“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)

 

You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

#NCTE2017: Call for Roundtable

After a very inspiring roundtable at #NCTE2016, many of us are energized to propose a related by more hands-on roundtable for #NCTE2017.

Below is a draft proposal for NCTE 2017. Please email me ASAP (paul.thomas@furman.edu) if you are interested in offering a roundtable that is a workshop related to educators developing their public voices in a wide variety of media and purposes. The current roundtables below reflect the focus of the session, but different media and perspectives are strongly encouraged to join.

2017 NCTE Annual Convention

Teaching Our Students Today, Tomorrow, Forever: Recapturing Our Voices, Our Agency, Our Mission

St. Louis, MO
November 16-19, 2017

Proposal: Roundtable

Co-Chairs: Chris Goering, University of Arkansas, and P. L. Thomas, Furman University

From Advocacy to Agency: Workshopping Our Public Voices

This roundtable session will offer participants concrete and hands-on opportunities to investigate the “how to” of writing and speaking in a public voice that reflects our professional agency. Tables will address writing Op-Eds and letters to the editor, starting and maintaining a professional blog, participating in social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) as a professional educator, and creating and producing podcasts/radio programming. Additionally, participants will be given guidelines for blending scholarly and public work as well as how to integrate our professional advocacy-as-agency with our demanding work as classroom practitioners.

Tables:

Exploring the Op-Ed: Two Public Essayists Share Their Process for Writing in the Op-Ed Genre

Christina Berchini and Peter Smagorinsky

This table will discuss their process for identifying topics, locating a suitable publication outlet, and understanding and writing within the op-ed/blog genre. Participants will also be alerted to the risks and rewards of writing in the public forum.

Adventures in Edublogging: Finding and Developing a Public Voice

P.L. Thomas and Angela Dye

Blogging remains a misunderstood form of communication along with many types of social media. This table will discuss and workshop how to create a professional blog and social media presence while helping participants with the “how” and “why” of creating that professional voice for the public.

Guinness Stew in the Ozarks: The How and Why of Professional Writing Retreats for Teachers

Christian Z. Goering and Nikki Holland

This roundtable offers a rationale and practical advice for gathering teachers in a retreat setting to write for professional audiences. One way that teachers can develop agency in the larger conversations swirling around the punch bowl of education is by writing for professional audiences—broadly defined. The act of doing so is complicated, something that takes time, nourishment, and courage. But aren’t retreats expensive and elitist? The low cost, low maintenance model shared in this roundtable can be adapted and adopted by a wide range of teacher groups or even offered as professional development by a school district.

Blogging Advocacy in the New Latinx South

Bobbi Siefert

Blogging Advocacy in the New Latino South – In this roundtable session, presenters will discuss beginning and maintaining a TESOL Blog in the context of the New South. Discussion will center on initial steps to beginning a blog, responses to challenges, focus and direction, and sustaining momentum in an increasingly xenophobic regional and national environment. We argue that blogging is a virtual platform for our professional advocacy for Latino Transnationals K-12.

Writing Radio Commentaries for Local Stations

 Rebekah Buchanan

Local NPR affiliates can be an effective way of reaching the public about education issues in our communities. Based on my experience recording monthly radio commentaries, this roundtable will present ways to start writing for the radio, coming up with topics, and presenting commentary ideas to local stations.

What Will Attract and Persuade Blog Readers?

Patricia A. Dunn

Academics are used to writing for a particular audience with discipline specific expectations about academic evidence, research, and citation—the very elements that potential blog readers may avoid. How can we attract readers to our public writing, get them to rethink an issue in our blog, and get them to share it? We’ll look at some topics, titles, and formats of several blogs that have been shared widely. We’ll talk about selecting links for providing evidence, keeping the blog lively (and short), and using effective analogies.

Who wants to be the Village Explainer? Opening Conversations, Not Closing Them

Patricia Waters, Daneell Moore, and R. Buchanan

In rural areas the English teacher is often in the invidious position of being The Village Explainer: how can the professional communicate with non-professional audiences by meeting people where they are? How do we not lose sight of urgency but also not alienate where we need allies most?

Crafting Arguments for Change: Expanding Spheres of Influence

Trevor Thomas Stewart and George L. Boggs

This table will discuss the cultural resources employed by teachers who are speaking out in order to consider how teachers can position themselves as experts whose voices ought to count in education reform discussions. By discussing the rhetorical tools being employed by teachers who are currently speaking out online, our table will provide participants with an opportunity to develop practical strategies for engaging in civic action online while managing the risks associated with public dissent.

Telling the Positive Stories of Public Education

Steve Zemelman

To counter the ongoing propaganda attacking public schools, it’s essential not only to advocate for better education policies, but also to let the public know about the work of high quality teachers in their schools, and the meaningful learning their students experience. At this table, we’ll look at examples of published op-ed pieces by teachers, deduce some of their characteristics, get started on some writing ourselves, and brainstorm how to get through to news editors to get our stories published.

Know Thy Enemy

Jonathan Pelto

In his epic, The Art of War, Sun Tzu explains: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This table will serve has a training session for understanding and tracking the charter school industry and their corporate education reform allies through the use of opposition research techniques and tools.  Particular training will be provided on how to utilize federal and state campaign finance reports, IRS 990 forms reports submitted by non-profit corporations and for-profit filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.   Participants will come away with a better understanding about how to learn more about the individuals and organizations seeking to undermine students, parents, teachers and public education.

Finding Our Public Voices: Building a Community of Writers around Writing for the Public

Ann D. David and Megan Janak

This roundtable will discuss how classroom teachers, preservice teachers, and a university professor developed their individual, public voices and began publishing for the public.  We will share both our process for forming and sustaining our writing community, and our individual experiences with writing for the public across a range of channels.

Blogging from the Inside Out: Mining Personal Stories for Larger Truths

Russ Walsh and Peter Anderson

As educators our days and nights are filled with stories of personal success and personal struggle as well as student success and student struggle. Stories, informative, humorous and tragic, are part of the life-blood of the veteran teacher. As bloggers, we can mine these stories to draw the reader into our world and then reach for the larger truths that these stories illuminate. In this round-table, we will share examples of how this has been done by education bloggers, analyze how it is done, and share techniques for developing engaging blogs based on personal, school-based experience.

Ed Philosophy Book Clubs: Creating Safe Spaces for Dialogue and Debate

Nicole Amato

Teachers are increasingly bound to curricular mandates or policies that directly conflict with what research argues is best for our students, teachers, and school communities.  This roundtable will look at the development and progression of an ed philosophy book club at a high school in Chicago, Illinois. The book club was designed with two goals in mind: to create a safe space for discussing campus polices and to arm teachers with high quality,timely, peer-reviewed research.

Podcast On Your Plan – Using Podcasting as Professional Development

Josh Flores and Lara Searcy

This roundtable will demonstrate how educators can use the podcast format to expand their voice, agency, and professional growth. Attendees will participate in a live podcast during the session in order to explore the hands-on application of “how to” podcast and become familiar with a currently active program, “Podcast On Your Plan.” “Podcast On Your Plan” episodes actively advocate for teachers’ voices by promoting teachers as a resource for professional learning communities and educator’s professional growth. Each podcast episode focuses on deconstructing the expertise of a classroom teacher and their pedagogy. Listeners are encouraged to discuss the practices and strategies presented in each episode with colleagues and reflect on their own pedagogical approaches to literacy.

Writing for the Public: A Framework

In several undergraduate courses (a May course on education documentaries and first year seminars) and a graduate course (current trends in literacy) I teach, students write public pieces that challenges them to examine a common misconception and then help a general audience better understand the issue. The piece is created as an online document as well—requiring that students explore citing and supporting their claims with hyperlinks to credible and effective sources.

Having written public pieces in mainstream and alternative publications (The Conversation, AlterNet) regularly for over a decade and then writing online (in different types and for different venues) blogs for about five years, I have learned a great deal about writing from a specialized perspective for the public. As a university-based academic, I have also come to advocate that public work is at least as important for scholars as traditional publishing (peer-reviewed journals, books)—if not more important since the social/practical impact and scope of reach are often much greater for public work.

As a genre (commentary), a distinct medium (virtual/online), and advocacy, writing for the public is incredibly difficult and too often discouraging.

Primarily for K-12 teachers, academics, and scholars/researchers, this discussion of a framework for public writing also argues that we need more informed public voices—especially from educators, academics, and researchers.

Writing for the Public: A Framework

Public writing is an especially important genre of writing for stepping away from traditional views of essays and argumentation (as taught in formal schooling)—rejecting introduction (thesis), body, and conclusion templates; reconsidering paragraphing (short is better).

Openings (and even the title) of public works should seek to accomplish three goals (sometimes simultaneously): (1) engaging the reader by being interesting, (2) focusing the reader on the central topic and major claim of the piece, and (3) establishing for the reader your expertise or unique perspective related to the topic (consider that readers likely are reading you for the first time and have no context for your credibility).

For educators, academics, and scholars/researchers, public writing must purposefully and carefully recognize that popular perceptions about issues tend to be simplistic or even misinformed. That reality means the audience will be antagonistic and nearly impossible to sway.

Powerful examples of this for me has been writing about grade retention, corporal punishment, and the word gap. In all three situations, the evidence is overwhelming (or significantly complex, as with the research on literacy and social class) but also counter to popular beliefs.

For writers with expertise and experience in a field, public writing must remain constantly aware of that public while also navigating the high standards of traditional scholarship.

That means opening a public piece by being interesting can be accomplished by following a key guideline from Joseph Williams (Style): write with characters and plot. Readers are often interested in people doing things—narrative; and people are really interested in real people doing real things.

For teachers and professors, we can often share actual classroom stories, but public writing can also mine the rich world of journalism for real-world stories that accurately reflect the broader generalizations found in high-quality research.

Yes, qualitative data (narratives) can be outliers or misleading, but our job as experts is to choose and shape narratives that are representative, while also engaging the general public.

Within a few opening paragraphs, then, we want to engage and focus our readers while establishing our credibility; this is a much different and much harder task for a writer than the formulaic introduction/thesis.

Here, we need to acknowledge that public commentaries generally fall in a word-count range of about 750-1250 words (typically at the lower end). This is really brief for complex topics (ones that academics may cover in several 1000 words), and many feel writing public commentaries has more in common with writing poetry (concision, concision, concision) than other forms of prose.

I agree—since I am also a poet.

The bulk of your piece, however, must be the main claims, evidence (hyperlinked) and elaborations that constitute the body. In the body, typically you are challenged to make complicated and sometimes technical information accessible to the general public.

Word choice, sentence formation, use of evidence—these are the really hard parts of doing public writing (and these i no template). And while your evidence is essential, hyperlinks must be used as if readers will not follow them, and the credibility of the evidence (just as you do initially with yourself) must be established in a way that is compelling to the average (non-expert) reader.

And here is the truly frustrating part of public writing: although, for example, I noted that major medical organizations and the American Psychological Association all have clear stances against corporal punishment of any kind, much of the responses I have received completely ignore or even discount that evidence (evidence that in the academic world would carry a great deal of weight).

Since public pieces are brief, as well, your agenda is best served by having a clear major claim/argument and then a few supporting claims; keep the argument as simple as possible without being simplistic.

Just as a narrative is engaging as an opening, the bulk of your discussion must be carried by concrete and vivid details; always give the reader as many sensory triggers as possible (an old Flannery O’Connor rule about writing fiction, by the way).

Now, as we think about an ending, I want to make a counterintuitive claim: The traditional view of the essay (as we have been taught in formal schooling) includes that the body is the meat of an essay; thus, the part that matters most. However, in public writing, the opening captures the reader’s attentions, and then the ending leaves the reader with the impression that likely works or doesn’t in terms of making your case.

Instead of thinking about a conclusion as a restatement of the introduction (horrible advice, by the way, that serves no purpose in any type of writing), the ending often is most effective when you work on framing your argument.

Framing also depends heavily on the use of the concrete. Once you establish a story—or even a refrain—in your opening, you can return to that image, those people, that event, or the refrain in the final paragraph or two.

That motif, then, gives your piece coherence in the reader’s mind, establishing an internal logic to the piece that may have a stronger influence on the reader intuitively than the rational arguments of the body.

As a final point—something I stress to my students since their writing often will be evaluated, graded: work diligently to have a final few sentences, a final few words that are vivid and leave the reader with the new idea or new impression that is at the center of your argument.

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” explained George Orwell in “Why I Write,” adding, “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

“The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us,” Orwell continued; however, “It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness.”

As educators, academics, and scholars/researchers, we are well prepared to tackle “the problem of truthfulness,” and if we the informed do not, we are leaving that important task to others less credible.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

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.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar 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.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

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,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”