Can Scholars Be Too Literal in Post-Truth Trumplandia?

Recently, I was invited to join a class discussion of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a local International Baccalaureate (IB) high school class. For many years, I taught the novel in my Advanced Placement course, and in 2007, I published a volume on teaching Atwood’s writing.

During the discussion, one very bright and engaged student eagerly noted that Atwood evokes elements of communism in her novel. The use of the term “communism” prompted me to offer a gentle reframing—that the student probably was recognizing elements of totalitarianism, elements often blurred into the mainstream American pejorative use of the word “communism” (see also “socialism” and “Marxism”).

This is an important moment, I think, in understanding how academia works: Language and the teasing out of ideas are often laborious, if not tedious. While teaching first-year writing especially, but in most of my courses, I stress that college students need disciplinary awareness—how each discipline functions and why—and typically emphasize that academics are prone to carefully defining terms, and then holding everyone to those precise meanings.

Political, media, and public discourse, however, tend along a much different path. Language and terminology are treated with a cavalier disregard for meaning. Misusing a term or making a false claim is quickly glossed over before railing against the initial false claim.

Because of that gap between academia and the so-called real world, some educators and scholars call for the importance of public intellectuals grounded in academia. Public scholarship, however, remains controversial within the academia and tends to be received with disdain and condescension by politicians, the media, and the public.

It is at those last two points that I want to emphasize why Sam Fallon’s The Rise of the Pedantic Professor has been so eagerly embraced by some in the academy and many in the public sphere. At its core, Fallon’s argument poses this:

To read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.

These public humanities scholars, Fallon argues, “tend to collapse discursive arguments into data dumps,” and are failing their mission with “academic literalism.”

In the traditional norms of the academy, Fallon’s charges reinforce arguments that scholars should remain (somehow) above activism and public engagement, often expectations for being apolitical, objective, or neutral. Fallon also is providing ample fodder for politicians, the media, and the public who marginalize professors and scholars as merely academic, pointy-headed intellectuals making much ado about nothing.

As an educator, scholar, and writer, a career spanning four decades, I have strongly rejected both of these norms, and I have increasingly recognized that public work by scholars is far more important than our traditional scholarship, which is often behind paywalls and read by only inners, if at all.

I think that the gap between the academy and the public not only can be bridged in terms of how we navigate language and ideas, but it must be bridged—especially now that we have entered post-truth Trumplandia.

Consider the current uses and framing of the terms “socialism” and “infanticide.”

The bright IB student mentioned above is a typical example I confront in all of my students, and throughout public debates, especially social media.

While I absolutely recognize that academics can be pedantic, so precise that all meaning and discourse are rendered meaningless to day-to-day existence, I believe Fallon is making a serious mistake of extremes: Academics have obligations to their disciplines and the public, but their public discourse must always remain in any scholar’s lane while balancing the norms of disciplinary discourse with public accessibility.

Do some academics fail at this tightrope act? Of course.

But words matter, and starting with jumbled terms and meanings serves no one well. The public academic is poised to slow down debate while also clarifying what exactly we are saying in terms of cultural ideologies and public policy.

Doesn’t it seem important to confront that a significant numbers of voters in 2016 angrily voted against Obamacare while themselves benefitting from the Affordable Care Act—casting votes grounded in a garbled and self-defeating state of not knowing what terms mean?

Doesn’t it seem dangerous for one political party to drum up fear of infanticide, when infanticide isn’t occurring? Wouldn’t this country benefit from a fact-based (even literal) discussion of women’s health and reproductive rights, prenatal care, and abortion?

I find it troubling that all throughout formal education from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education, we hold students to higher standards of discourse than we do politicians and the media.

I also have little patience for people who cannot accurately define “socialism,” “communism,” or “Marxism,” but feel compelled to reject these ideologies with unwavering certainty.

It seems, in fact, that no one can be too literal when most public discourse wallows in the mud of being both wrong in the use of language and dishonest in the ideologies and arguments being made for promoting public policy that directly impacts how any of us navigate our lives.

If we need more evidence, the rising public responses to the new tax codes pushed through by Republicans and Trump offer a jumbled and disturbing picture.

Many tax-paying U.S. citizens have a weak understanding of taxes, one oversimplified as the “refund” (let me nudge here: this isn’t any different than oversimplifying and misusing “socialism”).

Many in the U.S. should be angry about the new tax code, but most complaining about the consequences of those changes are doing so in ways that are lazy and simply flawed.

If we backed up this outrage over lower tax refunds, we could have a much more substantive and possibly effective discussion about payroll deductions (most were reduced under the tax changes, thus people received more money per check over the year, which itself would lead to lower refunds), tax burdens among different income brackets, and the needlessly complex industry of preparing and submitting our taxes.

Not unrelated, Republicans have misrepresented calls for 70% marginal tax rates for the very wealthy (about 16,000 Americans out of 127 million households)—again an effective strategy because most people do not understand the literal (and tedious) reality about how marginal tax rates work.

And this brings me back to Atwood’s novel and the class discussion.

Much of Atwood’s work as a writer is about language, the use of language to control and the possibility of language to unmask, to liberate not only ideas but people.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, a few select women control other women through language manipulation. The handmaid’s are trained by Aunts, who instill the propaganda:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. in the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24, 25)

But it may be more important here to emphasize Atwood’s examination of how Gilead came about. Offred explains about her life before Gilead:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of the print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories. (pp. 56-57)

This is a novel about people being cavalier about language and thus about the human condition. This novel is a call for the dangers of not being literal enough.

Humanities professors wading into the public debate and their “dull litanies of fact” are simply not the problem facing us today.

Can scholars be too literal in post-truth Trumplandia?

O, hell no, and beware anyone who would argue otherwise.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

How to Navigate Social Media (without Being a Mansplaining Troll)

Several years ago when I was relatively new to Twitter, I had an exchange over an email list and Twitter that resulted in one person blocking me on Twitter and my virtual relationship with the other cooling significantly. Both women are black, and we share educational and social advocacy goals and ideologies.

I regret that deeply, even several years later.

Initially, I focused on my own intentions, attempting to explain away the tensions as misunderstandings. That, in fact, caused greater divides because I wasn’t listening to their concerns and had not fully embraced a key element of the situation—good intentions are never enough.

Particularly about my experiences on Facebook, I think often about this situation because I regularly delete comments on my posts. The people whose comments I delete typically claim I am censoring them or that I am too weak to engage in debate or ideas with which I disagree.

However, I view social media as an extension of my professional scholarly Self, a key element in my role as a public intellectual. Therefore, my virtual spaces are mine, and I am vigilant about keeping them free of inflammatory and baseless comments.

My social media spaces are where I offer strong and even provocative (or inflammatory) positions—what some will call “opinions”—but I take great care to offer evidence-based positions.

I include evidence and links when I post online, in part to model the sort of discourse I believe everyone should practice and in part as an extension of my role as a teacher.

Despite ridiculous claims recently after the Kavanaugh appointment, the real and virtual worlds remain mostly hostile places for women—and that hostility remains primarily driven by angry men who tend to be poorly informed or even wildly misinformed.

This culture of mansplaining and trolling exposes that far too many men think that by the mere fact that they comment, they should be regarded as equal to anyone else posting; in other words, mansplaining and trolling are the perverse logical conclusion of the marketplace of ideas, that all voices count.

Here, I want to examine how anyone (but especially men) can navigate social media in ways that avoids mansplaining and trolling. While I will often frame this in terms of men commenting in women’s virtual spaces, the concepts below are valuable in all types of social media interactions.

Do not comment on someone’s post to disagree with the original post unless you have counter-evidence. Does the post offer evidence for the claims in the post? If so, can you discredit that evidence? If you have no counter-evidence or cannot refute the evidence offered, your rebuttal is mere trolling. Does the original post offer no evidence? Then consider seeking out credible evidence yourself. Asking other people—particularly professional women—to do the work you should do on any topic is also trolling.

Do not change the topic of the original post so you can hold forth on your pet peeves. If a post on social media raises concerns about Trump’s administration, your thesis on Hillary or Obama is not relevant, or welcomed. This form of trolling is hijacking someone else’s social media space.

Resist posting memes, especially gotcha memes. Memes lend themselves to those who zip through social media frantically, but that ease of posting also feeds into lazy thinking and commenting. Those of us who try to navigate social media well and credibly tend to view all memes with skepticism. A great strategy is to thoroughly vet all memes; simply searching online for a few minutes can discredit (or confirm) all memes. One of the worst aspects of memes is the use of quotes by notable people; meme quotes tend to be fake, misattributed, or gross misrepresentations of the person being quoted. You may want to reconsider your H.L. Mencken meme quotes and those Hitler analogy quotes all together, in fact.

Respect people posting as professionals online as the professionals they are. Regularly, I witness people rushing to explain things to someone on social media who is, in fact, an expert on the topic. In the rush to correct or explain, people often fail to investigate the person to whom they are responding. This is especially disturbing when the expert is a woman—and the counter comments seem mostly driven by assumptions a woman is mistaken (or can’t be a sociologist, etc.).

Honor with extra care the social media spaces of women—especially if you are a man. The first rule of responding on social media is to check yourself about responding; it is always a good idea to pause, consider why you want to respond, and when responding to a woman, ask yourself if you would have the same urge to respond to a man. Another good idea is to avoid responding in most cases. Instead amplify the post (retweet, share, etc.) or simply offer a “like.” None the less, always avoid the “well actually” response (basic mansplaining) along with asking the woman (as noted above) to do the labor you should have done yourself to investigate the topic or claim.

Avoid the “both sides” approach to issues. Many, if not most, issues are either way more complex than two sides or have only one credible side. No social media debate is made better simply because you are the brave soul willing to launch into the “other side,” or to play devil’s advocate. These are lazy ways to discuss and typically are cover for, you guessed it, mansplaining and trolling.

Don’t fall victim to the “let’s agree to disagree” stance. A cousin to the “both sides” approach is the “let’s agree to disagree” pose that seeks to make all positions carry the same weight in terms of credibility. Once again, if you have no credible evidence for your position, there simply is not anything to agree about.

Respect other people’s virtual spaces. Since I view my social media spaces as extensions of my professional/scholarly Self, I monitor them carefully and also keep them as free as possible of offensive and false discourse and claims. It is my space. If you have something you feel compelled to express, avoid using other people’s virtual spaces, and instead, that is why you have social media.

Navigating social media spaces is fraught with problems unique to social media—anonymous bravado, a warped democratization of voices and ideas, ease of access and commenting—but those spaces are also as vulnerable (if not more so) to the problems of the real world, sexism and racism just a couple to note.

While examinations such as this are unlikely to sway those eager to mansplain and troll, I think the guidelines above can help all of us who are sincere about a market place of ideas where those ideas and their credibility are judged less by our biases and assumptions, and thus driven instead by a careful and full analysis of the available evidence.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.

Adventures in Social Media: Privileged Edition

Social media platforms are microcosms of our broader society, and as a result, those platforms are often toxic for women.

This is my story of social media, a story of privilege that in no ways ignores or endorses the misogyny found routinely on social media.

My experiences are in many ways an inverse reality to how women are marginalized, mansplained, and harassed—while also reflecting the good, the bad, and the ugly of virtual experiences.

I was very hesitant about joining Twitter and Facebook until I recognized how many scholars and creators used these platforms in ways that are more professional than social. I had no interest in the “social” of social media.

Boosted by venturing into my own blogging platform with WordPress at the very end of 2012, my Twitter adventures began in early 2011 as a way to join the scholarly and creative communities I value as well as a way to amplify my writing, to build an audience.

I have been surprised that my blog (10,000+ followers) has attracted significantly more followers than my Twitter account (almost 6000 followers), but I also have learned some important lessons about a virtual existence through my distinctly different experiences on Twitter and Facebook.

Social media are, of course, designed to be interactive so my blog, Twitter account, and Facebook page all attract comments. Here is where I experience interesting differences.

Let me interject first that I have joined social media as a writer and (for lack of a better term) as a public intellectual mostly concerned with literacy, education, equity and social justice, and the inequities of classism, racism, and sexism. However, I have not joined social media to have discussions or debates with people who have no expertise or experience in the areas I address (keep this in mind as I discuss my experiences below).

Well before joining social media, in fact, I had rejected the idea that issues are debatable just because someone will debate; in other words, many issues simply do not have two or several credible sides. For example, I do not debate corporal punishment just as I would not debate a Holocaust denier.

Further, when an issue or topic does warrant debate, I also refuse to engage with anyone who isn’t credible because by doing so the debate stage presents those engaging as equal. This was a recurring problem when I wrote a book on school choice and was regularly asked to debate choice advocates, almost all of whom had no experience or expertise in education—were in fact simply ideological choice advocates.

As everyone has, I imagine, I have contentious and negative exchanges across all my platforms. I made mistakes, but I also have been accused of intentions and actions that I never held or enacted. Some of these experiences have been beyond my control, and others, I deeply regret being complicit even when having good intentions.

Overall, I feel more and more regret about the antagonism and nastiness that characterizes social media. In my experience, though, I witness very little of that on Twitter while I must routinely delete comments on my Facebook page—from the same people who do not meet my guidelines above but refuse to recognize they are invading, un-welcomed, another person’s social media space, a space that I use primarily as a professional record.

Twitter has been recognized as a toxic environment for women, seemingly fertile ground for trolls and misogynists. Twitter, for me, has been mostly a vibrant community among people I admire and respect—a virtual library and classroom. Few of my exchanges there are negative.

The sources of those differences, I think, are first and foremost my privileges as a white man, and then significantly the distinct differences between my Twitter and blog followers and Facebook friends. Audiences matter.

These distinct experiences have made me think very seriously about the problem with the marketplace of ideas argument, the retort from those whose comments I delete (for being false claims or simply personal attacks) that I am not engaging because I refuse to listen or entertain different ideas.

The problem with a simplistic view of the marketplace of ideas is the same as the problem with school choice—or any market.

Market outcomes are directly the result of the consumers driving that market; ideological and ill-informed consumers create outcomes unlike informed and ethical consumers.

The market, capitalism, is an amoral dynamic. The only ethic is the ethic of supply and demand, and outcomes are not right or wrong on some moral spectrum but completely at the whim of the consumers, regardless of their experiences, expertise, or moral/ethical intent.

Setting aside Henry David Thoreau’s libertarian streak, his “Civil Disobedience” makes a compelling case against the tyranny of the majority (specifically that a majority in the U.S. allowed slavery) and argues:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?- in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.

On balance, I value very much social media even as I recognize how those platforms reinforce my own confrontation of my privileges and create tensions in some spaces, tensions I fear cannot be alleviated.

My more tightly controlled (and ideologically similar) social media environments—blog and Twitter—are mostly a good experience for me, but Facebook, more representative of the general public, is not; Facebook is often frustrating and a drain on my time spent monitoring that false and offensive comments are not visible on my space.

My major take away so far in this adventure in social media is recognizing why I am on these platforms, and then remaining vigilant about the fidelity of my spaces—spaces not open to the whims of others who hide behind the tyranny of the marketplace of ideas.

Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.

UPDATE

Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.


For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

This Is Not My Opinion

“Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem,” writes Nicole Truesdell, concluding: “Now is not the time to side with neutrality.”

Mainstream and rightwing pundits have long promoted the idea that K-12 and higher education in the US are rife with liberal indoctrination. One of my long-time colleagues often told the story of his own father periodically lamenting that he had allowed my colleague to go to college because the experience had turned him into a liberal.

Evidence, however, is another thing when framed against these standard railings against a Left in the US that simply does not exist.

As the country stumbles toward its first year in Trumplandia, a new but also misleading mantra is lamenting fake news in post-truth America. The misleading part is that these phenomena are somehow new or spawned by Trump and his serial lies as well as his ability to avoiding any consequences for his outlandish racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

The US has a long and disappointing history with choosing ideology over evidence, and public discourse has often been grounded in framing opinion in a cloak of false equivalence.

The term “opinion” itself has worked throughout modern history to suggest that no person has any more credibility than another since “both sides” are simply sharing their opinion. How often do we listen as debate is resolved with “Let’s just agree to disagree”?

So as 2017 comes to an end, and the Trumplandia nightmare of the unreasonable continues, I want to take this opportunity to state clearly: This is not my opinion.

While socializing with good friends just yesterday, I was reminded once again that to be informed places anyone in a stressful situation throughout our day-to-day life since the vast majority of people are uninformed about the many things they none the less feel compelled and justified to weigh in on.

I, on the other hand, have the annoying habit of reserving comments unless I am well informed and being disturbingly honest and blunt when I do weigh in myself.

Yes, I do hold my tongue often in social situations—but that is quite challenging since most people spend their lives in the actual realm of “opinion” as it is commonly used to suggest that no evidence exists to confirm if that “opinion” is valid or not.

Formal schooling traditionally reinforces this lazy approach to how we explore ideas by plodding students through overly simplistic “fact v. opinion” worksheets.

What we should be teaching instead is that all of us make claims (not that everyone has an opinion) and that we are all ethically responsible for making claims that are credible, supported by evidence or solid logic.

As two examples, I often contribute to public discussions about the so-called “word gap” and corporal punishment—both of which are illustrative of the problems inherent with seeing the world as awash in “opinion.”

The “word gap” represents an interesting phenomenon since those who appeal to the term and the idea that social class is strongly correlated to literacy (wealthy children are exposed to and know more words than poor children) do take the initiative to cite evidence, almost always one study by Hart and Risley.

This appeal to the “word gap,” however, has two critical flaws: it is driven by a social class and racist bias hiding beneath a flawed view of literacy (number of words in any person’s vocabulary is not a valid single proxy for literacy), and since the “word gap” appeals to a common-sense view of how to support better children in poverty, the average person and journalist have failed to investigate Hart and Risley, whose study has itself been discredited.

Understanding the complex relationship between social class/race and literacy and then how to educate better vulnerable populations of students are not served well by a culture of “opinions.” Here is an important context for why expertise (making claims grounded in evidence) is important—and how all discourse is political.

Journalists perpetuating the “word gap” without critically unpacking the concept or confronting Hart and Risley are themselves being political—even as they hide behind the veneer of “just reporting” and “both sides” journalism.

As a literacy professor, I cannot avoid being political—there is no neutral pose—when I teach literacy courses. But I have an ethical obligation to be well informed on the topics I teach. And thus, just as when I blog or weigh in on topics in public spaces, when I teach, this is not my opinion.

While the “word gap” continually is reanimated as a fact that isn’t true, the corporal punishment debate is a disturbing example of how “both sides” discourse and “just an opinion” have real and negative consequences—especially for the powerless (such as children).

As I have explained before, public debate about domestic violence is quite distinct from public debate about corporal punishment—the former is always examined as something no one can support or defend, but the latter is always framed as a “both sides” argument.

If we consider the rush to cite Hart and Risley when promoting the “word gap,” we must wonder how domestic violence is universally rejected in mainstream discussions (and with no need to cite research[1]) but corporal punishment remains a debate—despite decades of research and virtually all medical and psychological professional organizations clearly showing there is no acceptable amount of physical punishment.

This often ignored distinction between how we frame domestic violence and corporal punishment again highlights that all human discourse is political.

In her rejecting calls for classrooms that are somehow not political, Truedell offers the words of James Baldwin so here I want to make my case by merging their ideas myself:

While Truesdell argues, “Now is not the time to side with neutrality,” Baldwin admonished us: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

A democracy cannot afford teachers, professors, journalists, or public intellectuals who choose the veneer of neutrality as long as inequity and injustice rule the day.

This is not my opinion.


[1] Note that discussions of domestic violence often do include statistics about who is involved and how many women suffer domestic violence, corporal punishment debates may note how may states allow it in schools, but rarely identify the number of actual children impacted; thus, domestic violence is more humanized than corporal punishment even in the numbers. This is political; this is about power.