What We Have Allowed to Happen to Our Profession: “We’re Terrified”

Two conversations—one in person with an early-career teacher, the other through email with a pre-service teacher—can be highlighted by a sentence from the email:


Pre-service and early career teachers (although not alone) now learn and teach under the weight of “We’re terrified.”

The early-career teacher currently attempts to teach ELA in a high-poverty, majority-minority school, where she has 3 classes with about 50 students each in a team-taught experiment and must work under the incessant requirement of giving students and their parents feedback while planning and teaching in an entirely new school focus.

Again, this is not some unusual circumstance. This is the new normal of being a public school teacher—a new normal that began about thirty years ago and continues to accelerate despite no evidence any of the so-called reforms help and ample evidence those reforms harm students (except those so-called “top students” who are white and affluent but insulated from the reforms), de-professionalize teachers, and demonize schools as well as all of public education.

The pre-service teacher who emailed anticipates the exact conditions new and veteran teachers suffer under daily—conditions that mis-serve students (mostly high-poverty and black/brown students), their parents, and their communities.

I shared with the pre-service teacher by email that being a critical educator is hard—nearly impossible?—for all educators despite status or experience.

But I also offered my regret that we veteran educators have stood by and allowed this to happen to our profession—remained passive and apolitical so that pre-service and early career teachers have been reduced to “We’re terrified” like characters on The Walking Dead.

While the early-career teacher struggles with balancing health and happiness with the relentless and misguided expectations of teaching-as-accountability, the pre-service teacher added: “I’m worried about holding true to the principles that brought me to the profession.”

Today marks the passing of James Baldwin in 1987, and as I spend time with pre-service and early-career teachers, I am haunted by “We’re terrified,” inspired by Baldwin’s “the time is always now,” and disheartened how we educators continue not to heed his call.

Recommended: Adilifu Nama’s Super Black

In his Introduction of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black SuperheroesAdilifu Nama, associate professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, shares his mid-1970s trip to the toy store, where he excitedly anticipated buying superhero figures.

“[I]t was the Falcon that captured my imagination most and cemented my attachment to virtually all things superhero,” he notes. “Why? He was a black man that could fly” (p. 1).

Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilify Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011)

Around the same time, although about a decade older, I was also deeply entrenched in the Marvel Universe, which in hindsight was—along with science fiction novels—one of the doors opening to my stepping beyond my working-class roots in a white community steeped in racism and conservative ideology. I too was fascinated by the Falcon, who brought me back again and again to Captain America, a superhero I found less than compelling.

The origin of the Falcon in Captain America 117 (Marvel Comics, September 1969).

Nama asserts that Captain America losing his sidekick, Bucky, was part of “events [that] were just an interesting prelude to one of the most remarkable aspects of the Captain America comic book series: his pairing with the first African American superhero, the Falcon” (p. 69).

Captain America and the Flacon ran as a co-titled comic from 1971-1978.

Since around 1940, superhero comic books and superheroes have held a solid and important spot in U.S. pop culture, and as pop culture, comic books as a medium (genre) have demonstrated the same sort of flaws and brilliance found in other media, such as film (which Nama addresses in Chapter 5 as well as his Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film).

Pop culture often reflects, perpetuates, and confronts the very worst of the culture it serves—in terms of racism, sexism, classism, and the like. Comic books have been, and still are, no different.

Nama’s work is exceptional for his diligent commitment to outlining the role of black superheroes, primarily from Marvel and DC, while avoiding the failures often found in other critiques:

In short, the bulk of analysis concerning black superheroes has come to obvious conclusions, is embarrassingly reductive, and neglects to draw deeper connections across significant cultural dynamics, social trends, and historical events….Either black superheroes are critiqued as updated racial stereotypes from America’s comic-book past, or they are uncritically affixed to the blaxploitation film craze as negative representations of blackness. (p. 3)

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, represents the often contradictory representation of black superheroes in the context of blaxploitation film conventions.

Instead, Nama “adopts a poststructural approach that is not beholden to…authorial intent and intensely surface perceptions,” but I must add that despite the scholarly focus, this is an accessible volume for a general readership interested in comic books, pop culture, and race (p. 5).

While offering a wonderful assortment of images, including a high-gloss four-page gallery about a third of the way through, Nama weaves an engaging discussion of the rise of socially conscious comic books (Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972), “seminal black superheroes,” the tension of black and white superhero combinations, “white-to-black makeovers” of superheroes, and as noted about, black superheroes in TV and movies (pp. 6, 7).

The full-color, gloss insert includes vibrant images such as the original Black Lantern from January 1971-1972 (DC).

Throughout the volume, Nama offers an impressive outline of the black superhero in mainstream comic books while including a powerful examination of the relationship between comic books and the complicated history of race in the U.S.

My own evolving understanding of race in superhero comic books is increasingly informed by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi CoatesBaldwin’s confrontation of the specter or whiteness and Coates’s rejecting that “[t]he black freedom struggle is…about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans.”

In the words of a comic book fan and scholar, Nama, I think, honors both Baldwin and Coates, a perspective that resists judging race in comic books through a white lens or against a distorted bar of perfection:

Where but in superhero comics did black people visit alternative worlds, travel in rocket ships, invent and command futuristic technology, or experience time travel? (p. 66)

By coming neither to glorify nor demonize black superheroes in mainstream comic books and pop culture, Nama succeeds in reaching beyond the pages of those books and showing readers how race joins everyone in the same journey:

American blacks and whites are ultimately bound to one another fused by history and  circumstances, fate and fortune, dreams deferred and hopes realized, and when either party tries to destructively deny or sever the interconnected and interdependent nature of the relationship, both parties suffer. (p. 88)

However, comic books as manifestations of the culture they popularize are inevitably anchored by the white privilege of that real world. “Black superheroes should never be just a colorized version of the original,” Nama argues, adding:

because that would affirm notions that African Americans are at best a passive reflection and at worst a pathological reaction to white America. To the contrary, blacks have simultaneously retained a distinct form of black racial identity and worldview along with absorbing American folkways, mores, and taboos. Black superheroes, like the black folks they symbolize, must express that dynamic, whether they are completely original, an overt imitation of a white figure, or somewhere in between the two. (p. 125)

Ultimately, Nama’s scholarship is lifted by his childhood love for a black man who could fly—the Falcon merging in his boyhood mind with Dr. J—and readers are apt to enjoy this volume as much as the comic books it honors.

See Also

Black Goliath: “Some Black Super Dude,” 

Black Lightning Always Strikes Twice! – Double-Consciousness as a Super-Power

Black Communities of the 30th Century: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics

The Man Who Lived Twice! (If You Can Call That Living): Marvel’s Brother Voodoo

Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body, Robert Jones, Jr.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

The Captain White America Needs

#NCTE16 DRAFT Proposal

Building on our #NCTE15: G.05 Teaching Beyond the Classroom: Social Media as Teacher Activism and Professionalism and the focus of the 2016 annual convention, Faces of Advocacy, we are forming a roundtable, Confronting Educator Advocacy with Pre-Service and Early Career Teachers.

We see a need for addressing the experiences, struggles, and strategies for supporting advocacy by pre-service and early career teachers.

Administrators, veteran teachers, teacher educators, as well as pre-service and early career teachers—our stories and how we confront the need for teachers to challenge policy, racism, sexism, and classism in our schools and society will be the focus of the presentation and roundtables.

If you are interested in joining this proposal, email me (paul.thomas@furman.edu) ASAP.

Table/topics addressing challenges for advocacy related to race/racism, gender/sexism, sexuality/homophobia, and classism are encouraged.

Some draft table ideas include:

Table: Teacher Advocacy: A Southern Dilemma

P.L. Thomas, Sean P. Connors, Nicole Amato, Kristen Marakoff

Table: Guilt as Guidance

Shekema Holmes Silveri

Table: Risk and Reward in Writing for the Public?

Peter Smagorinsky, Christina Berchini

Table: Writing for the Public – Positive Stories, Critique, or Both

Steve Zemelman

Table: Schools of education in advocacy partnerships with parents, students, communities, and k12 school personnel

Julie Gorlewski

Table: Advocating for Disability Access

Patricia Dunn

Table: What does Advocacy look like in the Rural and Small Town School

Patricia Waters

How We Arrived Here: “We, the people, must redeem”

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

There is a clear but disturbing reason that those in power in the U.S. offer and speak to the rugged individualism myth, stirring antagonism toward “government” and “unions,” for example.

The collective is always more powerful than the individual—when the individuals realize it, when the individuals commit to the collaborative power of that collective.

Competition devours while collaboration lifts.

For public education (paralleling the criminal justice system and most public institutions), there is a long and entrenched history that is indistinguishable from here, now.

How we arrived here?





These are the tools of the status quo of inequity.

In education, then, students, parents, communities, and educators have been victims of all four, but have also relinquished to them.

In education, as well, the very organizations (collectives) that could have saved us—unions; professional organizations; local, state, and federal government—instead embraced fatalism, neutrality, compromise, and objectivity.

Fatalism: “We can’t change this so let’s deal with it the best we can.”

Neutrality: “We are taking no position but will provide any support we can.”

Compromise: “Both sides must have a seat at the table.”

Objectivity: “Numbers don’t lie.”

Let us recognize:

Neutrality in times of great harm perpetuates great harm.

Compromise between inequity and equity is inequity.

Langston Hughes implores: “Let America be America again,” continuing:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

This is from 1935, but rings all too true today, 80 years later, as Hughes confronts: “O, let America be America again—/The land that never has been yet”—building to a final plea we have yet to heed:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

FOR SALE: Public Education?

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for your submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission

“De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” The Police

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control, pp. 3, 5)

Let me break here my own guidelines to my students and open with something rather boring, a full disclosure.

I am the out-going Council Historian for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and on my second set of editors as a column editor for English Journal. Members and prominent leaders in NCTE are my colleagues, dear friends, and among the most respected people in my fields of literacy and education.

In short, I credit NCTE and the people of NCTE for a significant portion of my professional and personal accomplishments.

That said, something powerful and disturbing has remained with me after the 2015 annual conference in blustery Minneapolis, MN—something that leaves me with a spark of hope underneath a growing black cloud of doom.

This is a story about a place within a place within a place: Minneapolis, the convention center, and then the exhibitor hall.

As NCTE members converged on Minneapolis, another unfortunate but all too common police killing of a young black man occurred in Minneapolis, sparking a protest and occupation by #BlackLivesMatter.

On a much smaller scale and under considerably less urgent conditions, a select group of NCTE members organized a protest and occupation of the Pearson booth looming large over the exhibit hall (including also prominent displays by Scholastic, Heinemann, and other education-related corporations):

The spark of hope? Yes, I fully support the protest of Pearson, and hope that along with this demonstration of resistance, the renewed focus by NCTE on advocacy (a tribute to the legacy of Kent Williamson) is a sign that educators and their professional organizations have begun to recognize and even embraced the essential political nature of our profession, of being a professional.

This, I think, could be a unifying #EducatorVoicesMatter (and if so, it must be one that seeks out and includes all voices in our field, which itself has many challenges left with racism, sexism, and classism).

Now, this becomes much more complicated because I have a couple pointed (and what may appear to be accusatory) questions?

Why only Pearson? And just how did Pearson grow into this all-encompassing, all-powerful evil?

Over the past decade or so, I have witnessed the increased presence and influence of teaching/learning and testing businesses in education broadly, but at NCTE specifically. The exhibit hall is just a real-world manifestation of the inordinate advertising space consumed in NCTE publications and the enormous funding drain these companies create for public schools across the U.S.

With deference to Deleuze above, I must assert once again that Pearson et al. are the monsters, but it is we who are the Drs. Frankenstein.

And it is this: Thirty-plus years of state and federal accountability mandates have proven that there is no correlation between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement, that high-stakes testing always trumps any good intentions of standards, necessarily reduces the curriculum, and harms vulnerable student populations. And:

As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)

Nonetheless, when the Common Core train pulled out of the station, politicians as engineers, it was with many educators and professional organizations (yes, NCTE) sprinting to hop on board, unwilling or unable to see students, public education, teacher autonomy, and the like tied up on the tracks as if in a silent movie.

I will now risk being accused of arrogance here, but I detailed carefully that the only people set to benefit from the Common Core mania were political leaders and teaching/learning/testing corporations, and then reported that in fact this is what happened, with Pearson standing at the top of the pile of cash.

We in education are always starting over, we are never finished with anything—driven into frantic states of crisis by the politics and bureaucracy of government-run education.

Pearson et al. are simply the natural manifestations of allowing our public institutions to feed our consumer/capitalist economy.

I hope there will be more and larger protests. I hope that spirit of resistance and professional autonomy—the rising of educator voices—grows.

But we must also make a real stand. No more new standards, no more new tests, no more dehumanizing accountability, no more top-down education legislation and mandates.

And that begins with educators as well as their professional organizations—not simply in word or protest, but in actions taken.

I fully accept Pearson et al. are the monsters, but literature shows us we must look at the Drs. Frankenstein for how the monsters came about.

Pointing fingers at Pearson cannot hide the blood on our hands.

Who We Were, Who We Are, Who We Will Be

A four-sport athlete in high school and an early-rising working-class adult, my father was never a literary or academic man. But he was a storyteller—weaving again and again the narratives of his life growing up and then the uniquely late 1950s, early 1960s courtship and marrying of my mother.

I am hurtling toward 55, and I can still tell you every story, in intricate detail. Some times, I find it difficult to extricate my father’s stories from my own redneck past, in fact.

Since my childhood, then, I have never drifted too far from history. I recall vividly the first test I ever failed—a pop quiz in world history my sophomore year of high school. And then throughout college, I took history courses every chance I could.

If I had understood how college worked (a flaw of a working-class upbringing), I would have orchestrated those courses into a history minor; instead, I simply returned again and again to history classes because I felt drawn.

That same gravitational pull landed me in an EdD program at the University of South Carolina, where coursework and then my dissertation—a biography of Lou LaBrant—were grounded in the history of education and English education.

November of 2015 is bittersweet for me as a consequence because this is my last annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as the Council Historian.

Soon, with irony, I become a part of the history of NCTE.

But the history of the organization and the field of teaching English—this I will never release from my intellectual and emotional grasp.

As I am prone to do, I am in constant conversation with myself about who we were, who we are, who we will be.

In a session for the newly named Outreach Network for NCTE, the discussions touched on the intersections of past, present, and future—a continuum that appears to have one damning constant—those outside the field of teaching/teaching English appear unaware of who we are as professionals, unwilling to acknowledge the wide array of disciplines that our profession comprises, and defiant to acknowledge our professional authority and autonomy.

Read LaBrant in Elementary English and English Journal (NCTE) from 1931 to 1961, and you are apt to nod your head in bewildered recognition of who we are today, feeling the weight of who we will be as inevitable as the stack of essays before us seemingly multiplying like loaves and fishes feeding the multitudes as we work in Sisyphean solitude (and for this my working-class background prepared me well).

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—our history, our present, and our future are acts of speaking (my father) and writing (me) into reality that which defined us, defines us, will define us.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—these are the politics that shaped us, shape us, will shape us.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—narratives retold, narratives crafted, narratives imagined.

Who we were, who we are, who we will be—as LaBrant announced abruptly in her major book-length work: “We teach English.”

This is our history to be treasured, this is our present to be defended, this is our future to be determined—and it there that we must ask, “By whom?”

A Moment in #NCTE15 History-Annual Convention Minneapolis

This is my last annual NCTE convention as Council Historian, and I am pleased to offer this special Moment of History by Roxanne Henkin in honor of recent victories for marriage equity.

Please note my ongoing project related to my role as Council Historian, Lou LaBrant: An Annotated Bibliography.

A Moment in NCTE History-Annual Convention Minneapolis, 2015

Roxanne Henkin

Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting 2015 National Council Teachers of English

Annual Convention

At this moment in U.S. history, with the historic Supreme Court decision legalizing lesbian and gay marriage last June, we look back at the efforts of our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender members of NCTE and the work that was accomplished beginning with the creation of the Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness.

Although the NCTE Lesbian and Gay Caucus began in 1974, it was transformed into an assembly in 1993 to give LGBT issues a greater visibility and voice in NCTE. The new organization, the NCTE Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness was created to “promote communication and cooperation on issues involving gay and lesbian students, teachers, and materials in academic communities and to investigate these issues, encourage research, and disseminate information…” (Karsten).

Three proposals about LGB issues were submitted, accepted and presented during the 1994 NCTE Annual Convention in Orlando, Florida. In April 1995, the NCTE SLATE newsletter was devoted to lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues. Our chair, Mary Bixby was interviewed in this issue and explained that the decision to devote a SLATE Newsletter to ‘Issues of Sexual Orientation’ was a major landmark of support (Wolfe 2). Although NCTE had passed the 1992 resolution “not to hold national council meetings in municipalities that have accepted anti-gay legislation,” Bixby felt that real progress had been slow (Wolfe 2).

In 1995, William Spurlin and I became co-chairs of the NCTE Assembly on Gay and Lesbian Academic Issues Awareness. In June 1996, we sent a letter to the NCTE Executive Committee. We wrote that we were, “Concerned about the visibility of our members and issues within NCTE.” NCTE Executive Director Miles Myers agreed to give the letter to each new convention chair and created the NCTE Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues in Academic Studies to serve as a resource to advise the Executive Committee and other groups and individuals in NCTE about LGBT issues and to make recommendations for specific actions. William Spurlin and I were appointed the first co-chairs of this new committee.

The Spring 2001 conference was slated for Birmingham, Alabama, which had sodomy laws, so the Advisory Committee asked that the convention be moved. Although the NCTE 1992 resolution decreed that NCTE would not meet in states that had anti-gay laws, the policy was not being followed in practice. NCTE still held the spring conference in Birmingham, but letters were sent to officials in Alabama, asking that the discriminatory laws in Alabama be changed. NCTE also authorized a special pin for NCTE members to wear during the conference to encourage talk about these discriminatory laws.

In 2007, NCTE passed a resolution strengthening teacher knowledge about LGBT issues. Two years later, in 2009, English Journal editor Ken Lindblom asked longtime Assembly members Paula Ressler and Becca Chase to guest edit what became an extraordinary issue of English Journal on LGBTQ issues.

At the November 2011 NCTE centennial Convention in Chicago the LBGTQ assembly celebrated 20 years of continuous work in NCTE. Now known as the NCTE Gay-Straight Educators’ Alliance, the T was added to welcome another underrepresented group, transgender teachers and students. We also welcomed our straight colleagues explicitly by including them in our name and acknowledging their critical role as allies.

This morning, at our 105th Annual Convention, we welcomed Alison Bechdel as a general session speaker. An out lesbian, Alison is a powerful and well-known writer and cartoonist. How thrilled we were to finally have one of our own as a general session speaker. Her session was well attended and well received. We need more of these in the future.

During this convention, we will have over 20 LGBT sessions presented throughout the program. On this transgender Day of Silence as we look back in history, NCTE has made great progress with LGBT issues over the past 24 years and we look forward to a future where all students and teachers, of all sexual orientations and gender identities support each other and are supported and able to thrive in both their academic and personal lives.

Works Cited

Karsten, Ernie. AGLAIA Brochure. Urbana: NCTE, 1994. Print.

Ressler, Paula, and Becca Chase, Guest eds. Theme: Sexual Identity and Gender Variance. English Journal 98.4 (2009). Print.

Spurlin, William, and Roxanne Henkin. Letter to NCTE Executive Committee. June 1996. TS.

Wolfe, D. “An Interview with Mary Bixby.” SLATE Newsletter 20 (1995): 1–4. Print.

See Also


Connecting Dots of ASD Advocacy: Don’t Buy It

Chanda Jefferson, 2015 S.C. biology teacher of the year, advocates for Achievement Schools Districts (ASD) in the state.

The commentary leads readers to SCAchievementSchoolDistrict.org (SCASD).

Jefferson has also blogged at StudentsFirstSC, the state affiliate of StudentsFirst founded by Michelle Rhee.

Please connect the dots.

And Jefferson’s claims of ASD success echoes this initial claim at SCASD:

An Achievement School District has a proven track record in other states of catapulting the bottom 5% of schools into high quality, high performing, neighborhood, public schools.

However, what is that track record in reality (not the edureformer spin-zone)?

Like charter schools in general, the ASD has not performed much different than public schools, according to a 2014 analysis:

My analysis suggests that ASD schools aren’t doing significantly better in terms of student growth than they were before state takeover. In fact, in many cases the schools’ pre-takeover growth outperformed the ASD. These findings have significant implications for the future of the ASD, how we should move forward with continued takeovers, and for future turn-around efforts in general.

From Tennessee to New Orleans to Los Angeles, claims of successful take-over strategies have been discredited, but those take-overs have resulted mostly in disenfranchised children and communities while providing political capital for advocates.

Once you connect the dots of ASD advocacy, the only conclusion you can reach is don’t buy it.

The Human Capacity for Good and Evil: “Violence Multiplies Violence”

Humans have tremendous capacity for good and evil.

The good is so simple, I think, that we too often fail to make it real.

“All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

The great paradox is that human evil is almost never that simply, yet we respond over and over to evil as if it is.

Addressing recent acts of terror in Beirut and Paris, Sunny Hundal writes that terrorists “want us to brush away humanity and compassion with suspicion and division,” adding: “By following that script we do exactly what Isis want us to do.”

Who we are must not be defined by those who choose evil, by that which is done to us.

Who we are must be defined by what we choose to do in the aftermath of evil.

Who we are must be defined by what we choose to recognize as terror and evil, as well. Our selective and narrow gaze of outrage is another kind of evil—one that renders some inhuman by our indifference—that lies at our feet even as we condemn large-scale brazen evil.

We must not allow the din of sword rattling to drown out the voices of the past that may, again, seem to be too simple:

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” [1]

Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why: Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. (Martin Luther King Jr., Loving Your Enemies) [2]

[1] Attributed to Gandhi, but never confirmed as an accurate attribution.

[2] See how even accurate attributions can be manipulated here.

The Politics of Teaching Grammar

The pronoun/antecedent debate about “they” has continued at the NCTE Connected Community’s Teaching and Learning forum—mostly by advocates of prescriptive grammar.

That many English teachers continue to beat the drum for prescriptive rules is troubling—as I noted earlier when calling for descriptive grammar and conventional awareness. Troubling on one level since prescriptive grammar is solidly refuted by linguistics and the history of the English language [1]; troubling on another level since one staunch defense of the rules posted at the forum by an English teacher included a dangling modifier—highlighting that prescriptive grammarians often by necessity are themselves picking and choosing which “rules” to emphasize (an ironic type of descriptive grammar).

Another post called for ELA teachers to “hold the line with pronoun – antecedent agreement” because “[w]hile I think that grammar is a reflection of society, this is really about singular vs. plural.  It is not a political platform.”

And that last claim, I think, is an important place to consider further why a rules-based approach to language is failing both the language and our students.

First, critical pedagogy and critical literacy begin with the recognition that all human interaction, including language and teaching, is political. As Joe Kincheloe explains about teaching:

[P]roponents 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)

And thus, making the claim that students must conform to prescriptive rules of language usage because those rules are not political is both a political act itself and a false claim that language can somehow be politically neutral. Endorsing prescriptive grammar instruction cannot be divorced from the historical fact that standard grammar has been used to perpetuate racism, sexism, and classism

As well, the literature we teachers of ELA often assign—from George Orwell’s 1984 and essays to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—illustrates that who controls language controls people; these works also highlight how that imbalance of power is unfair.

As linguists show, all identifiable types of language usage (standard English, AAVE, etc.) are simply somewhat cohesive versions, none any superior to the other except that some group in power creates that status of standard or “correct.”

Therefore, again, all language usage and the teaching of language are inevitably about power, always political.

With that context, then, the teaching of ELA should prefer an authoritative stance instead of an authoritarian one (see the writings of Paulo Freire).

Authoritative teaching of language generates teacher authority based on that teacher’s knowledge and experience with language (in terms of grammar, I would argue that includes essentially linguistics and the history of the English language). Authoritative teaching seeks to foster the student’s authority through that students’ understanding conventional usages as well as the biases associated with those usages.

Authoritarian teaching of language is the rules approach, in which teacher authority is grounded in the status of being the teacher, and the authoritarian stance necessarily asserts the authority’s (teacher’s) politics and mutes the politics of the subservient (student). Authoritarian teaching simply demands compliance—applying rules because they are rules.

As teachers of ELA, we are serving our students and the language well if we see language usage as something to be investigated and interrogated—not as a mechanism for imposing our authority on the student.

Those students can and should be guided in investigating and interrogating why we have standard English—who it benefits and why so that their own awareness about the power of language serves them and not those who use it to deny other people their political voices.

[1] Both in the false notion that some language use is inherently superior to others (as opposed to the arbitrary nature of standard forms based on who has political power), and against the reality that all language usage evolves, changes (and thus, trying to stop that change is misunderstanding the basic nature of language).

See Also

Revisiting James Baldwin’s “Black English”

A Tale of Two Teachers: The Politics of Personal Teaching, Nat Hentoff