By Galen Leonhardy
My dog still loves me. You might think that an odd way to start off an essay on the greater glories of being a teacher-scholar-activist. The fact is, there have been days, months, even years… when the only person who really looked forward to seeing me was my dog, Wendell Berry, a black and tan beagle with a big heart. Seriously, challenging status quo ideologies in and out of the classroom has caused students to feel uncomfortable, colleagues to stop talking to me, community members to send hate mail, and administrators to question my sanity while subjecting me to a Kafkaesque kangaroo court.
Where I work, there are folks who hate democracy, detest critical inquiry, demonstrate contempt for research-based teaching strategies. The stakes can get fairly high: in 2015, administrators found me guilty of being a perceived threat and of engaging in a harassing technique of rude and obnoxious behavior directed towards authority… for reasons that could not be revealed. I was then sentenced to reeducation in the form of psychotherapy for an undisclosed behavior pattern to achieve undefined outcomes. I had been questioning administrative violations of state dual credit laws and writing narratives about my Kafkaesque experiences. My union leadership refused to take on the administration. Wendell was the only buddy happy with me… my only source of solace.
Naaa (to use a Nez Perce tonal pattern), that’s not true. My former teachers talked me through the ordeal. Bill, Victor, Dana… they mentored me, consoled me, made me laugh, helped me look at myself, to critique my actions, to believe in myself as they believed in me. Those three pushed me back into the ring to take and give some more. And I did have a few supportive colleagues. And there was my mom who, oxygen tank and all, told me she and her partner, Jodean, would personally travel from Idaho to Illinois to visit those who had found me guilty without meeting the burden of proof and give them all an earful. And there was my online community, the members of the WPA list, who listened, critiqued, encouraged, and invited me to publish, to write, to describe the horrid experiences, to tell the truth. All of these people reminded me why I do the things I do—fairness, justice, equality, liberty, inclusion… Love.
The good news is that, if it were possible for my administrators, my colleagues, the students, and community members to have gotten me fired, they would have. I’m lucky. I’m a tenured, fulltime professor at a public community college. I am what authoritarians fear, a well-protected, albeit small-time or, to be less harsh on myself, community-based public intellectual. Labor laws and some aspects of Constitutional law protect me, allow me to write, to contribute to the civic discourse of my community, to organize, to engage in labor-related, workplace-focused communications. I am an activist.
I am grateful for the reality that I had plenty of support and that I am part of a history of people who have spoken, are speaking, and who will be speaking truth to power. People in human resources and those they represent cannot just fire me for how I teach and what I write because others before me sacrificed much to gain the protections I and other academics enjoy.
Ultimately, it’s worth it. Years, a couple of decades really, of doing my best and the gentle guidance of Serendipity (freak chance happenings) have allowed me to facilitate or take part in actions that brought about changes at the college where I work and in the community where I live, changes that ceased the effects of racism (linguistic prejudice) as perpetuated though the horrendous outcomes of a departmental exit examination, changes that made our administrators recognize the necessity of dual credit laws, changes that include the voters’ removal of a board president who disciplined a colleague for his role as student newspaper advisor, changes to the way minority and non-minority students perceive the benefits of striving intendedly for ethno-linguistic versatility and the subsequent inclusive possibilities such a perspective facilitates.
Striving to maintain scholarly awareness has left my house in a scattering of partially finished editions of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, and JAC. I wake up in the early morning to read The Chronical of Higher Education’s daily briefings.
Unfortunately, the majority of my departmental colleagues do not read and cannot or will not carry on conversations about composition theory, assessment theory, pedagogy, or rhetoric. There are a number of them who are simply the epitome of academic anti-intellectualism. The level of ostracization and scapegoating from those folks has been horrid—for example, the chair of the department banging on the walls of my classroom while students sang a traditional Nez Perce Song and then calling the singing “caterwauling.”
There are a few colleagues with whom I share mutual respect. With the help of those collegial collaborators, written research, and experts from the WPA list, I managed to construct classroom-based assessments that showed disparate consequences in our departmental exit examination and a four-year study that helped me figure out that simply making eight-week courses places where students read and write could increase enrollee retention and success for minority students in my basic writing courses to between 87.50 percent in the fall of 2013 to 92.86 percent in the fall of 2016 (last semester), which was up from 53% in the fall of 2012 (the year prior to initiating my study) and above overall developmental success rates at the school, which were 72.53% (fall 2012), 70.48 percent (fall 2013), 63.97 percent (fall 2014), and 64.94 percent (Fall 2015). No, I cannot prove that the students gain increased versatility, but I can prove that the students complete the assignments and complete various revision strategies as a part of every assignment.
That is, my classroom assessments show there is a correlation between increasing levels of student success in my eight-week courses, which were all placed in the first half of a sixteen-week semester, and the pedagogical strategy of using class time for the completion of course assignments. I can’t prove causation, but I can say that the more I keep my mouth shut and facilitate process-oriented, formative assessment strategies, the more likely it is that minority students, specifically, and all students, generally, will engage in process-oriented learning, complete coursework, and then pass my writing courses.
And that brings me to my concluding remarks and to the concept of working with administrators. Not all of my administrators have been fearful authoritarians mired in obfuscation, fabrication, and retaliation—hallmarks of authoritarianism. Goodness knows, there are administrators at my small college who facilitate what teachers are doing. It would be great to spend an entire essay writing about those few administrators. But I am worried about endangering them.
In my context, retaliation is part of the authoritarian paradigm. Because I noted in my brief biography where I teach, this essay will soon be within the authoritarian gaze of upper-level administrators. Our “marketing” department employs web-creeping software. Every time I write an essay, “marketing” soon locates the source. Not long thereafter, a warning is sent to our administrators. “Marketing” never notifies me that the administration has been warned, nor does “marketing” ever call to congratulate me. Because “marketing” creeps my pages and my publications, the administrators at my college know I’m published before I know I’m published. In some cases, that’s a good thing. (Thank goodness for those administrators who express respect for what I do and work to facilitate my efforts.) In other cases… well… let’s just say, as teacher-scholar-activist, it’s good to know that, at the least, my dog will always love me.
Galen Leonhardy’s work as a critical theorist, composition teacher, and essayist focuses on educational experiences, abuses of academic administrative authority, writing assessment, and on issues of race and class. He has contributed to four co-authored book and two self-authored. Among others, his work has been published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, Truthout, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is currently a professor of English at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois, where he endeavors to contribute as a public intellectual, support the Catholic Worker Movement, and make time to volunteer with the QC Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees. He most enjoys spending time with his daughters, Sarah and Hallie, and with his wife, Lea.