A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 1

Today, 18 December 2019, Donald Trump may be impeached. Last night, thousands of people across the United Statesfrom Times Square to Doral, FL and beyondheld rallies supporting a House of Representatives vote for impeachment. These activists took to the streets to demand impeachment and, in some cases, removal from office. Twitter blew up with the hashtags #ImpeachmentMarch and #MerryImpeachmas. “No one is above the law” served as a constant refrain on protestors’ signs and in social-media posts. While this mantra may be emotionally satisfying for some people, it covers over the ways in which the Trump administration has simultaneously violated laws and rewritten them in order to push a white supremacist agenda and to dismantle hundreds of years of progress made by various social movements in the US and abroad. It also covers over the ways in which social movements fought to change laws in order to win rights.

This moment is so heavily weighted down with the machinations of impeachment, and with kleptocratic plutocracy and festering racismall amid a climate of austerity, anti-intellectualism, and rising authoritarianism that it is hard to imagine moving forward. How do we respond? How do we survive? How do we fight back?

To extend these conversations beyond impeachment, Spark and TSA, are joining together in the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. elections. Each month, from December 2019 to November 2020, we will feature a blog post written by a different scholar. We have asked scholars from various disciplines, institutions, and ranks to discuss their work and contextualize it within the high stakes of our current moment. Blog posts might address:

  • How these elections reflect a particular political, cultural, or social context and history
  • Where particular politicians who are running in these elections stand and the implications of their proposed policies
  • Background on issues in national, state, or local elections that need more attention
  • Problems that the 2020 elections will and won’t resolve
  • What academics can or are doing beyond voting

Each month, a different scholar will share their perspectives and describe how to pursue activist interventions.

The perspectives serve to inspire discussion and action; some provide hopeful examples of the local, regional, and national activism in which we can engage. Even though this moment is heavy and ugly, and likely to be uglier and more painful, we want these posts to show the possibilities for courageous work that resists and reframes this moment.

The series begins with a post from Holly Hassel, professor at North Dakota State University. She has a long history working toward shared governance during the assault on two-year colleges and higher education perpetuated by the Walker administration in Wisconsin. In her post, Hassel provides a framework for activism within academic institutions. This framework connects social change to struggles over everyday issues. In the coming months, the series will feature other contributors who address this moment from a number of critical perspectives, e.g., how the 2020 US elections relate to white supremacy and how to combat neoliberal politics in higher education through and beyond the election process. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing EditorsSpark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

Service, Activism, and Writing Teachers

By Holly Hassel

“Though our culture celebrates innovation, at times it encourages and rewards compliance. When we look across our schools, it can seem that the people who move forward are the ones whose loyalty to mandate outlasts their bonds to creativity. We talk about entrepreneurial spirit while worshipping at the altar of status quo.”

–Cornelius Minor, We Got This: Equity Access, and the Question to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, p. 123

When I was first introduced to the concept of the “teacher-scholar-activist,” coined by Patrick Sullivan, a two-year college teacher scholar I have long admired, it resonated with me. A lifelong two-year college English teacher, Sullivan invites readers of his 2015 article to “theorize activism as a foundational part of the two-year college English teacher’s professional identity and philosophical orientation,” connecting this work to writing program administrators as change agents (McLeod) and to marshal our “vision, knowledge, and ethos to alter institutional philosophies and practices (quoted in Sullivan 331). I want to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on what teacher-scholar-activism means in writing studies. In kicking off this new and exciting blog series, I invite readers to reflect on, and strategize about, what teacher-scholar-activism and Spark’s mission—activist work taking place within writing studies spaces—seeks to accomplish, and how they can find ways into that work in their own places and spaces.

 Here, I offer my thinking on two terms this series is framed around: activism, which is central, and service, which is absent. This is because my own professional identity is deeply connected to the idea and practice of service, and because the term “activism” can be a signifier that has a range of meanings. Reflecting on these two ideas, I hope, will help my writing studies colleagues see avenues into their own teacher-scholar-activism.

 Considering Service

We know that the impact of our work in higher education looks different in the various components of our jobs–teaching is an immediate avenue toward increasing good in the world in that our classrooms can be spaces that are exciting, generative, and where student success and growth are central. Those students go forward–largely to futures that we won’t and can’t track or see the outcomes of, but if we have done our jobs, they have more skills, knowledge, and focus than they did before they arrived at college.  Scholarship, likewise, we can imagine having a long-lasting impact, on unforeseen audiences now and in the future, across time and spaces, which can feel rewarding because publications, in theory, endure beyond us.

 Service, however, is undervalued in the range of academic activities that we undertake (not to mention disproportionately distributed)—and its impact on the shape of our professional environments is similarly underestimated. The work we do in task forces, committees, senates, boards—these are spaces that can fundamentally shape how we experience those spaces. Whether it’s revising the general education program, launching new degrees, undertaking an exploration of curricular change or adjusting policies for degree programs that offer greater flexibility and respond to students’ needs—the work that happens in meetings and committees changes our work lives. It is essential to transforming our classrooms, and to do creating ethical and equitable educational spaces.

 What I wish is that we would and could do two thing—define our service work more broadly, not just committees and shared governance, but also activist efforts that seek to build a sustainable, ethical infrastructure (for example, fair evaluation and assessment practices, support services and curriculum, and professional resources that support our best work); that include developing (and challenging) policies, practices, and structures that are transparent and equitable, and second, to see that work as valuable, to make it visible, and to reward it. Our service—often seen as a kind of drudgery work in academia—is as important as our teaching and research, and it has the capacity to extend values of social justice, equity, and ethical conduct. What would it look like to embrace our service to students, colleagues, and the profession as activist work?

 Advocacting, Acting, and Risk-Taking

In volume 1 of Spark, Berte Reyes writes “Activism requires a means of using a moment to build momentum, then coordinating the resulting movement—both in terms of movement toward the next moment and in developing and sustaining a social justice movement.” What stands out to me about Reyes’ guidance is that effective activism is strategic—it is forward-thinking, and it is purposeful.

 I see a model for this kind of forward-thinking and purposeful service work in the profession—where colleagues on various Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and other organizational committees are working on developing strategies: for example, the Committee for Change (convened by CCCC chair Asao Inoue and led by Janelle Jennings-Alexander and Bernice Olivas), is working to challenge policies, practices, and unwritten rules within CCCC that reinforce hegemonic and exclusionary practices. The newly approved “CCCC Statement of Professional Guidance for Mentoring Graduate Students” and the Writing Program Administrators-Graduate Organization (WPA-GO) led “Report on Graduate Student Instructor Labor Conditions in Writing Programs” are examples of efforts emerging from professional service seek to change problematic and inequitable cultures in the field. I saw this service activism as a member of the WPA-List Reimagining Working Group, led by Iris Ruiz (UC Merced), in which I participated in difficult conversations and time-intensive reading and writing tasks. I had to practice listening and learned from group members about what changes were possible, what change would make a difference to them, as well as the reservations, disappointments, and cynicism about the list as a professional space. This was service that I not only participated in but also learned from. Every service activity I engage in, I learn more about the profession, if I am willing to listen.

 Listening in Order to Act

Cornelius Minor’s book, quoted at the start of this post, is aimed primarily at K-12 teachers and introduces the concept of authentic listening that I find applicable not just to our classrooms but to our service work in higher education. Minor writes, “I pose authentic listening and the actions that result from it as the most radical of all teacher behaviors. When we seek to create better realities for our students and our peers, our listening has to be informed by what we know, by what we are learning, and by our desire to actually hear what our students, communities, and partners are telling us” (14-15). I see authentic listening as one part of the equation in making sure that the organizations that we are part of—whether our academic departments, our professional organizations, or the larger profession of postsecondary teaching—change work. But I also want to argue for a process of asking. We can hear when students, colleagues, or constituent groups are expressing their views—but responsive service-leadership also means asking. We have to listen, and we have to ask.

 Transparent efforts that ask about people’s experiences who are different from ours (which is to say everyone) is the way that we have transparency. This is the most visible to me in my work in shared governance—as a faculty senate chair, senator, member of the CCCC and the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA) executive committees, and now an elected officer in CCCC. A responsive organization doesn’t just wait to hear complaints. So often the burden is placed on people with less power in the hierarchy (whichever one—students in a classroom, constituents in an organization) to “voice concerns” or “just ask for what they need” Why aren’t we asking people what they need and want? Why aren’t we asking students what their experience is in our programs and classrooms, and figuring out how to meet them? When students or colleagues tell us about their experiencethrough course evaluations, through letters or requests, through emails, conversations, and reports, through surveys—this is an opportunity not to communicate but to hear and act.  

 In this moment, acting can feel challenging. In the wake of public policy efforts that strip rights and resources from marginalized populations and communities, and the privatization of the public structures that have built engines of opportunity and mobility for generations (e.g., public institutions with low tuition; stable employment for college faculty; loan forgiveness programs; commitments to accessibility; Title IX protections for victims of assault; pathways to college for DREAMers) efforts to resist such political moves, let alone take care of ourselves and those we care about—students, colleagues, families, communities—can seem overwhelming.

 I also recognize that service and activism, and the time available to engage in them, is limited, and inequitably distributed. Our labor conditions differ, and responsibilities outside of the profession differ. Yet, I have seen how labor efforts, particularly in states without union representation, largely take place through our committee and governance work—my experience has included senate recommendations to rectify compensation inequity that affected non-tenure track faculty, and most recently departmental support for compensating instructors for service work that is outside their contractual obligations, allowing them to have a voice and participation in department decision making. These took place through committees, senates, and faculty commitment to equity. 

 I hope that through valuing service and using it as an opportunity to strategically and intentionally move work forward that truly serves the interests of stakeholders rather than the agendas of the powerful, we can find meaning in this work in ways that are possible within our other responsibilities.

 I am grateful to Darin, Liz, and Don for leading this new collaboration. I amplify Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt’s February 2019 TSA post, “NCTE/CCCC/TYCA: A Community of Advocacy”  where she invites readers to consider several questions: “Where are your spheres of influence? What problems can you convert into possibilities? How can we, your professional community, help?”, and I would add, how can your service—to students, colleagues, and communities—be a place of effecting change? How can you hear what those who you serve are saying? How can you invite their voices into the conversation, and use it to advocate for change in support of justice?

holly 3

Holly Hassel teaches at North Dakota State University, and previously taught at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, an open-admissions two-year college, for 16 years. She is completing her term as editor of Teaching English in the Two-Year College. She begins her service as CCCC assistant chair this month.


Works Cited 

Calhoon-Dillahunt, Carolyn. “NCTE/CCCC/TYCA: A Community of Advocacy.” Teacher-Scholar-Activist. https://teacher-scholar-activist.org/2019/02/22/ncte-cccc-tyca-a-community-of-advocacy/. 22 February 2019.

Minor, Cornelius. We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Question to Be Who our Students Need to Be. Heinemann, 2019.

Reyes, Berte. “Moments and Movements: On Scholar-Activists Considering the Connection between Activism and Organizing.” Spark: A 4c4Equality Journal. March 2019. https://sparkactivism.com/volume-1-intro/moments-and-movements-on-scholar-activists-considering-the-connection-between-activism-and-organizing/

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activist.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 327-350.


Author: darinljensen

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

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