This is What Educators Sound Like

On January 29, 2017, I stood chanting in Upper Senate Park, with sign held high, alongside educators, students, and parents. We gathered to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Paige Hermansen has already detailed on Teacher-Scholar-Activist why we must continue to oppose DeVos, even now that she has been confirmed. What continues to strike me about that morning, however, is not just the cause that gathered us, but the significance of teachers standing in solidarity in this particular moment.

In Upper Senate Park that morning, we chanted, among other things: “Show me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like.” This chant is representative of classic protest rhetoric in its use of call and response, repetition, and syncopated rhythm. It’s designed to be both easy to chant and memorable. This chant, of course, did not originate within the context of this DeVos protest. In fact, two hours later it would be heard again as an even larger group gathered at the White House to protest an Executive Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Undoubtedly, it would fill the air of sister protests across the country that day and in the weeks following.

Yet the notion of teachers standing together proclaiming they themselves to be the image of democracy is something upon which we should pause and meditate. What does it mean for educators to represent democracy? What responsibilities do educators have to the ideals of democracy within the United States?

Here, I hope to briefly examine these questions through a somewhat unconventional route–beginning with the rhetoric of the teacher’s protest.  Protest rhetoric of the kind displayed at the DeVos rally resembles a kind of democratic cheerleading. Its goal is to subvert some movement or ideology.  To do so, signs are raised while voices and drums energize the crowd and build solidarity.  Edward P.J. Corbett[1] called this kind of communication, in post 1960 society, closed-fist rhetoric. It stands in contrast to his concept of open-hand rhetoric, which was certainly a core characteristic of early democracy. Corbett suggests that open-hand rhetoric after 1960 corresponded to sustained, logic-driven, eloquent arguments. Corbett’s description draws to mind Quintilian’s “good man, speaking well.”

I find Corbett’s open-hand and closed-fist to be useful metaphors for questioning the work of educators in a post-2016 democracy. There’s a notion that the real work of democracy ought to take place through channels of open-hand rhetoric. We write and call our representatives. The nation’s leaders propose bills and craft executive orders. We, once more, write our representatives; we show up to town halls and wait our turn to speak. During other administrations, I considered this civic engagement. It was how the work of democracy got done throughout my lifetime. Today, I can’t help but feel that’s just not enough. There are arguments unwelcome in these spaces and voices who do not have access to these channels.

This form of rhetoric, this open-hand, conciliatory rhetoric, represents a fair amount of the instruction that takes place in American education, not just within English departments such as my own, but throughout the writing we ask students to do across the curriculum. We invite them to think critically and then channel their ideas into prose that fits conventions, is sequentially ordered, and demonstrates decorum. We teach students these things in preparation for their engagement within democracy. This instruction is good; it’s important. Again, is it enough to truly respond to the call that we, as educators, must prepare students for engagement in today’s democracy?

As Higher Education for American Democracy, the report composed in response to Harry S. Truman’s Commission on Higher Education indicates, “the social role of education in democratic society is at once to insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups, and to enable the citizens to understand, appraise, and redirect forces, men, and events as these tend to strengthen or to weaken their liberties.”[2] What happens when open-fist rhetoric is not enough to redirect forces that threaten our students liberties?

Our students are going to need other tools.

As teachers gather in protest chanting “This is what democracy” looks like, they claim the rhetoric of the closed fist, for themselves and for the rhetoric of democracy. Yet, I want to push us a step further still. Corbett’s rhetoric of the closed fist evoked the image of the raised fist of the black power movement. Yet the fists of the teachers in this crowd were not raised. This was particularly noticeable to me, as someone who has spent her fair share of time in the front row at punk rock shows, where fist pumping is a cultural norm. The closed fists of the protest were noticeably clinched at sides, on signs, and around smartphones. I make this observation not to criticize the demonstration, but instead to acknowledge its own self-consciousness. For many in this space, this was clearly not a preferred rhetorical form. Some signs gestured toward this discomfort, saying things like “I should be home writing lesson plans” and “You know it’s bad when librarians are protesting.” These people were pushing beyond the confines of their typical rhetorical forms because of their dedication to education and to the students they teach. If we are to help students claim this form of democratic rhetoric as their own, we must develop our own fluency within it.

Protesting sends a strong message in our society; it’s important.  But still a nagging thought within me asks: is it enough to respond to the pressures that threaten our classrooms in today’s democracy?  Will our protests defend our right to teach the findings of scientists across this land?  Will the rhetoric of the open-hand or the closed fist, either one, be enough to respond notions that “alternative-fact” have their place within American democracy or education?

We too are going to need other tools.

Corbett himself spoke to his concerns about closed-fist rhetoric and effects it might have on education, in particular.  While he acknowledges the need for these rhetorical forms in places where individuals must fight for their liberties, he sees others, who are not in such circumstances, also appropriating this rhetorical form. He says (in 1969, mind you),

“I become apprehensive when I see people abandoning the reasonable and reasoning approach in situations where their freedom and welfare is not at stake. I am talking about the habit, both in ordinary conversation or in formal discourse, of saying the thing that is patently untrue or grossly illogical. Mouthing untrue or invalid propositions is of course not peculiar to our age. We have all been guilty of that on occasion; I know I have.  What does seem to be on the increase, however, is the deliberate disdain for, even revolt against, truth and logic among those whom we would expect to be more responsible.”[3]

His concerns were no more peculiar to his age than they are rare in ours.  Logic and fact are being questioned and too often abandoned in both open-hand and closed fist rhetorical domains today.  Corbett saw this same concern coming from the educational domain in 1968.  He cites an AAUP Bulletin article that raised concerns that students were “failing to investigate fully, clarify premises, define terms, think logically, use evidence properly, and write (or speak) precisely, truthfully, and to the point.”[4] Today, students are not the only ones we might charge with these rhetorical crimes. Trace the path to Michael Flynn’s resignation this month. Follow the reports presented by Sean Spicer from one day to the next. Engage with Kellyanne Conway’s notion of counsel. We have a rhetorical problem. To lean on Corbett once more, “[t]he older rhetoricians, who devoted most of their attention to the classroom and in their texts to instruction in strategies of logical appeal, would be appalled at this development in contemporary rhetoric.”[5]

For many years, I’ve had λόγος (logos) tattooed on my right wrist. Thus, when I push my fist into the air at a punk rock show, logic comes with that closed-fist rhetoric.  Of course, let’s be honest: the closed fist is not the only gestured indicative of punk culture. With a nod toward this reality, Geoffrey Sirc introduces a third term into Corbett’s paradigm: he says, “Rhetoric of the Open Hand vs. the Closed Fist? How about the Rhetoric of the Middle Finger?”[6] The display of the middle finger is subversive and is used in the spirit of rebellion. Specifically, Sirc ties the rhetoric of the middle finger to the punk movement of the 1970s, to a spirit which might be summarized by the Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the U.K.”: “‘Don’t be told what you want, Don’t be told what you need.”  This movement was most interested in rejecting that which was expected, approved, and appropriate.  Punk is what Ian MacKaye would later define as “the free space.” It operates as a domain wherein individuals find space to articulate particular ideals when freed from binding cultural norms.

I know the middle finger isn’t something one traditionally asks educators to make their own. Many educators take decorum quite seriously. Students evoking the middle finger are met with disciplinary measures. Although I work with these same hand-related metaphors in my dissertation work, I, quite purposefully, took up the term guerrilla rhetoric rather than the middle finger to describe the rhetorical theory I explore there.  However, for today’s democracy, I am compelled to draw upon this metaphor.

If not the middle finger, then certainly the free space. We need a rhetoric that rejects what is expected, approved, and appropriate, yet which also upholds logic and reasoning. I don’t yet know exactly what that will mean. However, as I write these closing words, news comes from Betsy DeVos’ first school visits.  She says educators are in “a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.” No! Educators, “Don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need.”

spiegel-headshotCheri Lemieux Spiegel is Associate Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s taught writing courses for the last decade. She completed her PhD at Old Dominion University where she began using the rhetoric of punk rockers and graffiti writers to conceptualize guerrilla rhetoric, pedagogy, and writing program administration. In addition to guerrilla processes, her research focuses on issues pertaining to two-year college writing instruction and issues of student engagement. She has published articles in Computers and Composition Online and Teaching English in the Two Year College. She serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.


[1] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5  (1969): 288-296.

[2] George Frederick Zook, Higher Education for American Democracy: A Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (Washington: U.S Government Printing Office, 1947), 5.

[3] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[4] A. M. Tibbetts, “To Encourage Reason on Campus,” AAUP Bulletin, LIV (December, 1968), 466 quoted in Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[5] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[6] Geoffrey Sirc, English Composition as a Happening (Logan: Utah University Press, 2009), 246.


Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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