Arne Duncan: Just Stop It

It’s a hollow fantasy, but one I was clinging to like a victim of relentless identity theft.

Arne Duncan leaves the U.S. Department of Education and his role as Secretary of Education, joining instead a celebrity basketball league that keeps him too busy to hold forth anymore on education.

An alternate fantasy envisions Duncan sitting daily in his home, calming staring at himself in the mirror while listening to one of his speeches on a loop.

Instead, there is reality: An open letter to America’s college presidents and education school deans: Arne Duncan.

So I am compelled to offer this plea in the psuedo-sport lingo that may appeal to this career-long political appointee: Arne Duncan, just stop it.

Political bromides and jumping on the embarrassingly inept NCTQ bandwagon in order to build a middle-school argument about the grades students receive as education majors—this is the sort of nonsense that has fueled my fantasies that Duncan would simply slip off into the celebrity basketball sunset.

Since that isn’t the case, and Duncan, like Jeb! Bush, has found the I-know-nothing-about-education-but-use-it-in-my-political-career train to remain lucrative, I am willing to make a deal here.

Arne, you have never taught, have never been a teacher educator, have no formal degree in education, and have never conducted or written education scholarship; therefore, since your entire education background is built on political appointments and Ivey-league connections, I respectfully beg you to just stop it. Enough is enough.

As a consequence, since I have no experience as a narcissist, a political appointee, a celebrity basketball player, or the demonstrably worse SOE than either Rod Paige or Margaret Spellings (and that is saying something), I will not hold forth myself on any of your areas of expertise.


I somehow doubt it because privilege has its privileges.

The Duncan phenomenon suffers from the same sort of white man privilege/delusion confronted by Deborah Lipstadt, who is being portrayed in film for standing up to Holocaust deniers:

She said she hopes the movie also demonstrates the difference between facts, opinions and lies.

“If you take a lie and say it very strongly and say lots of us believe the earth is flat. Doesn’t make it true. It’s still a lie.”

Duncan needs to just stop it because his lies are lies no matter how often he repeats them.

So my new fantasy is Duncan sitting daily in his home, calming staring at himself in the mirror while listening not to one of his speeches on a loop, but to an audio book version of The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education – 2nd Edition: Can Hope (Still) Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism?

Maybe, just maybe, if Duncan is quiet, and listens to others who have real expertise, he may learn something.

Well, having a dream is better than nothing.

Is Joseph R. Teller Teaching Composition All Wrong?

While provocative in ways I suspect he never intended, Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? proves to be an essay that should, ironically, be significantly revised after conferencing with someone well versed in teaching composition.

Broadly, Teller’s essay makes a common first-year composition mistake by significantly misrepresenting “teaching composition” and then proceeding to attack the misrepresentations. However, late in the piece, Teller wanders into some important conclusions that actually are warranted composition practices—despite his suggesting these are somehow alternatives to endorsed practice.

Teller opens by claiming that “compositionists have been enamored of a pedagogical orthodoxy” he briefly details in three bullet points.

In my first-year seminar, here would be the first area for conferencing and revision: how does the writer justify the condescending “enamored” (it appears Teller has a literaturist’s low opinion of the compositionist lurking underneath the real reason for this essay; maybe a bit of professional distress over having to teach first-year composition instead of upper-level literature?); and where is any evidence that the claim and three points are credible?

After failing to include evidence for his central claim, however, Teller declares composition “pedagogical orthodoxy” a failure—a pretty hasty and damning conclusion.

To detail those failures, Teller launches into revision and a jumbled criticism of “workshop,” highlighting a central failure of this essay and a grounding lesson that must be addressed in first-year composition classes: defining terms (a bedrock of disciplinary writing).

Before examining Teller’s concerns about students not revising, I must highlight that Teller appears to conflate “workshop” with “peer editing/conferencing” since the only aspect of workshop he addresses is peer conferencing.

It is without a doubt that a critical unpacking of the effectiveness of peer editing/conferencing is warranted; many writing teachers struggle with that. But writing workshop is significantly more than peer conferencing.

Over a semester of 40+ class sessions, I devote 4 class periods in part to peer conferencing with about triple that amount of class time devoted to other aspects of workshop: brainstorming, discussion, reading, drafting, exploring evidence, etc.

Now, about revision: my students revise essays significantly or they do not receive credit for the essay, and thus, cannot receive credit for the course. Revision strategies and minimum expectations for revising are addressed and detailed in conferences, and then, my students do revise, and typically are eager to do so.

Effective for me has been not to grade essays, but to have minimum elements for credit in the course that include drafting essays, conferencing, and revising/rewriting essays.

I don’t want to make the mistake also suffered by Teller—assuming anecdotes prove credible generalizations—but I am reasonably sure many composition professors have students revise, and revise well—and those strategies are in fact aspects of warranted writing pedagogy.

Next, Teller complains: “Even when students engage complex issues from readings in their papers, they do not use the basic argumentative structures they need in order to give their ideas voice, cohesion, and support.”

Here is a key moment when Teller’s essay is doubly problematic since he identifies good practice as if it isn’t already good practice.

The suggestion that composition as a field somehow now rejects direct teaching of “argumentative structures” or “voice, cohesion, and support” is misleading, and frankly, baffling.

Teller appears to link, next, this lack of instruction he manufactures with demands for composition teachers “that ‘critical reading’ should be as integral to a writing course as the teaching of argumentation, structure, paragraphs, and sentences.”

Again, Teller is drifting toward a powerful concern among composition teacher: how to balance disciplinary content (the stuff we write about) with composition content (the stuff Teller has falsely suggested composition is “enamored” with ignoring).

Too much and too complex disciplinary content can and often does overwhelm first-year students, leaving them unable or unwilling to focus on developing as writers, but composition course cannot and must not be free of disciplinary content.

The compromise embraced within the field of composition is shifting away from the sort of “close reading” that is common and essential in disciplinary courses and toward reading like a writer—unpacking the readings in a course for the what and how of the text to highlight the role of rhetorical strategies, modes, and writer’s craft in making and sharing meaning.

Although significantly misleading and jumbled, Teller builds to a final set of bullet points, again presented as if they are counter to warranted writing pedagogy but are in fact mostly well within warranted writing pedagogy.

Responding to student essays early, often, and intentionally? Well, of course.

Also, “frequent essays, frequent feedback”? Again, absolutely.

His third point confronts and challenges a somewhat idealized view of peer conferencing, and I agree peer conferencing has limitations—thus, Teller’s caveats seem solid, and worth greater examination.

Next, “process serves product” proves hard to dispute, but his assertion about a hypothetical “bright” student potentially producing writing that doesn’t need revision is a bit odd since he seems to use this point to reinforce a larger challenge to focusing on process and drafting in first-year composition. Professional writers and scholars nearly universally revise, and almost always benefit from feedback, time for the piece to breath, and revision.

In a composition course, then, novice writers should revise—because “an excellent essay in one draft,” well, that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. And I base this on 30+ years of teaching writing that has included a number of bright students who all benefitted from drafting even their best work.*

Teller’s fifth bullet—”Sometimes it’s better to ditch an essay and move forward”—may be the best example of the jumbled nature of his argument because abandonment is an essential aspect of essay drafting. In other words, to embrace abandoning a draft is not an argument against requiring drafts by students, as Teller suggests.

When I conduct the required conference after the first submission of each essay, the first question we address is whether or not the student wishes to continue with the current essay; starting over, significantly recasting, or modestly revising or editing the current essay is the foundational set of questions of the drafting process.

At Teller’s final bullet, I want to emphasize how effective workshop and conference can be because if this were a first-year student’s essay, I would note that his final point is the heart of a much better new essay confronting the proper place of disciplinary content and extensive reading requirements in a composition course.

This concern by Teller remains a vibrant and difficult debate in the field of composition and among professors, worthy then of an essay.

As is often the case when responding to student essays, in fact, I find the kernel of an essay late in what the student believes is a final essay—again demonstrating the value of time, ownership, and response (the central elements of workshop Teller fails to identify or explain).

While there is much potential in Teller’s final bullets, the last two paragraphs return to misrepresentation and more than a hint at the potential motivation for his essay.

Composition as a field is not “enamored” with pedagogy, and certainly does not “fetishize” the writing process. These are belittling swipes at a cartoon version of writing best practice.

And thus, the last two paragraphs remind me too much of what is often wrong with first-year essays—turning personal angst into careless and lazy grand pronouncements.

Teller’s argument needs to be better informed, more tightly focused, and much more fully supported—likely recast as an interrogation of only one of his points (the reading and disciplinary content issue).

And as fate would hate it, these could all be addressed in a proper writing workshop and a few careful passes at guided revision.

* I have revised the two paragraphs here in light of concerns raised in the comments; I do agree the original rushed my point, but I also think my point remains valid, and better expressed now. The comments also include important points that I believe lend even greater credibility to my concerns about a literature professor misrepresenting composition as a field.

Getting Better at Teaching Students Writing: Work With What They Know, John Warner

In the U.S. Guns Matter More than Any Lives Matter

While I remain adamant that the All Lives Matter response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement is code for the exact racism BLM is confronting, I am also concerned that the tension created in that debate helps mask a much larger reality in the U.S.—one that fuels many of the issues confronting us as a people.

The truth is in the U.S., guns matter more than any lives matter.


“Since Sept. 1, 2015, when the state required the new reports,” reports Eva Ruth Moravec, “Texas law enforcement officers shot at least 169 people, 20 percent of whom were unarmed.”


I live in Spartanburg County and teach in Greenville County, both part of the Upstate of South Carolina. Nearby is Anderson County, about an hour’s drive away.

Last week in Anderson County, a 14-year-old white boy, homeschooled, shot and killed his father before driving to a nearby elementary school where he shot an adult and children on the playground. A few days later, one of the shot 6-year-olds died from the leg wound.

Media reports detailed that the 14-year-old shooter had been bought weapons, such as explosives and guns, by his mother, despite having been expelled from school.

This boy-shooter lives in a multi-layered gun culture—the U.S., the South, and his own home.


It is exhausting to write about gun violence in the U.S., but I feel compelled to offer briefly here something that must be confronted with care.

The caveat is that I am in no way arguing sameness of degree here. However, among those involved in gun violence as both ones using guns and ones being shot, there is a commonality of being victims within the larger gun culture created and/or tolerated by virtually everyone in the U.S.

In the U.S., a perverse cycle of gun culture exists that uses the manufactured and mostly exaggerated threat of gun violence to justify the obsessive ownership of guns.

Gun ownership and the right to own guns have been waved like the flag for so long as bedrocks of individual liberty and rights that we have lost the ability to be reasonable and ethical people, able to see through the false patriotism and bogus strict constitutionalism that are a thin veneer for crass commercialism: “gun rights” is an NRA campaign to fuel gun sales, period.


If any really want to move toward a society in which all lives matter (and I am deeply skeptical many of those people exist), the first step is to change course as a people who act as if guns matter more than any lives matter.

See Also

Trust Has Never Existed Between Cops and Black Communities, Stacey Patton

At a Great Beyond Starbucks: Deleuze, Freire, Kafka, and Malcolm X Discuss Obama

“Shouldn’t we be at a bar?” Gilles Deleuze raises his arms and hands scanning around the Great Beyond Starbucks.

“It’s Malcolm,” Franza Kafka explains. “Doesn’t drink.”

“Coffee either,” Deleuze shrugs. “And why are we here? Talking about some American football player and the president?”

“The brother has a name,” Malcolm X says walking to the table before sitting. “Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick.”

Paulo Freire scoots his chair over so the table mostly is equally divided among Deleuze, Kafka, Malcolm, and himself.

“And the president, Obama, is talking like a house slave,” Malcolm continues. “Telling Kaepernick to consider how he has hurt military members and their families.”

“It is the bureaucratization of the mind,” Freire interjects. “Obama must assume the political pose of the bureaucrat—seeking to offend no one and as a result offending everyone.”

“Poseidon,” Kafka offers absently.

“Poseidon?” Malcolm asks, scanning the others at the table.

“Obama has endless work, the work of a bureaucrat, the chief bureaucrat,” Kafka sighs.

Deleuze raises a hand, adding, “It is the necessity of administration, of administering. Always reforming, always in flux.” He pauses with a slight shake of his head. “If he declares anything, it is over, finished. To be finished is to be without purpose. The nightmare of the bureaucrat.”

“If Jimmy was there,” Malcolm says, “if Jimmy were there, he would say what needs to be said.”

“Jimmy?” asks Deleuze.

“Baldwin,” Freire leans toward Deleuze. “James Baldwin.”

“O, yes, where is Baldwin?” asks Deleuze.

“With Ali,” Malcolm explains. “Prince is performing, and Jimmy says he has had it with the living and their invoking his name while doing nothing.”

“Carlin is doing a set after Prince,” Kafka smiles.

Seemingly in unison, the four turn toward the billow of smoke gradually enveloping their table from the one beside them.

“So it goes,” comes through the fog of cigarette smoke. “So it goes.”

Meanwhile among the living.

“A generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure”: Deleuze

Franz Kafka, “Poseidon”

Teachers As Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, Paulo Freire

Message to Grassroots, Malcolm X

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Disciplinary Bias by Race and Gender Begins in Preschool

As reported by Cory Turner for NPR:

“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” Gilliam says. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

Indeed, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. Put another way, black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

One reason that number is so high, Gilliam suggests, is that teachers spend more time focused on their black students, expecting bad behavior. “If you look for something in one place, that’s the only place you can typically find it.”

Further Turner notes:

It’s impossible to separate these findings from today’s broader, cultural context — of disproportionately high suspension rates for black boys and young men throughout the school years, of America’s school-to-prison pipeline, and, most immediately, of the drumbeat of stories about black men being killed by police.

These findings parallel Michelle Alexander’s claims about racial inequity in policing and the criminal justice system—a dynamic disturbingly grounded in education and education reform.

The study itself finds:

Preschool expulsions and the disproportionate expulsion of Black boys have gained attention in recent years, but little has been done to understand the underlying causes behind this issue. This study examined the potential role of preschool educators’ implicit biases as a viable partial explanation behind disparities in preschool expulsions. Participants were recruited at a large conference of early educators and completed two tasks. In Task 1, participants were primed to expect challenging behaviors (although none were present) while watching a video of preschoolers, balanced by sex and race, engaging in typical activities, as the participants’ eye gazes were tracked. In Task 2, participants read a standardized vignette of a preschooler with challenging behavior and were randomized to receive the vignette with the child’s name implying either a Black boy, Black girl, White boy, or White girl, as well as randomized to receive the vignette with or without background information on the child’s family environment. Findings revealed that when expecting challenging behaviors teachers gazed longer at Black children, especially Black boys. Findings also suggested that implicit biases may differ depending on teacher race. Providing family background information resulted in lowered severity ratings when teacher and child race matched, but resulted in increased severity ratings when their race did not match. No differences were found based on recommendations regarding suspension or expulsion, except that Black teachers in general recommended longer periods of disciplinary exclusion regardless of child gender/race. Recommendations for future research and policy regarding teacher training are offered. (abstract)

The Whitest Thing I Could Do

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

Sunday, I drove to Athens, GA, with friends to do the whitest thing I could do—attend a CAKE concert.

The most recent concert I attended was The National in Asheville, NC—very white—and before that, R.E.M. in Atlanta, GA—extremely white.

As a writer and a teacher, a significant amount of my time and energy is devoted to race, racism, white privilege, and inequity—particularly as those intersect education.

And while I have often outed myself as a redneck and confronted my own tremendous privilege that has contributed to my professional success, I have not ventured into my whiteness in any way other than to interrogate its mostly harmful contributions to a people’s claimed commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all regardless of race or any status.

Sitting in The Classic Center in Athens as the lights were still up and the crowd gathered, I confirmed what I suspected: a crowd as far as I saw entirely white, many couples, and a wide array of ages clustering in their 30s and 40s.

The crowd and the concert were incredibly amiable; people were having fun, and the band in its typical way was casual, sardonic, and on form.

I don’t know by experience, but I suspect the mostly all-white crowds at, say, concerts for country music singers/bands are quite distinct from the chill, nerd-heavy fans of CAKE, a California band who records in a solar-powered studio, abandoned a lucrative major label, and flaunts their leftist politics through their eclectic musical style and smart-to-sarcastic lyrics from frontman John McCrea.

The concert was oddly low key and energetic with McCrea initiating a faux-battle between two halves of the crowd to highlight, as he invoked, that we all really have more in common than not.

CAKE began playing about 10-15 minutes after the scheduled start, with no opening act, but with a planned intermission and a tree give-away.

I am going to hazard a guess that the auditorium that night was filled with mostly good people—despite the goofy white-folk swaying and occasional unimpressive aisle dancing.

I will also hazard that most people attending and many who could have simply witnessed the crowd would be compelled to identify those attending as just a normal gathering of average folk.

And here where I cannot set aside my discomfort at my own inescapable whiteness.

“Privilege,” Roxane Gay examines, “is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” continuing:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t….

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is accept and acknowledge my privilege. This is something I am still working on. I’m a woman, a person of color, and the child of immigrants but I also grew up middle class and then upper middle class. My parents raised my siblings and I in a strict but loving environment. They were and are happily married so I didn’t have to deal with divorce or crappy intramarital dynamics. I attended elite schools. My master’s and doctoral degrees were funded. I got a tenure track position my first time out. My bills are paid. I have the time and resources for frivolity. I am reasonably well published. I have an agent so I have every reason to believe my novel will find a home. My life has been far from perfect but I have a whole lot of privilege. It’s somewhat embarrassing for me to accept just how much privilege I have.

Black and female, Gay speaks directly to the necessity of admitting privilege and then what I cannot avoid now, what I could not avoid while sitting at the concert: embarrassment.

It is a disturbing and distinct—but mostly ignored—fact that to pay for, drive to, and then attend a music concert is the consequence of a tremendous amount of time and financial privilege.

To utter “normal” or “average,” too, is a concession to the centeredness of “white” and to perpetuate the marginalizing of the Other (read as “not white”).

Despite my belief in the value and importance of art and pop culture, they are luxuries, they may be frivolous.

The people that could be fed, the suffering that could be comforted—while privileged white folk sing along to “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Satan Is My Motor.”

The world, I know, is not a zero-sum game; it is possible for some to have without others going without.

But that is not the case in the U.S. White privilege has and continues to deny for some while catapulting others—and it is exponentially increased by gender, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation.

This sense of embarrassment has risen recently as well when I was being interviewed about my struggles with anxiety. While I am now eager to share, I paused during the interview and added that I hoped I didn’t sound as if I was whining—fearing I was echoing the persona in Ben Fold’s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” who groans, “All alone in my white-boy pain.”

My first concert was in Greenville, SC, during the late 1970s, and the acts were Mother’s Finest, Heat Wave, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I drove a handful of my black teammates from the varsity basketball team to the event, and saw no other white people that night.

Yellow pot smoke filled the auditorium, and while I was a non-smoker, I occasionally and dutifully passed along a joint casually working its way down the row of seats.

In most ways, it is incredibly hard to fathom that night and that me as well as the journey from my conflicted racist and redneck past to sitting in the audience a couple nights ago truly happy and very much enjoying being at the CAKE concert.

That teenaged me has been replaced and is always here inside me.

And maybe it is because of that I remain quite uncertain about what to do with this embarrassment.

All of us walk around in the statuses given us—along with the privileges and disadvantages that they bring.

I am at peace with my own confrontations of my privilege, with my own commitments to dismantle those privileges and to guard against using them as weapons or to pretend they are what I have earned.

Yet, the embarrassment remains:

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

Dickinson, I think, offers a hint that this embarrassment from privilege is the unexplainable human quality too few experience—a conscience, a moral response to the “This World.”

And so I am left with my whiteness and an embarrassment of riches that afforded me the oasis of sitting in the audience and driven to happiness from the the trumpet of Vince DiFiore, a happiness about being alive and the possibilities of the human condition.

This, I think, is our greatest justification about art.

“Jesus wrote a blank check,” I sing in my mind:

One I haven’t cashed quite yet
I hope I got a little more time
I hope it’s not the end of the line.

Poetry in an Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Maybe there is karma, or some confluence of the universe, but earlier today I began contemplating if and how to begin work on an anthology of poetry from poets past and present that speaks to and from #BlackLivesMatter.

And then in my Twitter feed:

Jen Benka, Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, speaks to the incredibly powerful fact that poetry matters in an era of #BlackLivesMatter—anchored by the printing of Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” in the NYT.

Hughes has been much on my mind recently—his “Let America Be America Again,” “Theme for English B,” and “Harlem,” notably [1].

As a poet and a teacher, I have been struggling with race and racism as well: first spring (Baltimore is burning) and Four Poems: For Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.

Benka pointed to these poetic responses: what the dead know by heart, Dante Collins; A Small Needful Fact, Ross Gay; and the bullet was a girl, Danez Smith.

Maybe I am too hopeful as a poet, and reader of poetry, but I am compelled to think we may well need an anthology of poetry past and present to help begin the healing.

Anyone? Anyone?

Until (if) this idea gains momentum, please send me a list of poems (and if accessible online) to add below.

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

“Allowables,” Nikki Giovanni

The Talk,” Jabari Asim

“Middle Passage,” Robert Hayden

from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: “Cornel West makes the point…,” Claudia Rankine

[1] See also Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again” and Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.