would stoop to such lowly course) as he demonstrates here.

Asher claims that higher education has a bloated administration problem, one that can be causally traced to schools of education because those schools have a history of being lousy but have begun to turn out candidates with degrees in higher education.

Let’s ask first why an English professor would want to shift such weighty blame on an entire field not his own. Might it deflect some attention from English as a discipline and major?

Duke Pesta’s Three Ways Declining English Departments Can Be Relevant Again argues:

A major in English was once a serious endeavor masquerading as a frivolous one. Despite the occasional “do you want fries with that?” condescension from business or science students, the study of literature—immersion in its aesthetic, historical, and philosophical contexts—conserved for posterity a reservoir of truth and paid forward for humanity a legacy of beauty that inspired business to philanthropize the arts, and science to technologize our access to the great authors.

Today, a major in English is an increasingly frivolous endeavor masquerading as a serious one.

Like Asher’s piece, this may feel compelling, especially with its clever rhetorical flair.

And English as a discipline certainly seems to be in trouble along with liberal arts broadly and the humanities:

So we may be able to understand why Asher would lash out at another discipline and the state of higher education.

But the paradox here is that, for example, the hot take by Pesta on English as a discipline and major is itself a good dose of hokum driven by some really lazy traditionalist/conservative overstatements and unfounded stereotypes—the paradox being that these flaws are at the root of why Asher’s disciplinary blame game is beneath any college professor and The Chronicle.

Let’s unpack just a few problems with Asher’s diatribe.

Point one, I think, is that Asher would have been more credible and compelling if he had taken the time to put his own house in order. See Martin Parker’s Why we should bulldoze the business school with the compelling: “Having taught in business schools for 20 years, I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether.”

Asher’s sweeping condemnation of education as a field smacks of the same sort of disciplinary arrogance that has plagued education for decades.

A second point would be the absence of hyperlinks to evidence and research, compounded by, for example, the use of a 2004 study (again, many professors demand students cite recent research, typical far within a 14-year window used here): Preparing Teachers to Teach the Liberal Arts by David Steiner.

Since there was no link provided, I had to track it down, and discovered Steiner, with a PhD in political science, was trafficking in some bad methods (see how using syllabi results in much ado about nothing) and selling some conservative ideology masquerading as data analysis.

Here we have more paradox: Those most likely to shout “liberal ideology!” are themselves conservative propagandists, using Asher’s strategy of pointing and yelling over there so you don’t look here.

A third and final point to which I do not have the data or answer, I think, is quite important.

Setting aside the petty and ideological sleight of hand driving Asher’s claims, to lay significant causal outcomes for higher education’s administration glut and failed policies, we would have to confirm two things: (1) current administrators having come from colleges of education would have to constitute a vast majority (as opposed to administrators who comes from non-education disciplines, such as promoted from academic departments), and (2) that majority once proven would have to have been in influential power long enough to have caused these outcomes.

If we embrace the so-called evidential rigor we say we doing in the academy, let’s start with that data and then proceed grounded in something other than hasty generalizations and faux poses of ideological objectivity.

This Asher piece is an unintended commentary on The Chronicle, who has offered other really poor takes by people pontificating outside their area of expertise. As a prestigious publication, The Chronicle should do better.

Those of us in academia, however, should do better as well. First, let’s not just meet the expectations we have for our students, but surpass them.

Next, let us all seek ways to put our own houses in order.

Again, as someone professionally both a part of and an outsider to the disciplines of English and education, I am in no way apologizing for either; there is much that should be done to both fields for the good of the fields and for the good of those students who come to our fields.

Since my EdD and faculty appointment place me primarily in education, I must none the less end here by assuring readers of two facts: (1) critical pedagogy is in no way dominant in education as a field since the field is hostage to, mostly, bureaucracy (certification and accreditation), and (2) as a historically marginalized field, we in education absolutely in no way have the power to shift all of higher education (our majors and certifiers enter the field and immediately abandon everything we have taught them).

In this era of Trump, where white men with power are suddenly butt-hurt about everything, those of us in the academy need to double-down on being above all that and step one may be, again, each of us finding a way to put our own house in order instead of callously and carelessly pointing fingers.

Beware the disciplinary blame game—and always take a closer look at the blamer than the blamed.

[1] Since Asher’s disciplinary blame piece seems to reflect a pattern of comments that Asher is prone to calling out and embarrassing students, I direct you to see for yourself—keeping in mind that Rate My Professor comments certainly are in no way valid data. But Asher also seems not to be compelled to draw on valid data, so there you have it.

What’s Wrong with Education as a Discipline?: Unpacking the Reading Wars (Again)

In one of the last class sessions of my education foundations course, a student I had taught in a first-year writing seminar the semester before posed a question while being nearly exasperated: To paraphrase, she wondered allowed why education had such a problem with how classroom practices often contradict what the research base shows is (for lack of a better term) best practice.

Since I have repeatedly addressed in my public and scholarly work Lou LaBrant’s masterful charge about the historical (and current) “considerable gap” between practice and research, I chose to help walk students through unpacking her question by asking them first who controlled the fields of medicine and law.

We tended to agree that doctors and lawyers mostly (although certainly not exclusively) had the greatest authority and autonomy in their fields.

By contrast, education in the U.S. is primarily public institutions at the K-12 and higher education levels, and thus, education as a discipline is significantly barricaded from education as a practice by legislation, bureaucracy, and a public discourse dominated by disciplines other than education—economics, psychology, and political science.

Embedded in that bureaucracy, we must also note, is the authority of administrators, a subset of eduction as a field that is in many ways disconnected from pedagogy, if not antagonistic to teacher autonomy.

Education as a discipline, then, suffers under the weight of being routinely declared a failure as well as an inadequate field while simultaneously being denied authority and autonomy in its practice, the very thing being used as evidence of its failure.

So, in 2018, we have yet another example of the on-going problem in the so-called publication of record on the field of education, Education WeekWhen It Comes to Public Education, the Nation Is Still at Risk.

Thomas Toch grounds his commentary is a praising and uncritical embracing of A Nation as Risk—although that report has been thoroughly discredited as a partisan hatchet job masquerading as research (see Gerald Holton here and here as well as Gerald Bracey).

Few things better represent all that is wrong with education as a discipline and profession than how A Nation at Risk (as a partisan political sham) came to drive policy by claiming “research” and “scientific” while being any but.

But the relentless bashing of education and then teacher education certainly did not stop with the rise of standards and high-stakes testing in the form of the accountability movement after Reagan; it was reinvigorated under W. Bush, and then Obama doubled down even further.

No Child Left Behind took its cue from A Nation at Risk, in fact.

This brings me to a recent Twitter discussion representing the reading wars debate that will just not die.

Let’s join that sort of in media res with Daniel Willingham refuting some claims made by Carol Black quoting from my blog post:

This Twitter exchange holds almost all of the elements I am confronting in this post: the disciplinary arrogance of economics, psychology, and political science (disciplines that routinely impose themselves in education as if the field dose not exist); the veneer provided by claiming “research” and “scientific” among hard-core phonics advocates; and the irony of the “research” crowd embracing partisan reports that fail as credible research.

First, let me clarify that I have taken a very clear stand against how the media embrace scholars from outside the fields of education and literacy when they arrogantly impose on those fields—for example, Willingham and Mark Seidenberg.

Next, it is illustrative that Willingham’s rebuttal of my criticism, in fact, provides proof of my point: His NYT’s op-ed is both a sweeping discrediting of teachers (since teacher educators are teachers) and, as Toch does, Willingham offers an uncritical embracing of the National Reading Panel (NRP), a partisan hack job powerfully refuted by Joanne Yatvin.

The NRP report serves a different purpose than it intended since it represents how partisan politics combined with unchallenged claims of “research” and “scientific” provide cover for everything that is wrong with the discipline of education being blocked from having authority and autonomy in the practice of education, specifically how reading is taught in US public schools.

If you skim through the discussion after I responded to Willingham, you also witness the problems with the cult of phonics, how advocates for phonics simultaneously beat the drum for “research” and “scientific” while refusing to engage with the field of literacy and reading in an honest way.

For example, whole language and balanced literacy are misrepresented and then those misrepresentations are attacked. Both whole language and balanced literacy are evidence-based approaches to teaching reading that include phonics instruction (just as writing pedagogy includes grammar instruction); however, phonics advocates typically frame them as hostile to phonics as well as not supported by “research” (something dishonestly posed by the NRP).

In other words, this Twitter debate exposes that far too often educational research and practice are highjacked for partisan political and ideological concerns as well as bureaucratic and market ones (phonics advocacy is significantly driven by the textbook and testing industries, for example).

If we return to my student’s question that is echoes in this Twitter debate grounded in Willingham’s sweeping dismissal of teacher education, we are faced with a real dilemma.

LaBrant’s charge that a “considerable gap” exists between evidence and practice exists today, but not in the way or for the reasons stated and implied by Willingham.

Literacy as a sub-discipline of education is not bereft of research, and it is not populated by incompetent professionals who do not know or teach that research base.

Education and literacy scholars are often women, and at its core, the fields suffer from some of the lingering sexism that hovers just beneath why economists, psychologists, and political scientists feel compelled to speak over education as a discipline.

Concurrent with that uncomfortable fact, however, is a damning dynamic captured in Applebee and Langer’s analysis of writing instruction in formal schooling; they concluded something that also explains virtually every problem found in why so many are compelled to declare education a failure: Applebee and Langer discovered that although teachers today know more than ever about best practice in teaching writing (and despite the field of composition being more robust than ever), teachers overwhelmingly disclosed that they are not able to implement that knowledge because of the mandates anchored in standards and high-stakes testing.

As I argued in the Twitter debate, whether or not teacher educators of literacy are teaching as Willingham wants, it doesn’t matter because when teachers enter the field they are being mandated to teach to the tests that measure standards. Teachers in the US have very little to no professional autonomy.

So I want to circle back to the more narrow issue of balanced literacy, a concept rejected by phonics advocates.

At its core, balanced literacy is about having highly expert teachers of literacy who then have the professional autonomy to individualize instruction for all students so that every student excels in literacy.

Intensive phonics programs and textbooks as well as isolated phonics testing (such as DIBELS) are the antithesis of that expertise and professional autonomy—just as the standards and high-stakes testing machine is.

I am not at all dissuaded from my not-so-modest proposal that all disciplines deserve their own autonomy and professionalism, that education has been denied that autonomy and professionalism because of sexism and the corrosive influence of bureaucracy and partisan politics.

This recent Twitter debate captures all that in a way that is relatively concise with many players inadvertently proving my points.

But, alas, I am not hopeful of having made any progress because, you know, I am but a lowly education scholar and practitioner, one mired even lower in the field of literacy.


For Further Consideration

Please note that, like economics, psychology has much to do to keep its own house in order; maybe slamming other disciplines serves as distraction:

Attack on “Balanced Literacy” Is Attack on Professional Teachers, Research

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

My Next Book Project: The Psychology of Fixing the Economy through Better Public Policy


“Out of Joint”: On Ideology and Anxiety

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, ll. 190-191

My high school English students in Upstate South Carolina throughout the 1980s and 1990s were mostly unmotivated by huge portions of the early American literature canon—notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The problem was reading those works, but many of the conversations that the assigned reading spawned were some of the best moments of my teaching career.

After plodding through Emerson and Thoreau, tackling the ideologies of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism, the darker vision of humanity offered by Hawthorne allowed me to pose a powerful and often unexamined question to students about the essential nature of humans: Are people basically good or evil?

These were 10th and 11th graders, most of whom attended fundamentalist Southern Baptist churches (specifically the large church that sat directly in the middle of the four schools that served the town, all within a few blocks of each other).

Students throughout the years enthusiastically responded that people were basically good, to which I would remind them of Emerson and Thoreau followed by asking them about their understanding of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden story.

For many of my students, this was one of the foundational moments when they had to confront that their ideology was “out of joint.” Their professed religious beliefs did not align with what they had determined about the universe on their own, or to put it another way, what they were coming to recognize about themselves.

This sort of personal disequilibrium is different than what I witness almost daily—and notably among my former students with whom I am social media friends—on Facebook: When a person’s ideology is “out of joint” with reality and facts.

These former students, I know, experienced repeatedly in my classroom the opportunity to investigate what they believed and understood while keeping that grounded in the evidence around them.

As a teacher for almost forty years now, I am regularly discouraged by how powerful unfounded beliefs are against evidence, and I am greatly disappointed when I watch that play out among my own former students.

From provably false memes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and gun control to hijacking other people’s posts with diatribes about the lazy poor (often thinly veiled racism) and rehashing lazy Libertarian lies, these moments on social media represent the larger problem with cultural myths—and the toll those myths take on both those who embrace them and those who suffer inequity and injustice because of them.

Just as my students had never interrogated that their religious beliefs (and religious training) often did not match their personal ideologies, white Americans and affluent Americas—who benefit from the lion’s share of privilege in the U.S.—rarely question the myths they both embrace and perpetuate—specifically the narratives that the poor are responsible for poverty and that black are responsible for racism.

I won’t spend time elaborating, but evidence quite overwhelmingly disputes these narratives:

But these ideologies that frame people in poverty and racial minorities as lazy, deserving of their inequity, are also logical fallacies since only those with power can maintain or dismantle systemic forces.

Whites are responsible for racism, and the wealthy are responsible for poverty; in fact, whites depend on racism, and the wealthy depend on poverty.

No one can assume a neutral pose on either classism or racism in the U.S. since both are enduring realities and since everyone either benefits from or suffers under classism and racism.

When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are “out of joint” with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.

In “The Neurotic Academic,” Vik Loveday examines this dynamic of academia, which is a subculture (as reflection and perpetuation) of the larger American Myths of meritocracy and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

“The experience of anxiety is also a fundamentally isolating one,” Loveday explains, adding, “whilst viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.”

In the U.S. culture that renders poor, black, and brown people as lazy and deserving their inequity and injustice, they are also rendered marginalized, isolated as Loveday argues. Poor, black, and brown Americans, then, because of classism and racism are trapped not only in systemic inequity but also in personal anxiety—the prison of recognizing that “who I am” and “how I am portrayed” are “out of joint” but “I was born to set it right,” as Hamlet laments (himself the anxious scholar).

Loveday discovers “anxiety is quite clearly an effect of the conditions under which it is produced” because those who suffer this anxiety

felt as though they had very little control over their working lives apart from the possibility of “working on the self” – taking personal responsibility for productivity, success, and “excellence” through the pursuit of student satisfaction, publications, or external funding, which was often achieved through chronic over-work fuelled by anxiety, but with no financial security or guarantee of permanent work at the end of contracts.

Like Hamlet, then, the isolated (by class and race) are simultaneously aware of being “out of joint” and compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control.

As I have pondered on social media and about social media, I am not sure if Facebook and Twitter have created or merely exposes the zeal that many feel to post ideological memes and rants that are easily discredited; I am also deeply troubled that those who enjoy race and class privilege are the ones most eager to perpetuate ideological lies through social media.

Ultimately, however, everyone loses when either personal ideologies or cultural myths are “out of joint” with reality, with what we can show is true.

And this brings us back to one of the lazy Libertarian lies, the one that demands a false dichotomy, a manufactured war between the individual and the collective (society, government)—something that can be traced back to our Transcendental roots where Emerson and Thoreau themselves railed against Society as the enemy of the Individual.

O, Emerson: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

O, Thoreau: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

Yet, despite their Transcendental idealism about the Individual, there is no individual without community, and there is no community without the individual.

And as such, each of us has a moral obligation to investigate our personal and cultural ideologies as a first step to slaying the real dragon threatening us—the anxiety spawned when those ideologies are “out of joint.”

Peace, both individual and social, is an equilibrium, when what we believe is in balance with reality.

That peace relieves anxiety by eradicating the threats that false narratives and baseless myths create.

Again, more narrowly, “[w]hat I have termed as the ‘neurotic academic,'” Loveday concludes, “is an entrepreneurial figure who is governed through responses to the anxiety generated by employment uncertainty within an increasingly competitive sector, but who is simultaneously encouraged to then take responsibility for the self-management of those anxieties.”

When our personal and cultural ideologies are “out of joint,” we are in a restless state of competition, with ourselves and each other, that is the root cause of anxiety—a state of powerlessness combined with the compulsion to be the sole change agent for that which is beyond our control.

This is why racism is a poison to the racist (indirectly) and the oppressed (directly).

This is why classism is a poison to those who demonize the poor (indirectly) and to the poor (directly).

Like my students who were asked to confront what they truly believed about basic human nature, we all owe ourselves and everyone else the time spent interrogating our ideologies, personal and cultural.

And then, we must carry that into our real and virtual lives, resisting the baseless meme and promising not to hijack other people’s social media spaces in the name of calloused ideological football.