Liberal Higher Education Intimidating Students, and Other Baseless Nonsense

My lesson plans for my five courses on Monday changed in the wake of the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and this headline in the WSJ: Most U.S. College Students Afraid to Disagree with Professors.

Yet another mass shooting provided a disturbing but effective entry into discussing, as the survey referenced in the WSJ addresses, the nature of political speech in classroom settings and what constitutes “opinion.”

Apparently a survey to be released soon shows:

More than half of those students (52 percent) said that their professors or course instructors express their own unrelated social or political beliefs “often” in class, according to the poll results that are due to be released next week, but were seen in advance by The Wall Street Journal found.

But unlike their professors, the young people find it more difficult to speak up. The survey found that 53 percent of the students polled often feel “intimidated” in sharing their ideas, opinions, or beliefs if they differ from their professor’s. That’s an increase of four percentage points from three years ago.

As a college professor for nearly 20 years (with another almost two decades prior to that as a high school teacher), I found this data pretty misleading.

I embrace critical pedagogy, which argues all teaching is political; and thus, I practice being transparent with students about my informed positions but reject that I or any teacher/professor can be objective, neutral.

My students all know this, and I think, respond quite well.

At my university, for example, students are solidly right of center, many quite conservative, in general, and the faculty is moderate, with many openly Republican and most taking the traditional view that professors remain objective and neutral about “politics.”

To interrogate this survey from the WSJ, I began classes by sharing a poem, “America Is a Gun,” and exploring the research on the extreme outlier statistics on mass shootings and gun violence when the U.S. is compared internationally.

From there, I asked students to consider the consequences of having guns in the home—the tension between the belief in gun ownership for self-defense and the contradictory data: “For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.”

To step outside of the gun debate, I also discussed my own experiences advocating against corporal punishment while working and living in the South, the Bible Belt where spanking remains very common.

What these issues serve to illuminate, I think, is why the conservative versus liberal framing is deeply flawed, and often misrepresents what happens at all levels of education.

Support for gun ownership and spanking are primarily traditional values, and thus conservative, norms of American culture.

The research base (what primarily drives professor teaching and scholarship) run counter to those conservative values because the data encourage change, what is fairly seen as progressive.

As I have discussed recently, we are in an era when being well informed prompts charges of being liberal, a slur that is meant to discredit.

Many if not most people who attend college, then, will experience some levels of intellectual discomfort (my experience was pretty traumatic, in fact) as they move from provincialism to being well informed, or educated.

This process is one of change, not stasis (to be conservative), and thus, it is a sort of natural tension between traditional beliefs and progressive intellectualism.

None of us enjoy coming face-to-face with the fact that what we have always believed turns out to be wrong. In an extreme case, I was raised in racist ideology, but I had to come to terms with how all of that was baseless, and inhumane.

In a much different way than people express in popular discourse, all education is very much about moving from being conservative to liberal.

This WSJ-reported survey, however, is not that examination, I suspect, but more fodder for people who confuse “political” with “partisan” and pretend that everything is just “opinion.”

When I share with students that corporal punishment is ineffective and often harmful, that grade retention is also ineffective and harmful, and that the U.S. patterns of gun violence are rooted in quantities of guns and gun access (not mental illness, for example), I am not merely spewing my liberal opinions to brainwash America’s youth.

I am being scholarly and encouraging those students to also be well informed.

Those topics are no different than teaching the Holocaust without giving time or credence to Holocaust deniers, no different than teaching evolution as overwhelmingly established science without reducing it to a “both sides” false debate infused with religion.

Being partisan (endorsing candidates or political parties) is not a line educators should never cross, but all teaching is political and all educators have ethical obligations to be well informed—even or especially when the evidence refutes traditional beliefs that are harmful (from racism and sexism to corporal punishment and grade retention).

To be informed in ways that change your positions is progressive, and thus, a rejection of being conservative.

I am hard pressed to see our colleges and universities as “liberal” as the popular slur, especially if we place them in a wider context including Canada and Europe. And I also find the effort to suggest that a rising tide of partisan professors are “intimidating” students.

Class after class as we discussed these issues exposed what students have told me for many years: Students refrain from talking in class, mostly, to avoid appearing to be wrong in front of professors and to avoid tension among their peers.

More broadly and again having almost nothing to do with partisan politics, students seem overwhelmingly convinced that their grades are linked in some ways to how much a teacher/professor likes a student.

This, I think, is not an indictment of too much partisan politics by teachers/professors but of the culture of grading that does more harm than good for teaching and learning and a cultural distrust of teaching as a profession.

Current efforts to paint higher education and college professors “liberal,” as a slur, sit in a long tradition of conservatives seeking ways to maintain the status quo—which is of course what “conservative” means, as in to conserve, keep the same (traditional).

My bias, as a professor and a scholar, is projected in my classes, my writings, and my public pronouncements, and that bias is very clear, not something I hide or pretend doesn’t exist. That bias is toward the weight of evidence, even when that evidence refutes those beliefs and ideologies that people cling to in desperation.

In the current climate, I will repeat, to be informed, to express evidence-based positions is to be labeled a “liberal.” To me, this simply means “educated.”


Dare the School Build a New Social Order?: A Reckoning 86 Years Later

The candidacy seemed at the time nothing more than sideshow, perverse reality TV, and then Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination for president, prompting many pundits to note that as a death knoll for the Republican Party.

Yet, Trump was elected president.

During the primaries and throughout his run against Hillary Clinton, Trump proved to be relentlessly dishonest, a liar. However, mainstream media avoided calling a lie “a lie,” including major media outlets directly arguing against such language. President Trump hasn’t budged from overstatement, misleading statements, and outright lies.

Notably, major media publish Trump’s lies as if they are credible, despite fact-checking exposing lie upon lie upon lie.

Early on, many opposing Trump called for media simply to call out the lies. Here is the truly bad news, however.

During my Tuesday role as caregiver for my 2-year-old grandson, I flipped through my cable channels during his nap for a brief reprieve from NickJr. I paused on CNN, even though I loath all of the 24-hour news shows.

What caught my ear was that the newscaster was repeatedly calling Trump our for lies, using the word “lie”—over and over. This, I felt, was a real new normal I had called for, but never expected.

Next, the newscaster replayed a segment from the day before focusing on a fact checker of Trump’s many, many lies. The fact checker noted a truly disturbing fact: Trump’s supporters, he explained, recognize that Trump lies, but doesn’t mind the lies; in fact, Trump’s supporters revel in those lies because, as the fact checker emphasized, this drives liberals crazy.

It is here that I must stress two points: (1) It appears those of us believing that exposing Trump as a liar would somehow derail his presidency were sorely mistaken, and (2) we are now entering a phase of U.S. history in which the long-standing slur of “liberal” is code for taking evidence-based stances, especially if those evidence-based stances swim against the current of American ideology and mythology.

Let me offer a couple example.

In my own public and scholarly work, contexts that prompt responses that discount me as a “liberal” (with false implications that I am a partisan Democrat), I have made repeated and compelling cases against corporal punishment and school-only safety measures.

Neither of these issues is both-sides debates since the research base is overwhelmingly one-sided.

Corporal punishment is not an effective discipline technique, and it creates violent youth and adults. A powerful body research prompted by the school shooting at Columbine and including studies by the Secret Service reject school-only safety measure such as security guards, surveillance cameras, active-shooter drills, and metal detectors, all of which are not deterrents and may even create violence.

Therefore, to embrace evidence-based positions on corporal punishment and school safety is the liberal or progressive (seeking change) stance, while the traditional or conservative (maintaining established practices) positions (ignoring the evidence) cling to corporal punishment and fortifying schools while refusing to address the wider influences of communities and our national mania for guns.

Let’s consider that last point more fully next.

There is an unpopular and upsetting fact driving why school-only safety measures are futile: K-12 and higher education are essentially conservative.

Despite political and popular scapegoating of all formal education as liberal, the evidence of nearly a century reveals that all forms of school more often than not reflect the communities and society they serve. In no real ways, then, do schools meet the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s hollow mantra that education is the great equalizer, some sort of silver bullet for change.

Evidence shows that at different levels of educational attainment, significant gaps persist among racial categories and those gaps are even more pronounced once race and gender are included (see p. 34).

In the 1930s, a golden era for idealism about communism and socialism in the U.S. after the stock market crash, major educational thinkers such as John Dewey (a socialist) and George Counts championed the potential for progressive education (Dewey) to shape U.S. democracy, and then for social reconstruction (Counts) to reshape the nation, as Counts detailed in his Dare the School Build a New Social Order? (1932).

As an early critical voice, Counts spoke to the educational goals that appealed to me as I eventually found critical pedagogy in my doctoral program and doubled down on my early commitment to be the sort of educator who fostered change with and through my students.

Yet, here I sit in 2018, 86 years after Counts’s manifesto. And the U.S. is being led by a pathological liar supported by more and more people who directly say they don’t care about lies or evidence because it makes liberal mad.

This is the pettiness our country has wrought, despite more people today being formally educated than at any time in U.S. history.

My 35 years and counting as an educator, part as a high school teacher and now in higher education, have been a disappointing lesson that answers Counts’s titular question with a resounding “no.”

I shared with my foundations education class the proofs of a chapter I have prepared for a volume now in-press, Contending with Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom. I then briefly reviewed the evidence against in-school safety measures, prompting a student to ask what, then, should we do in schools.

Address our larger gun culture and violent communities, I explained, reminding the class that I have stressed again and again that they need to understand at least one essential lesson from our course: Schools mostly reflect communities and society, but they simply do very little to change anything.

I don’t like this message, but it is evidence-based, and I suppose, a liberal claim.

For many years, I have quickly refuted those who assume I am a partisan Democrat (I am not, never have been). I also have rejected labels of “liberal” and “progressive” for “critical” and “radical.”

But I feel the time is ripe for re-appropriating “liberal” when it is hurled as a slur.

In Trumplandia, to be fact-free is to be conservative, traditional, and to acknowledge evidence is to be liberal, progressive.

This is what the evidence reveals to those of us willing to see. Everything else is a lie.

There’s both sides for those who want it.


College campuses are far from radical

Chicken-Little Politics and the Curse of Testing (and Standards) in South Carolina

I entered education as a high school teacher in South Carolina in the 1984-1985 academic year, the first year of a significant teacher pay raise and a pivotal ground zero in the state’s accountability era established in late 1970s legislation.

Over about four decades, SC has revised or changed educational standards six or seven times and implemented about the same number of different state and national tests.

And what hath this curse of testing and standards wrought for SC?

South Carolina students bomb the ACT, falling behind Mississippi, announces an article by Paul Bowers explaining:

South Carolina’s graduating class of 2018 came close to dead-last in the nation on the ACT college readiness test, painting a grim picture of a state that has languished near the bottom of education rankings for decades.

This year’s graduates placed 50th among the states and Washington, D.C., on the ACT, according to composite scores based on the test’s English, Reading, Math and Science sections.

Only Nevada’s students did worse.

The chicken-little politics of accountability has been fulfilled in ways that assure politicians, the public, and the media will declare schools, teachers, and students a failure. Yet again, and again, ad nauseam.

Let’s try something different here, ways to interpret better this data from the ACT.

The first key point about these scores is that SC is experiencing bureaucratic insanity—doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

The problem with eduction in SC has little to do with test scores, which overwhelmingly reflect what the problem is: Poverty and inequities grounded in that poverty as well as racism.

In fact, this response to the article exposes how misguided the entire process is:

While political and popular gazes remain fixed on test scores and standards (curriculum), we have failed to acknowledge that the quality—or even presence—of standards (and the concurrent curriculum) have no clear impact on measurable student outcomes.

The accountability era has not worked in SC, and it never will.

Ever-new standards and ever-new tests are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Here, then, are a couple more ways we can and should respond to the ACT scores.

Why is SC requiring all students to take a test to measure college readiness when a much smaller percentage of those students plan to enter college? And why this rush to prepare all students for college when it remains unaffordable for many, if not most, SC residents?

What assures that test scores on the ACT are mostly about teaching and learning, instead of poverty, racism, or even student effort (in other words, what assurance do we have that students have taken this test seriously)?

And finally, a significant failure of the chicken-little politics of test scores in SC is the misguided urge to rank (see the problems here).

What if we consider that SC is in the bottom quartile of states by poverty, and then, what if we concede that standardized tests are at least 60% and possibly over 80% linked to out-of-school factors (not any quality of schools, standards, or teaching) such as poverty and affluence? SC should be near or at the bottom of any rankings because of the state’s abysmal record of class and rank inequity as well as a very long history of underfunding and ignoring public education—especially in the most vulnerable communities.

This most recent sky-is-falling media report is our own hellish Groundhog Day experience; this article has been written dozens of times over the past four decades, and it can be recycled dozens of more times in the future.

Unlike the befuddled Phil (Bill Murray) in the movie, we actually can bring this nightmare to a stop.

If we have the political and public will, the media will be able to give this dark fairy tale a rest.

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.

(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Investigating Purposeful Writing: From Poetry to Essay

One of the first activities I share with my first-year writing students is a writing exercise based on Sandra Cisneros’s “A House of My Own,” a chapter from her The House on Mango Street.

A key lesson I am reaching for involves recognizing that each sentence in this chapter is a grammatical fragment. It is here that I introduce my students to the problems they have faced in being taught rules (that fragments are errors and should be avoided in their writing) instead of being guided into purposeful language.

The difference, I explain, between Cisneros’s fragments and most of the ones they have included in their writing for school is that Cisneros constructed these with purpose—and the students likely were completely unaware of the fragments, and thus had no real purpose for them in the writing.

Purposeful writing is an overarching goal in my writing instruction—notably focusing on the craft of word choice and sentence formation as they drive tone. Most novice writers are composing carelessly. The result is that the reader couldn’t care less about the product.

As I have examined before, poetry is an ideal text for helping students grow as essayists.

Here I want to walk through January Gill O’Neil’s “The Blower of Leaves” as a model of purposeful writing.

For poets, the economy of language often required by poetry drives well the need to labor with purpose over word choice and sentence formation (although I often have to stress to misinformed students that poetry is almost entirely driven by complete sentences, even as they carry over for more than one line).

As I anticipated, discussing O’Neil’s poem spurred students to notice a variety of effective examples of purposeful writing.

We highlighted the powerful use of “fall”—signaling both the season and the motion. Here I stress that writers often look for layers of meaning carried in the fewest words possible (the power of concision) as well as reaching for ambiguity (this contrasts with most students believing writing is mostly about making grand certain statements).

The poem draws together simple yard work (and we also noted the effectiveness of the accessibility of language throughout the poem) with a grounded but ambiguous condition: “the hard work/of yard work made harder without you.”

Readers know someone is missing—but not the who, why, or how. That phrasing (repeating “work”) emphasizes a key element of the poem (possibly what we would call its meaning) through repetition, which in this case is a bit clunky, possibly jarring the reader.

I emphasize here that students often come to first-year writing having been cautioned against repetition. But the lesson they have learned is mechanical and works against purposeful writing that seeks key works to repeat for effect. “Hard work”/”yard work” comes not from a careless and lazy writer, but embraces the sound devices common in poetry in order to make the central message cohesive with the literal scene.

Here we may be drawn to discuss emotional labor, in fact, but not because it is explicitly stated—the emotional labor of loss.

Sound, I note moving them back to the beginning, gives the poem cohesion throughout—sound as that is combined with the visual:

A million brilliant ambers twisting into

the thinning October sun, flooding my eyes
in a curtain of color.

The rhyme of “million/brilliant” that is not end rhyme, and then the series of words with double letters—”million,” “brilliant,” “thinning,” and “flooding.”

In some ways, poets play word games, but rarely are they games for games’ sake; in other words, these games lend cohesion through patterns. Patterns, we must recognize, create meaning.

O’Neil’s poem is also driven by imagery, concrete language and details. Augmenting the concrete nature of the discourse is the use of analogy (and personification), a powerful but dangerous strategy in purposeful writing.

“My yard is their landing strip,” “the stiff kiss of acorns puckers the ground,” “the gaping mouths of lawn bags/with their remains,” and the final line, “Dependable as a season”—the comparisons, we examine, help emphasize the concrete—becoming more vivid—but those comparisons must also resonate accurately. In other words, purposeful writing does not make analogies simply to make comparisons; they must be true and then must elevate the ideas being addressed as well as working with the tone established.

This poem raises a complicated aspect of purposeful writing, however, since it demonstrates the effectiveness of specific and concrete details along with craft (comparison, personification, rhyme, etc.) in order to create an ambiguous message.

Readers are compelled to believe the speaker of the poem has experienced loss, and that speaker’s hurt over the loss is somehow triggered by doing lawn work. Yet, we cannot be certain of the who, why, and how—although those details help nudge us in some credible directions.

Maybe the speaker has been left by a lover, or maybe someone close has died?

“Forgive” and “forgiveness” sit near “refuse,” “dying clover,” and “weeds.” Readers may be drawn to reading “leaves” darkly (a double meaning as with “fall”), yet the reader is also left with only informed speculation.

“Nothing is ever easy or true” may serve as a ironic line against the poem’s ambiguity, but the poem becomes effective and compelling because of the power of purposeful writing—moves students can make their own as they grow in the writing of essays.

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.

Teaching English Is Teaching English?: Not Really

In the mid-1980s, I was offered a position teaching high school Advanced Placement English after my first year teaching English in the school where I had graduated only about 6 years earlier.

I called my principal, who had been principal there when I was a student, and explained I was tempted by the offer since I wanted to teach AP but also because my first year had been overwhelming; my load was four different preparations of English and journalism, saddling me with five different curriculums and 13 different textbooks (as well as supervising the student newspaper and literary magazine).

The principal, who always called me by my first name since I had been friends and teammates with his two sons (one a year older and the other a year younger), simply replied: “Paul, English is English.”

No effort to address my early-career struggles, no words suggesting the school wanted me to stay, or even respected my work—just a very bored statement brushing aside my concerns for asking way too much of me as an English teacher charged with teaching both British and American literature as well as writing (my student load was about 125 at that time).

I hung up discouraged, and conflicted about my career. Fortunately, I called my former high school English teacher and mentor, who worked at the district office. He talked me off the ledge, and I stayed at the school, hoping something would change about this misguided understanding of what it means to teach English, and writing.

Almost two decades later, however, I sat as a new faculty member and listened as my university changed its curriculum, including a debate and eventual decision to practice a similar misguided belief—teaching writing is teaching writing, and anyone can teach writing.

Teaching some combination of high school English, writing, and teacher education courses for over three and a half decades now, I faced with a great deal of trepidation Special Report: Literacy in the Workplace (Education Week).

While there is lots here to challenge, I think it is worthwhile to focus on a passage from Is Professional Writing the Missing Link in High School English Classes?:

“The assumption is typically that writing is a single skill, and that’s not really a correct assumption. I might be good at writing scientific articles, but God help me if I had to write a novel or poetry,” said Steve Graham, a writing education expert and an education leadership and innovation professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s pretty clear there is not a strong match between what businesses are looking for and what schools are doing. [Writing in school] really has more of an emphasis on what might happen in college than in the workplace.”

Exactly—writing itself is not a single skill, and literacy is not that simple either.

What we fail to do often, however, is to pull back and admit that teaching literacy (English) and writing, as the principal I mention above believed, is not monolithic endeavors either.

High school English is too often tasked with being both survey literature courses and writing courses. As the EdWeek article muddles, high school English must prepare all students to read and write in the discipline of literature, in preparation for the workplace (another oversimplified domain), and in preparation for college (yet another oversimplification).

We have overstuffed high school English—especially in this never-ending era of standards and high-stakes testing—and as a result we do way too much way too badly.

Let me note a few alternative reforms that may serve us better than yet more hand wringing about all the failures of teaching literacy:

  • Create robust programs and degrees in education that provide all teachers of literacy with holistic experiences as students developing their own literacy skills. My primary concern is that even today, most teachers of literacy—notably high school English teachers—have very weak grounding as students in the best practices we expect them to somehow cram into their bloated obligations as English teachers. How many teachers of English have come through courses rich in writing workshop and drafting original essays in a wide variety of genres and for a diverse range of purposes?
  • Re-imagine the curriculum so that literature and composition/writing have their own dedicated spaces that can allow us to better prepare and assign teachers. Of course, this new curriculum is not about artificially separating reading and writing since students will continue to write (and learn to write) in literature courses, and read in composition/writing courses. This new way of organizing curriculum allows composition/writing to be better addressed as a nuanced set of skills across different disciplines and for many different purposes in school and beyond.
  • Reject the culture of standards and especially high-stakes testing since both feed into simultaneously overstuffing expectations for English teachers and students as well as reducing literacy to what can be measured efficiently—a key culprit in assuring students will not be prepared for anything, much less college or careers.
  • Rethink teaching students for the Next-Thing by allowing teachers of literacy, including high school English teachers, a more clear and manageable purpose for whatever course is being taught and a more nuanced and accurate perception of exactly what the Next-Thing is. As one example, traditional high school English over-emphasizes literary (fiction, poetry) analysis and discipline-specific content such as MLA citation. As a result, students acquire a warped perception of literacy that impedes their transition into college and careers.
  • Admit and then address the very real need for any teachers tasked with teaching literacy to have reasonable student loads. Currently, best practices in literacy are often not implemented because teachers cannot manage them with so many standards and testing obligations combined with excessive student loads. As a high school English teacher, I was teaching literature and writing to 100-125 students a year for five periods a day all week; as a college professor of writing, I teach only writing to 24 students (two courses) over a semester, meeting 3 days a week. Guess which context better serves my students? Teaching conditions are learning conditions.
  • Place literacy acquisition, and especially writing, in a healthy relationship to technology. First, I offer this as a practical skeptic about technology. Next, however, in 2018, I witness daily college students who have virtually no real skills with word processing. Literacy has a symbiotic relationship with technology that too often is either blurred by a careless pursuit of technology-for-technology’s sake or failed because we make baseless assumptions that contemporary students are somehow tech savvy.

Teaching English is no simple task but there is much we can and should do to remedy that problem.

As I approach 60 and the end of my fourth decade teaching, I still cringe at my principal’s “Paul, English is English,” and shudder at the realization that little has changed for my field, my colleagues, and most students in the intervening years.