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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Hannah Furness reports:

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

McEwan explained:

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

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

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.


For Further Consideration

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

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

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

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

 

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality:

 

Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

The great and urgent paradox of twenty-first century America is trying to discover the truth about fake news, a phenomenon spurred by the 2016 presidential election.

Fortunately, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler have analyzed how often people viewed fake news to help us understand that elusive truth:

[W]e find that approximately one in four Americans visited a fake news website, but that consumption was disproportionately observed among Trump supporters for whom its largely pro-Trump content was attitude-consistent. However, this pattern of selective exposure was heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Finally, we specifically identify Facebook as the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news and show that fact-checking largely failed to selectively reach consumers of fake news.

Since these researchers identified that about 65 million Americans consumed fake news during the study period and that fake news constituted about “2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period,” everyone interested in facts and truth are justified in considering ways in which we all can combat the negative impact of fake news, not only on our democracy but also on all ways of life in a free society.

This urgency is especially relevant to educators, andGuess, Nyhan, and Reifler’s study speaks directly to the need for teachers at every grade level to incorporate critical media literacy into the education of all students.

To meet that need, co-editor Christian Z. Goering (University of Arkansas) and I have collected a series of essays in Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America because critical media literacy, we argue, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

CML Goering Thomas cover

In Chapter 1: An Introduction, Chris and I explain:

Turning … to Kellner and Share (2007), we define critical media literacy for the purposes of this volume as “an educational response that expands the notion of media literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies” (p. 59) and “focuses on the ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality” (p. 60). It is the goal of this volume to build the aptitude and skill set of students and their teachers for critical media literacy in hopes for a better tomorrow. (p. 3)

And then, in Chapter 2: An Educator’s Primer, I offer some foundational concepts as well (excerpted next).

Being an educator at any level—K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education—has always been a challenge in the U.S. since formal education in theory is linked to preserving our democracy. Being a critical educator at any level in the U.S. has always been and remains nearly impossible because formal education in practice is more about enculturation and maintaining the status quo than seeking the social equity that remains elusive despite our claimed ideals as a people.

With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the media punditry has become obsessed, as has Trump, with fake news and post-truth public discourse. In this volume committed to investigating and interrogating fake news and post-truth discourse in the context of curriculum and instruction grounded in critical media literacy goals, we offer the foundational opportunity for educators to consider and reconsider the nature of truth/Truth, knowledge, and facts both in the teaching/learning dynamic and throughout mainstream media and all sorts of public discourse, notably by and about political discourse.

First, let’s establish the terms and contexts essential to understanding and then teaching critical media literacy:

  • “Fake news” is a technical term (although most public discourse fails to adhere to this technical distinction) that identifies mostly on-line information that is intentionally false and provocative, designed to be click-bait and drive internet traffic and thus revenue.
  • “Satire” is purposefully distorted information that assumes readers/viewers recognize the information is not factual, but intended to make larger points. The Onion, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are examples of satire packaged in seemingly credible formats, parodies of traditional news media.
  • “Post-truth” is a relatively newer term for the popular and often right-wing embracing of (and misunderstanding) post-modernism’s challenge to the objective nature of truth/Truth. Not to oversimplify, but post-modernism argues that truth/Truth is defined by whoever is in power (not an objective reality), while the contemporary popular and right-leaning political embracing of “post-truth” is more akin to “the truth is whatever I say it is regardless of any evidence or the credibility of evidence.”
  • Mainstream journalism functions under two important and corrupting norms: (1) journalists (just as educators are implored to be) maintain a stance of objectivity and neutrality, an apolitical pose, and thus (2) most mainstream examinations of topics, debates, and events are framed as “both sides” journalism, rendering all positions as equally credible and valid. For example, the mainstream media, as John Oliver has exposed, gives the general public the false notion that climate change has as many scientists for as against the “theory,” a term read by the public as “hypothesis.”

As noted parenthetically above, to embrace teaching critical media literacy (in conjunction with critical pedagogy and critical literacy) is disrupting the traditional norm that educators remain apolitical. This volume’s authors recognize that educators face tremendous hurdles for teaching critical media literacy: eroding job security with the dismantling of unions (and absence historically of unions in many regions of the U.S.), increasing accountability for student test scores on exams that are reductive and demand of students far less in their literacy than critical media literacy (in other words, our efforts to teach critical media literacy can be disregarded with “that isn’t on the test”), and deteriorating teaching and learning conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and more teachers inadequately prepared to teach (such as Teach For America candidates).

None the less, if we genuinely believe in universal public education as a key mechanism for democracy and individual liberty then we educators must be well versed in critical media literacy, and then we must make that central to our classrooms. Throughout this chapter, the intersections of media and education are examined in order to highlight the power and dangers inherent in fake news, post-truth discourse, and traditional calls for educators and journalists to be objective, apolitical.


Reference

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

Recommended: On Peer Review and Gatsby

I was surprised and humbled to discover through social media two excellent blogs that included some of my blogging in order to extend the conversation about peer review when teaching writing and teaching The Great Gatsby.

I strongly recommend both of the following:

The Writing Fog: Flipping Feedback: Revising Peer Review, Amy Vujaklija

Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve,” Lauren Zucker

Yes, We Teach English, But What Is It? (Or Better Yet, What Should It Be?)

Throughout her long career, Lou LaBrant consistently confronted and defined the profession and field often simply called “English.”

Her work appeared regularly in major journals for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), where she was president in the 1950s. But her tour-de-force volume on teaching English appeared in 1951, We Teach English, which I reconsider in the November 2017 English Journal.

Having taught high school English for 18 years and now preparing future English teachers as well as teaching first-year writing for an on-going 16 years, I am often guided by one moment in the early years of teaching high school when a student had reached her limit of frustration with my English class.

In mid-class, this student blurted out: “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

This sophomore had been through junior high a straight-A student in English, grades primarily built on traditional aspects of English classes—vocabulary tests and grammar tests.

While that moment was three decades ago, I see little evidence that her definition of what counts as “English” remains robust among many people, including English teachers.

In 2017, defining English, I believe, remains a problem that should be resolved by re-imagining the course itself.

Let me note here, however, that the greatest burden on the teaching of English is that the course too often carries disproportionate demands when compared to other courses; English tends to be a core course at all levels, but it also is expected to teach (primarily or even exclusively) literacy skills needed in all courses and disciplines.

With that caveat, I also believe we too often fail to examine the nuanced differences among teaching literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening), teaching literature (as a field), and teaching composition/writing (possibly the most marginalized field among the disciplines).

Any and all three of these can be and often are simply lumped under “English,” and these courses are routinely taught by “English teachers/professors” as if the expertise to teach each is somehow generic or simply of the same kind.

In K-12 education, this broad demand is excessive, and unfair to both teachers and their students. Higher education remains careless about just who has the expertise to teach composition/writing, but is hyper-attentive to the field of literature (consider the narrowness of expertise among English faculty, and thus, what courses they feel qualified to teach).

On the last class of my first-year writing seminars this semester, I asked students to consider what has worked and not worked during the course in the context of understanding that the course was a composition/writing seminar. Much of the semester had been devoted to deprogramming these students from thinking the class was English and from the narrow, and often misleading, habits they had formed by learning to write (and analyze text) almost exclusively in high school English courses (such as Advanced Placement).

One notable comment from a student was that she appreciated my using my own writing to model for them how to write their essays, adding she had never had any teacher do this before.

The point here is that teaching composition/writing requires both the expertise of being a writer and the expertise of pedagogy (teaching)—and this is not lost on students.

My own career is certainly eclectic and multi-disciplinary, but that is a cumulative and on-going effort that is often itself overwhelming. At my core, though, I am a teacher of composition/writing, and after the two class discussions about my first-year seminar, I plan to redesign significantly my daily schedule for the course next fall.

It is in that spirit of reconsidering and redesigning, that I want here to suggest a few ways in which we should likely rethink what it means to teach English:

  • Acknowledge, support, and better appreciate, early literacy educators. Teaching beginning and emerging literacy is complex, and those teaching early literacy need to be better prepared, solely burdened with addressing literacy with much fewer students than is traditionally expected, and better rewarded and appreciated as professionals.
  • Expect all teacher/professors at every level to continue literacy instruction grounded in their disciplines. Literacy is a journey, and not a goal, but as literacy becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more nuanced and more grounded in the context of that literacy. Reading and writing in history or literature are quite distinct from reading and writing in chemistry and economics. As a colleague has perfectly noted, we must rise above believing that any literacy instruction at any age is somehow an inoculation, and thus, students can take Course X and then no other teacher/professor has to address A, B, or C.
  • At the secondary level and in higher education, clarify the distinction between literature courses and composition/writing courses as well as teachers/professors of both. Of all the inane things about formal education, among the most for me is that high school English teachers are routinely asked to teach American literature along with a hundred other standards related to literacy, but I once took an upper-level English course in college on William Butler Yeats—one author, and we really only read a few works by one author. Similarly, my university about a decade ago decided any and all professors can teach first-year writing. All of this is nonsense. We must become more careful and purposeful about the teaching of literature and composition/writing—both of which are important fields that require specialized preparation and then the sort of professional support, conditions, and appreciation that other disciplines receive.

Among friends and acquaintances, I am often still introduced as an English teacher, although I haven’t been once since 2002.

People often cringe and mumble something about needing to watch how they speak.

I clarify that I am no longer an English teacher, and that they need not fret over their grammar—but I also want people to know I will always first and foremost consider proudly myself to be an English teacher.

But I also feel just as strongly that there is much work to be done about exactly what that means, and what that should mean for teachers/professors and our students.