Finding My Patronus: Warding Off Dementors Threatening Two-Year College

Finding My Patronus: Warding Off Dementors Threatening Two-Year College

by Cheryl Hogue Smith

Dementor: “a gliding, wraithlike Dark creature . . . [that] fed on human happiness

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I want to say upfront that I hope this article opens a discussion about how the state of teaching in two-year colleges is, for some two-year college teachers, sucking out their teaching souls. I know because I am one of them.

Anyone who teaches in a two-year college knows that administrators, legislators, and other policymakers often believe they understand what is best for community college students, even though many have never taught them. Just today, as I write this, my own institution announced that “CUNY Ends Traditional Remedial Courses,” boasting that the “university finishes 7-year phaseout of the outdated credit bearing remedial courses” and “now offers targeted students corequisite support in first-year math and English courses.” In this article, Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez talks about “replacing the outdated remedial approach with a more effective, equitable and evidence-based system” of accelerated learning, as though no effective “evidence-based systems” previously existed for developmental education (e.g., Boylan and Boylan and Saxon). In relation to accelerated learning, however, CUNY admits that “although it is too soon to measure the impact of full implementation of corequisite courses at CUNY, early signs are promising.” Those “early signs” consist of preliminary data that show 50% of students earned math credit in 2020 compared to 36% in 2016. These data are the only “evidence-based” results CUNY provides for math and English, yet they proudly announce the effectiveness of the program.

Unsurprisingly, the above CUNY report cites the “What We Know About Developmental Education Outcomes” report from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College Columbia. But CUNY is not alone in its reliance on CCRC findings; two-year colleges across the nation make decisions based upon the findings of this organization that helped Redesign America’s Community Colleges, even though, after a glance at their website, only 3.7% (2 people) of their Leadership, Senior, and Research Staff have actually taught the students they are “redesigning” for. (That number is 11.3% [6 people total] if you include the three who attended some community college and the one who worked in Student Affairs of three different community colleges.) Many have never taught in any capacity, and several hold degrees in economics and/or have worked at financial institutions. But what should we expect from this community college research body whose businesslike policy and program guidance has contributed to the corporatization of two-year colleges?

As teacher-scholar-activist (and my Kingsborough colleague) Emily Schnee points out,

Neoliberal policies have resulted in a dramatic decrease in public funding for higher education; an increased reliance on tuition dollars to cover college budgets; a conceptualization of students as consumers and education as a commodity; the subjugation of faculty governance to centralized administrative decision-making; a loss of academic freedom; a diminished role for the liberal arts; and an overall restructuring of colleges and universities, in the image of corporations, to emphasize the efficient achievement of measurable outcomes.

Schnee adds that “neoliberalism is nowhere more prevalent than the 21st century community college.” If it’s true that higher ed now functions on a business model—and all of the above points to the fact that it does—we should probably ask ourselves in what successful business are crucial decisions made by those who can only understand their customers in abstract ways since they’ve no direct knowledge of them.

Unfortunately, most of the above is nothing new for two-year college teachers. But we’re scrappy. You want to “redesign” our institutions? Fine, we’ll redesign our curriculum so students can succeed within the context of our own classes—despite however difficult the new policy or programmatic change makes it for us to do so. You want to “eliminate” developmental English? Okay, but I can’t be the only one to see that this is advertising at its finest: dual enrollment programs, stretch classes, accelerated learning programs, etc. are developmental classes. As the many discussions/presentations at conferences and TYCA white papers show, we fight to take back control from those who determine what is ”best” for our classes, and we do it both individually and collectively as we’ve taught ourselves to do—even when that fight is difficult and disheartening.

I must confess, however, that I’ve recently been wondering whether becoming a Starbuck’s barista or a Walmart greeter would be a preferable career choice to that of a two-year college English teacher. I know, instinctively, that questioning my career has to do with my students’ inability (or unwillingness) to read and write about the texts of my course, yet this is nothing new to me. In fact, in 2020, I analyzed six years’ worth of student data to understand how students several years prior seemed to have no difficulty reading a required course book, while my current students struggled (or downright refused) to read that same book. I noticed a sea change, even beyond those in my study: students in my first-year composition class very much resembled students from my developmental class from 5-7 years before. It’s difficult to ignore the timing of this sea change in relation to developmental education policies, like CUNY’s mandate to begin the “7-year phaseout of the outdated credit bearing remedial courses” to be replaced with acceleration models.

For clarity, I am not disparaging acceleration programs or disputing that developmental courses can disadvantage already disadvantaged students. We’ve understood for years that developmental education needed some kind of reform. In 2012, Mike Rose talked about strengthening basic skills instruction in order to “liberate it from the academic snobbery and bankrupt assumptions about teaching and learning that profoundly limit its effectiveness” (186). Rose knew that “changing both beliefs and practices in remedial education” through “substantial professional development” and “creating good technology and meaningfully integrating it into curriculum” were two “efforts . . . necessary to realizing this recasting of basic-skills instruction” (186-187). So even one of developmental education’s greatest advocates recognized the need for change, but he also recognized that the changes should be determined and controlled by those who understood the students who needed the instruction, not by those who simply studied statistics about those students.

It’s no secret that, even before COVID, entering students demonstrated little understanding of their responsibility in their own learning process. Their indifference towards learning was hardly surprising, however, since so many of them had spent their entire educational lives under the ineffectual educational policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core (Klein), resulting, perhaps, in a facile ability to take standardized tests, but with little understanding of their responsibility to negotiate meaning when reading texts—including texts of their own making. Emily Isaacs claims that, since COVID, students “have become accustomed to thinking that learning happens by showing up”; I would note that this condition describes many students in pre-pandemic years as well. Nevertheless, Isaac’s point applies more widely because, since the pandemic, an increasing number of students have demonstrated an unusually high level of disengagement (Malesic; McMurtrie), and their disengagement feels different—so much so that I would argue that our students are in the midst of a second, post-COVID sea change.

Let me explain, first, with this picture of how my video screen looks as I have been teaching my classes on Zoom over the last three semesters:

A grid of screens on Zoom. Only Dr. Hogue-Smith has her camera on for the class.

This screenshot was taken of those students who attended the class on the last day of fall 2022 (and I have changed the names of the students, but not the four icons), and since fall 2021, it’s a view of what I typically see as I teach. (Prior to fall 2021, at least several students had their cameras on in every class.) By CUNY policy, I cannot force my students to turn on their cameras, and the students know it. But I actually support the right of students to hide. For one thing, I don’t know what their living quarters look like; I don’t know if they have family members in the same room; I don’t know if they can afford WIFI or the streaming service that having a camera on will cost them; and I don’t know if they’re at or traveling to work. Over the semesters, I learned to teach by looking into my own eyes and laughing at my own jokes. (For this particular class, I taught to the upside-down Spidey.) Some days, the students made great use of the chat, but most days, it was as mute as they were, a testament, most likely, to their under-preparedness for the day’s lesson or to their more general disengagement from the class. Teaching this way felt so isolating and ineffectual and demoralizing that I could feel the dementors sucking out my soul. Every. Single. Time. Teaching was becoming as alienating for me as learning was for them.

I am not the first to discuss students’ disengagement since COVID. Beth McMurtrie describes the anxiety students now feel, not only because of COVID but because they are so removed from what school should be and look like that they choose to remain disconnected.

Jonathan Malesic implies that students are disengaged, in part, because professors during COVID relaxed standards and policies so much so that we perpetuated students’ belief that they bear no responsibility for their own learning. Thus, the result of deep and pervasive student disengagement is, not surprisingly, teacher burnout—a burnout so severe that many are leaving the profession (Camera; Dill; Flaherty; Klein and Lang; Myskow). Granted, much of the national attention on teacher burnout applies to K-12 education and the Great Resignation of teachers, where “some 300,000 public-school teachers and other staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022” (Dill). Yet 35% of “workers” surveyed in college and university “say they ‘always’ or ‘very often’ feel burned out at work” (Camera); I imagine the two-year college numbers for teachers would be higher, especially given the pre-pandemic workload issues TYCA studied (which are now surely worse). Karen Kelsky, creator of the Facebook group “The Professor Is Out,” a group that helps professors leave academia, nicely sums up the burnout issue in higher ed: “[D]efunding, exploitation, systems of overwork, loss of faculty governance, activist right-wing boards of trustees that are interfering, activist state legislatures that are interfering, the attacks on ‘critical race theory’ . . . people working 60 to 70 hours a week for inadequate compensation. That’s the cause” (as qtd. in Myskow). In other words, a day in the life of a two-year college teacher. Yes, these are real issues, but these issues have always been a part of the fight.

What I am experiencing now, why the dementors are threatening my teaching soul, is because this post-COVID sea change students are undergoing threatens a plague on all our houses. During the pre-COVID sea change, I still felt I could help students understand that learning requires their active participation, that confusion is part of the learning process, and that questions lead to illumination. During this post-COVID sea change, however, I feel like students are in an academic version of The Matrix, not knowing a world of learning exists outside of their passive realities, not even knowing there’s a red or blue pill to choose from. And it’s this fight I don’t know how to win.

Malesic argues that the solution to students’ disengagement is in-person learning. Yet he also claims that once students “go through a year or more of remote classes . . . [they] develop habits that harm their ability to learn offline too,” like acting as though they are “still on Zoom with their cameras off, as if they had muted themselves.” Malesic’s observations echo a senior advisor for one of Kingsborough’s student programs who explained that students who are struggling in online classes are also struggling in in-person classes, just like students who are faring well in online classes are also doing well in their in-person classes. So, as far as the students are concerned, their success is not necessarily dependent upon the modality of the instruction. Instead, their success is dependent upon their attitudes towards learning and academic tasks. And therein lies the rub.

But let’s be fair. As McMurtrie says, “In addition to two years of shifting among online, hybrid, and in-person classes, many students have suffered deaths in their families, financial insecurity, or other pandemic-related trauma. That adds up to a lot of stress or exhaustion.” At Kingsborough, as at many other two-year colleges, my students are taking first-year composition in their first semester and are full-time students, while many are also working full-time or at least several hours part-time each week, typically traveling on public transportation to and from school for one-to-two hours each way when they go to campus. Many also have extensive family obligations, are food and/or housing insecure, and often deal with life circumstances that understandably interfere with or take precedence over their learning. Add to this that, in New York City (NYC) public schools, students can submit missing work on the last day of any grading period, and the teachers must accept and grade it. (And, from what I was told confidentially, they can’t give it lower than a 55.) This unwritten pre-COVID policy certainly contributed to the pre-COVID student sea change. It’s now a written Department of Education (DOE) rule since 2020 (and NYC can’t possibly stand alone here), and this policy has imprinted itself into the minds of students who believe, when they reach me, that the same policies apply. For example, in early January, a student who had disappeared from an accelerated first-year composition class in early November and had not turned in any work asked if he could submit extra credit so he could pass the class.

But policies like those of the NYC DOE might not be the only factors at play here. Schools like Kingsborough have a “15 to Finish” initiative that pushes students to take 15 credits per semester (or 15 credits within the fall A semester and fall B intersession) in order to graduate within two years. While an admirable initiative undoubtedly generated by Pathways (another national CCRC-generated movement community colleges are saddled with), it’s also an unreasonable one for many of Kingsborough’s students who also work and have family obligations. (And, as Schnee adds, “time-to-degree” programs also “reinforce and deepen long-standing educational disparities.”) How many students who participate in this initiative now have to learn to balance several full-time obligations into a single day? I can just picture my student who asked for extra credit trying to balance his life obligations and putting off the work for my class until the end, hoping I, like his DOE teachers before me, would accept all his work. Of course, I am making this scenario up in my head, but, sadly it’s not an unreasonable one, and it’s not one isolated to NYC.

The truth is that student under-preparedness and disengagement are nothing new, as the pre-COVID sea change can attest to. It’s just now more dire. Rebecca A. Glaser believes student attendance issues can be linked to “the pandemic” that “taught students that they can get most of the course content by reading the textbook or watching a recorded lecture.” I’m not sure what students she’s teaching, but most of my students have learned how not to read for my course. Since COVID, almost all of my students don’t read for class, which leaves little in-class time for analyzing texts since students barely have time to get through a first read. I know the answer to student success lies in their ability to read effectively, and I’m struggling as a teacher to help them. Most are perpetually unprepared and disengaged and are experiencing a convergence of exigencies—all of which result in a perfect academic storm.

However, I find I, too, am experiencing my own perfect storm: I struggle to keep outside forces like administrators and legislators from interfering with my classes, and I struggle to find ways to help students experience learning instead of settling for their passivity. I struggle with work-life balance because of how student disengagement affects my time. I struggle to avoid the temptation of discovering what “The Professor Is Out” has to offer. But, however much I’m tempted, I will never look. Because, even though I’m struggling, I’ll be back. I need only chant my patronus charm—which, unsurprisingly, resembles a group of students—to protect me against the dementors that haunt me.

Cheryl Hogue-Smith is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College. She is the past chair of the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA). Her scholarship has appeared in many journals, including Teaching English in the Two-Year College (TETYC) and the Journal of Writing Program Administration.

On Hand to Heart Rhetoric or Why I am Quitting Fight Club

By Cheri Lemieux Spiegel

“I never wanted to disturb the peace

But it feels like no one’s listening

Are we talking to ourselves?

Are we just talking to ourselves?”

-Rise Against (“Talking to Ourselves”)

I stood before my mirror last week in a t-shirt many in our field have donned in solidarity. Across my chest read: Feminist Fight Club, Rhet/Comp Chapter. A raised fist symbol rests between the words “fight” and “club.”

 The closed hand is a symbol I have written about before, even once on this very blog. My dissertation – a working theory of guerrilla rhetoric –considered Geoffrey Sirc’s suggestion that we add a “rhetoric of the middle finger” to Corbett’s paradigm of open hand and closed fist (a term I now read as redundant, thanks Dreyer’s English) rhetoric.

 As Asao Inoue called to boycott the Council of Writing Program Administrators he too evoked the rhetoric of the raised fist by way of his inclusion of the now-iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Summer Olympics.  However, Inoue also evoked a different image of the hand that I would like to meditate upon further today. Allow me to quote his passage at some length:

 So I say this next thing with my hand on my heart and my head down and with great love and compassion in my words not just for them but for those we all say we want to help in our writing classes and writing programs: I know from these kinds of experiences that unfortunately our words of support, especially from White allies, are pretty cheap. Words of support really do not protect people of color doing antiracist work unless they make commitments and are backed by actions, such as boycotting the CWPA until they change. I don’t mind the words of support, but I’d rather see actions in support. Speak with your feet and body, not just your mouth.

Inoue opens his hand, not to extend it to those in our community, but to place it upon his own heart. This gesture is one that has become commonplace in my life since COVID-19 moved a majority of daily connections into video conferencing platforms.

 As the co-founder of This Most Unbelievable Life, LLC, I’ve spent the last year with my collaborator Paul Fitzgerald facilitating meditation groups and book studies within the Zoom platform. The work in those groups often gives space for individuals to tap into deep joy as well as heartfelt sorrow. Even across the Zoom platform, those in our community often feel deeply alongside one another. In a space where the offer of a reassuring hug or a gentle hand upon another’s shoulder is not possible, we offer instead, an open hand, placed in solidarity upon our chest.

 For me, as I echo the gesture back to those who express it to me, I feel a resonance in my chest. I am made aware of my human heart. I notice what’s going on within me and I am reminded that across time and space, another human heart beats and is attempting to find resonance with me.

 With this in mind, I must ask: have you read Inoue’s words with an open hand? With a closed fist? Would you consider doing so – right now – with an open hand placed, to connect with his across time and space, upon your own beating heart?

 What might our field become if we were to take up a call for open-hearted rhetoric?

 I know many in our community felt deeply when they read Inoue’s blog. Good. Let us all get in touch with those feelings. Place your own hand, open, upon your beating heart. Do you feel anger?  Okay. That’s anger. Who among us doesn’t know anger? Do you feel deep sorrow?  Okay. Many of us know sorrow. Do you feel defensiveness? Okay. Name that. We know defensiveness. Do you feel anxiety?  Ah, anxiety. We in writing programs seem to know that one well, don’t we?

 Get in touch with your own feelings. Own those feelings. You, dear listener, are the only one responsible for your feelings. Feelings are reflections of needs met or unmet. Identify the needs in you that contribute to those feelings. Identify the strategies you currently use to meet those needs.

 And then, come back to Inoue’s request. Not with your closed fist. Not with the glad-handing, rhetorics of “polite” that help both white supremacy and misogyny to thrive. Instead, with an open heart.

 Why am I asking for you to join me in reading Inoue’s work with your hand upon your chest?  Why today?

 Well, let’s go back last week: to me standing in front of my mirror seeing a woman in a Feminist Fight Club t-shirt.

 I was preparing to go meet Mariah Salazar, a student of mine. Mariah is an English major at Northern Virginia Community College where I have taught since 2006. Although she has taken two classes with me, it was the first time we met in person because of the pandemic. And what she didn’t know at the time is that she walked alongside me as I began navigating my teaching life from an entirely new perspective. What she didn’t know is that I taught this year not from the place of the most recent hot topics in writing studies, but from my heart and from the texts and topics that originally brought me to this field. 

What I rediscovered was the social justice mission that drew me to the field and which got watered down as I grew into the prescriptive “best practices” of writing program administration. While I had once come to this field awakened by the ways that prescriptive grammar and languaging norms had corrupted my own sense of self and constricted members of my home community, I now found myself within a community that gave lip-service to our rights to our own language, while prescribing now – not how written language “ought” to be, but instead how writing programs “ought” to be.  We just shifted our desire to control, oppress, and shame to a new context. No longer the guardians of good grammar; we are now the gatekeepers of good programs.

 The very document that sparked the boycott of CWPA was The WPA Outcomes Statement. While I have not seen the Taskforce’s revision of the document, I know the current version well. Version 3.0 does not prescribe methods for achieving the outcomes. The tool was written in an attempt to be descriptive. The authors frame it this way – allow us to hear their intentions too with open hands upon our hearts:

This Statement identifies outcomes for first-year composition programs in U.S. postsecondary education. It describes the writing knowledge, practices, and attitudes that undergraduate students develop in first-year composition, which at most schools is a required general education course or sequence of courses. This Statement, therefore, attempts to both represent and regularize writing programs’ priorities for first-year composition, which often takes the form of one or more required general education courses. To this end, it is not merely a compilation or summary of what currently takes place. Rather, this Statement articulates what composition teachers nationwide have learned from practice, research, and theory. It intentionally defines only “outcomes,” or types of results, and not “standards,” or precise levels of achievement. The setting of standards to measure students’ achievement of these Outcomes has deliberately been left to local writing programs and their institutions.

 As empathetic readers, I would like us to hear the authors positioning this statement as a descriptive document, not a prescriptive one. I also hear an emphasis on regularizing over standardization. I hear an emphasis on the need for local conditions to frame how achievement is determined. In many ways, we can hear the lessons of prescriptive/descriptive grammar echoed in the careful word choices in this document.

 However, my lived experiences suggest that this document is not always used in this manner. Many of us have accepted, if not been taught, that these things reflect what “good” writing programs do. The fact is that the outcomes are prescribed even if the strategies for meeting them are not. These outcomes were not recognized or accepted readily by all members of the field. Many of us had to advocate for the adoption of these outcomes and to persuade others in our departments that these were in keeping with the best practices of the field.

 I have met many WPAs over the years who speak with shame at how the lived reality of their program does not reflect the outcomes statement. Class sizes are too big. Literature places too centrally in the program. Faculty and/or administrators do not have credentials in writing studies. Grammar plays too much of a role. Their faculty labor conditions are exploitive. They believe or have learned things about writing instruction they could never say aloud in a department meeting at home.

 As I speak with WPAs I am struck by how many must be excellent code-switchers. They must speak the language of writing studies while in our shared spaces and then go home and speak the language of their home community – one that might be driven by the ethos of neo-liberal logics or agnostic to the current trends in writing studies. I’m reminded of how, as a first-generation college student, I had to learn the language of my upper-middle-class peers and professors to speak while I was at the university and then remember not to speak like I was “too big for my britches” when I returned home.

 I experienced this same tension when I served as a departmental administrator at my community college. I was both recognized as a WPA at national conferences and told by administrators at my college that my institution could never have a WPA. I have proposed a formal writing program four times during my time at my college and I have been unsuccessful each time. I have never submitted my program for the CCCC Certificate of Excellence because the criteria are constructed to award not innovation but adherence to the conventional wisdom of what counts for excellence in writing program administration. What counts as excellence, it seems to me, is reflective of programmatic realities at R1 institutions or other highly selective or exclusive programs.

 When I got quiet, hand on chest, and asked: what is happening here? Why am I not being successful? I learned something powerful: I had, for the better part of a decade, asked my community college writing program to conform to the prescribed values of the elite, rather than coming with curiosity and compassion about the labor of my community.

 When I came to my program with curiosity, I learned it was time to step down from my place as an administrator, to pause in my attempts to build a writing program and to humbly admit the violence of my own certainty.

 I began my teaching in Fall 2020 from that place. I went into the classroom uncertain of the WPA Outcomes statement. I decided instead to place the eight habits of mind from “The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” at the center of my teaching. And I started having deep conversations about what it means to teach and learn at my community college, not with my writing studies community or my English colleagues, but with art professors, librarians, and my aforementioned collaborator, Paul Fitzgerald, who is a biology professor and a certified meditation teacher.

 What does all this have to do with me preparing to meet Mariah?  Well, as I looked at my Feminist Fight Club t-shirt, I thought about what kind of field I want to welcome her into. She came to college as an English major and someone who wanted to step away from an emphasis on grades and focus on authentic learning. I admire that. She is also an excellent writer and researcher. Seth Kahn, who she interviewed for her final project this spring, noted she was also an excellent interviewer. She will thrive in whatever branch of English Studies she decides to call home. Like many students who come to college as English majors, her primary exposure to English Studies from high school and before was through the lens of Literature and Creative Writing. I suspect I might have been the first person she met from writing studies. Through the course of her first-semester class, she was introduced to the writing of Paul Heilker, Jacob Babb, and Elizabeth Wardle. I did not teach a “Writing about Writing” course, but I did pull in texts from the field as I deemed them appropriate to how our conversations unfolded.

 Mariah’s final research paper for our first semester together looked at her attempt to find herself, a Latina woman, reflected in her field. She began this inquiry by looking at the literary landscape and discussing how literature written and enjoyed by young women (particularly the Twilight series) is disparaged. She explored how English is perceived as a “women’s major” despite the fact that the literary canon continues to predominately feature male writers alongside just a select number of women, a majority of whom are white. She opens this essay with these words, which I hope you’ll pause and read with hand on heart:

“To enter into the academic field of English as a woman, no less a woman of color, is to accept that you will receive contradicting criticism. In my short time experiencing this career choice I have both been told that I chose English because it is an easy woman’s major and that a career in the English field would be a waste of my intelligence and potential. But I have also been made to feel that my gender and upbringing make me less qualified than my counterparts.”

 She gave this essay the following title, which has stayed with me: “Where is her voice in her field?”

 Where indeed?

 Paul Heilker. Jacob Babb. Elizabeth Wardle.

 (White) Male writers alongside a select woman, who we might note is also white.

 In this same class, I featured a panel of writing studies scholars. I decided to put this panel together at the last minute, so it featured dear friends of mine – the kind of people who will show up for me with few questions asked, even though I often am a last-minute planner.

 So my panel, which discussed students’ rights to their own language and linguistic justice featured…

 Mark Blaauw-Hara, Darin Jensen, and Kaitlin Clinnin.

 (White) Male writers alongside a select woman, who we might note is also white.

 Where is Mariah’s voice in her field?

 Since I was first introduced to the term “anti-racist” I have struggled with how to realize an anti-racist agenda within my pedagogy. One white colleague at my institution is recognized amongst us for teaching minority voices; he does so primarily by teaching male hip-hop artists. I believe the issue begins with but does not end with, who we assign. Over the last few years, I have led a few book groups on anti-racism. I’ve been struck by the fact that I seem to only teach within majority-white communities when I am teaching about anti-racism. My classrooms are minority-majority while my English department is majority white, credentialed at majority-white institutions, I suspect by majority-white professors. I have three degrees in English and I have only twice been taught by a person of color in a university setting. I have never had a Latine teacher or professor in any subject. What I would learn upon meeting up with Mariah last week is that she has never met a Latine teacher of English. She noted that the only teachers of Hispanic or Latine descent that she’s known have all been teachers of Spanish, a subject she stopped taking in the United States school system because of the way Latin-American versions of Spanish are portrayed within standardized curricula.

 Where is her voice in her field?

 As I looked at my Feminist Fight Club shirt, I thought about experiences of sexism, mansplaining, sexual harassment that I’ve experienced in the field and navigated with dear ones in our discipline. I recalled the exchange on the WPA-L that led to the creation of that very shirt and which Michelle LaFrance has discussed in “Failure to Wake? What #WPAlistservefeministrevolution Tells Us about a ‘Feminist’ Writing Studies.” 

But why stop there? I could also recall the narratives from Kristi Cole and Holly Hassel’s Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership and those in Cristyn L. Elder and Bethany Davila’s Defining, Locating and Addressing Bullying in the WPA Workplace. More recently, I could turn to Amy E. Robillard’s “From Isolated Stories to a Collective: Speaking Out About Misogyny in English Departments” which was published just days before Inoue posted his call to boycott CWPA.

 As I saw that shirt reflected back at me in the mirror, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Is this a field I want to bring Mariah into? Is this a field that I can stand tall and proud to represent? Is this a field where I know humans are treated with the care they deserve as fellow beings on this earth?

All I know is this: I didn’t wear the shirt. And we have work to do. 

When I left Asao Inoue’s plenary talk at CWPA in 2016, I did so with a strong sense that who recruited to our field, from within our first-year writing programs, would be the strongest determiner of the future inclusivity of writing studies. I went away with the charge to examine who I mentored and how I encouraged students to imagine how their voice might add to the field I loved. 

Can I, in good faith, recommend this field to the students entrusted to me?

We are trained in a rhetorical tradition that was built by patriarchy and white supremacy. Our institutions, our writing programs, and our language are all infected by the tools of these creations. It is with love and great respect for all who built our field that I say: it is time to let the old ways die. The organizations, publications, and disciplines we have built and served will never love us back. Fields do not deserve our love, but humans do.

Lakoff and Johnson pointed out some time ago that our language is deeply steeped in metaphors of war. Indeed, my own dissertation research explored the ways that guerrilla warfare principles might be removed from the battlefield and used as a foundation for theorizing about how disenfranchised groups might use guerrilla communication tactics to address the needs of their communities. The field of writing studies has long approached communication from a place of assumed antagonism – where there are causes to fight for and wars to wage. What if, dear friends, everything isn’t an argument?

The prevalence of war and conflict-oriented lenses reminds me of Mary Rose O’Reilley’s inquiry from 1993: “is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?” Lest we forget, O’Reilley first heard that question when it was posed to her in a teaching workshop in 1967. War and violence are pervasive and persistent in human history. Although we might claim to believe they are the last resort – strategies to be taken when civil communication falls short – inside our classrooms and disciplinary discourse, these metaphors drive discussion and often our ways of relating to ourselves, to one another, and to our craft itself. 

Although not specific to writing studies, in Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks to the violence that I suspect many of us have grown accustomed to accepting as normal in the writing life, for example: “[our] relationship with [our] work is often emotionally violent. You want to make something? You are told to open up a vein and bleed. Time to edit your work? You are instructed to kill your darlings. Ask a writer how [their] book is going, and [they] might say, ‘I finally broke its spine last week.’ And that’s if [they] had a good week.” Can we language without violence? Can we language about languaging without violence?

We in writing studies have not only failed to fully answer O’Reilley’s call for the peaceable classroom, but we have also failed to build a peaceable discipline. We also contribute to the problem through our behavior with one another. What would a field (re)built on the priority of community good, equity, and inclusion really look like? 

I’ll admit, I do not know exactly. However, to return to my moment of reflection from before the mirror, for me it begins with quitting fight club. I feel called to step away from metaphors of violence. I feel this calling not because I am no longer angry. I’m mad as hell. I feel anger coursing through me on most days. I do not anticipate it will leave me soon. And I am okay with that. My anger is instructive.

However, I often regret allowing my anger to drive me toward mere reaction, rather than responsive action. When I notice anger and allow myself to pause and enter a period of reflection, I often see both myself and my context anew. Anger points to needs unmet, but it takes time to learn and strategize about how one might have their needs met without infringing upon the needs of others. I believe this is the greatest need within our field today: we need processes that allow us to understand and articulate personal and professional needs. We need those processes to not prescribe rigid strategies that attend only to the needs of the most privileged in our midst. We might do well also to carefully and honestly examine our tendencies to lead with judgment and evaluation. How often do we comment on the strategies those in our midst use to articulate their needs, rather than openly doing our part to hear the very human needs that drive the strategies we observe?

Reaction, defensiveness, judgment, and evaluation have been my ways of navigating the world for quite some time. In some contexts, they were nothing less than survival skills. Now, I am beginning to discover and explore an alternative way of being in the world through language. I have recently begun, as the recipient of the Loser-Savkar Fellowship, a formal study of the teachings of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), the principles of O’Reilley, and peacebuilding theory more generally. 

One thing that has struck me as I have begun this pursuit is that teachers of NVC are clear that there are times when individuals must abandon the principles of NVC: when circumstances truly are matter of life and death. If someone’s safety is truly called into question, survival must be the focus. Please hear me, friends: people are dying. Human life is being lost in service of patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and insular constructions of gender.

With hand-to-heart, take a look around you. In this moment, are you safe? Is your life, in this moment, in jeopardy? If you are not safe, please, make that your priority. Your safety and survival are of utmost importance. However, if you, in this moment, are safe – however you personally define that – then you have been given the privilege to listen and learn from your fellow humans on this earth. Those who speak out in ways you might diagnosis as aggressive, rude, dismissive, unseemly or otherwise other, are articulating needs. What are those human needs? Can you hear the unmet need in the voices you dismiss or diagnose as problematic? Can you hear the unmet need in you that calls you to dismiss and diagnose those you encounter?

What will it cost us to listen to our needs first and then to authentically seek connection with one another? I am willing to own my privilege and imperfection and allow the latter rather than the former to be my teacher. I am prepared to examine my syllabi, course materials, and participation within and beyond the field with an openness to better understanding how violence manifests within me and the way I navigate language. I hope to use Nonviolent Communication principles to re-see my teaching, my way of being within my institution, and my place in writing studies writ large.

With hand to heart, I ask: will you join me?


I would like to thank Mariah Salazar for her willingness to read and offer comment on this piece as it emerged. I would also like to thank Kaitlin Clinnin, Mark Blaauw-Hara, and Darin Jensen for helping me, time after time, find my own voice in my field.

Cheri’s Bio

Cheri Lemieux Spiegel is Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale Campus and the 2021-2022 recipient of the Loser-Savkar Fellowship. During her time at the college, she has held multiple leadership roles including Technology Application Center Faculty Mentor, Campus-Lead for Achieving the Dream, and Assistant Dean of Composition. However, her first love, as someone who may forever identify first as a teacher, will always be the classroom. Her doctoral research proposed and revised a theory of guerrilla rhetoric that was based upon the premise that guerrilla practice might be removed from the battlefield and used in the operations of nonviolent groups who struggle against the limitations of their conditions. Her degrees and her position at the college continue to enrich her life-long fascination with language, the power of words, and the way communication informs how we come to this shared existence we call life.  She is a former member of the Council of Writing Program Administrators Executive Board, the advisory board for the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, and the advisory board for WPA: Writing Program Administration. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of the journal (Summer 2020) focused on two-year college writing programs. Her work has appeared in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Computers and Composition Online, and Basic Writing eJournal. In addition to her academic life, Spiegel is co-founder of This Most Unbelievable Life, LLC and co-host of the This Most Unbelievable Life Podcast. 


Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.

by Helena Worthen and Joe Berry

It’s January 20, and Joe Berry and I are forty days away from our March 1, 2021 book deadline. Nevertheless, we turned on the TV to watch Joe Biden make his speech from the Capitol steps where only two weeks ago there were white supremacist rioters shoving each other around and posing for selfies. Enough said. Then it’s back to work.


The work at hand is as follows: bibliography, footnotes, acronyms, list of essential terms, make sure the last chapter says what it needs to say. Then re-write the introduction to accommodate the fact that since we sent our proposal in to Pluto, hoping to get into the Wildcat series, nearly a year has passed. During that year the coronavirus has gone world-wide jamming up schedules and turning education into an internet wonderland. Remember when people were talking about the end of “brick and mortar” colleges and universities as if that was the distant future? How our institutions of higher education will re-constitute themselves when things return to normal (whatever that means) will depend, as always, on who has the power at the moment. It’s time to ask the Freirean questions: For whom, by whom, and for what purpose? What is higher education for, really? And what do we, people who work in it, need in order to do our jobs right?


Back to the work. I haven’t mentioned the title, because that will probably come last. Right now we are vacillating between at least two. One simply tells what the book is about: The Contingent Faculty Movement Today: History, Strategy, and Troublesome Questions. That’s a pretty good one, actually. The words “troublesome questions” refer to questions that always come up in the process of organizing, whether it’s a new union just forming or one long established. We have questions like “Is this legal?” and “Who are our friends and who are our enemies? And “What about union politics?”  We respond to these at length, avoiding giving answers but laying out the range of ways these concerns can “trouble” a group of activists.


The second option, which was the original title, is A Fifth Transition: A Strategy for the Contingent Faculty Movement Today.  This reflects the fact that we’re doing not just best organizing practices but also the history of the contingent faculty movement going back to the 1970s. We then step back to a bigger time scale and place the last 40-50 years in the context of how the whole higher education industry has gone through transitions as it adapts to the needs of the dominant powers of society.  Examples are the period of standardization in the early 1900s, the explosion of enrollments under the GI bill after World War II, the creation of the multicultural curriculum and fields of ethnic studies after the student “disturbances” of the 1960s and 1970s, and then the transition that leads us into the present, the neo-liberal contraction of budget cuts, layoffs, the rise of the for-profit institutions and above all, casualization of the faculty – in other words, us.


This big-scale history section, although it’s the one that seems to be the flashiest concept to talk about,  is only one of the five parts of the book. We take a much closer look at our history – that is, the history of contingent faculty employment in higher education – by devoting four chapters to the story of organizing among Lecturers in the California State University system. In fact, that’s how the idea for the book got started. Joe has been appearing at contingent faculty conferences and other higher ed events for at least 20 years now, especially since the publication of his book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower:  Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (Monthly Review, 2005), and at one of these events someone always asks, “What is the best contract for contingents in the US?”  He answers by telling them about what’s in the California Faculty Association contract with the CSUs, which is a giant system of 23 campuses and about 27,000 faculty, of whom over 70% are contingents (called Lecturers).  So the next question always is, “How did they get it?”  That’s what those four chapters are about, and without trying to tell the whole story here I can say that it started back in the 1970s and has taken place on legislative, bargaining, electoral, and internal organizing terrains. The breakthrough came when the lead activists realized – really got it – that they had to view themselves as workers just like any other workers, not as white-collar-privileged “professionals,” and adopt direct action tactics, publicly advocate for and identify with their overwhelmingly working-class students, and prepare themselves for a real strike.


There are other stories I can tell about what it’s been like to write this book, but I’ll limit myself to this: its first stirrings came about when Joe Berry was sitting out in the back garden with his long-time friend, John Hess, who was an organizer among Lecturers in the CSU system and had recently retired, only to get a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Their conversations revolved around shared experiences organizing and leading contingent faculty and in the labor movement generally. Of course, one of them said, “We should write a book.”

That was ten years ago. John has since died; I took over his role as co-author. My relationship to getting things written – articles, books, whatever – is different from Joe’s. Joe is a historian; he can dwell in the archives for weeks, slowly accruing a grasp of what actually happened and building the big picture. I’m the one who says, “I’ll meet you at ten am at the kitchen table and we’ll finish the footnotes.”  We have some funny stories about this part of our relationship; our book about unemployment benefits for contingents, published by the Chicago COCAL and co-authored with Beverly Stewart, came about when I realized that he was on the phone with the State of Illinois person who administered the law, to whom he was explaining the intent behind the language “reasonable assurance of re-employment.”  We wrote that little book in order to be able to hand over something for a person to read, instead of Joe being on the phone all the time trying to explain it.

That’s part of the motivation behind this book, whatever it’s called: putting it all in one place, with bibliography and explanatory footnotes. Our hope is that if we get it in by March 1, Pluto will get it out while the re-constitution of higher ed is still fluid enough to be shaped by the power from below, from the people who really do the work and know what is needed in order to do it right.


Editor’s Note: Since writing this post, Helena and Joe have chosen a new title for their book: Power Despite Precarity:  Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education.


Helena Worthen is a novelist, teacher, editor, and contingent faculty activist. She is the author of the prize-winning 2014 book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? from Hardball Press, Brooklyn. She retired from the University of Illinois Labor Education Program in 2010, where she was Director of the Polk Women’s Labor Conferences.


Joe Berry worked as contingent faculty and labor educator for thirty years and was active in all three major faculty unions. He is the author of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, from Monthly Review (2005).  He edits COCAL Updates for the Coalition of Academic Labor, where he serves on the International Advisory Committee and also on the Board of New Faculty Majority.

This is Our Moment: Let’s Seize It

20 Jan. 2021

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .” (Charles Dickens. “A Tale of Two Cities”)

We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the Lake Rim cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful. (Amanda Gorman. “The Hill We Climb”)

How many times have I read Dickens’ wry and finely crafted opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” and yet not once had the eloquence packed an emotional punch for me?  Well, that time has passed.  I feel the power of those words as never before.  Dickens’ oft-quoted lines have taken on a special urgency for these times and for this country.  As I write this post, one year has passed since COVID-19 reached our shores and changed life as we knew it.  And as an educator at an open-access, public community college (where I have taught full-time for more than three decades), I can bear witness to the “season of darkness” that has blighted the path for many of my students.  Yet, on this, the 20th  day of January 2021, I feel a sense of hope and renewal.  Whether these times will prove to be the best (to return to Dickens) depends on our ability to rise up, as the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman exhorts us, “battered and beautiful.”

Just this morning, I listened to a podcast (The Key, Ep. 36) that recounted the impact of the pandemic on the especially vulnerable among our students:  transfer, returning and adult students and students from lower-income households. This past fall has been devastating in its impact on all sectors of public education, but particularly community colleges.   Among the findings released by the National Clearinghouse Research Center (relayed in the podcast):

  • This past fall half a million fewer students didn’t show up in our public schools
  • All of higher ed saw 13 % fewer first-year students enroll
  • Community colleges saw a decline of over 20% in first-year students
  • Amid that decline, the hardest hit have been students of color.

We all have anecdotal evidence of the virus’ impact on our students.  I recall a student who stopped attending for a time my online first-year writing course because her laptop had been damaged by her young child, a child who would normally have been in day-care but given the fact that the student had just lost her job due to COVID she would try so hard to take up that responsibility while doing her best to persist in school.  She would eventually repair the laptop but lost valuable time and perhaps some of her desire, too.

Even as this year of the plague continues to reverberate in the new year, I note some hopefulness in these early weeks of 2021.  Of course, we hope that vaccinations will begin to be administered smoothly and that social distancing and masking will take hold as acceptable, indeed, necessary, behavior. And we earnestly hope that as the virus’s fury declines, jobs will return and whatever counts as the new normal will take hold.

And then there is this:  I write this post on the day that Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Kamala Harris were sworn-in as President and Vice-President, respectively.  While the change of regime brings a new day to our country, I am most heartened that Dr. Jill Biden will receive even more prominence than ever.  She is one of us.

The headlines are like a balm for the soul:

Jill Biden Reiterates Support for Free Community Colleges

Jill Biden Will Reportedly Back Debt-Free Community College as First Lady

Jill Biden Promotes Community Colleges’ Role in Workforce Development

We have a voice in the Halls of Power.  For that, I am most grateful.  I know that Dr. Biden will do us educators proud, especially those of us who work in public education.

As powerful as it will be, her voice is but one, however.  It is incumbent upon us to seize the moment that is available to us. To that end, I urge all community college faculty, staff and administration—and the leaders of our various professional organizations (like the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the Two-Year College English Association)—to sign this petition of support for Dr. Biden’s advocacy of our students’ success. Consider this effort a pledge:  not only to promote Dr. Biden’s efforts but also to do what each of us can to foster the values of equity and inclusion in the wake of this devastating pandemic.  All of our students matter. All of our students deserve a fair shot at success.

From the editors: If you would like to add your name to this petition to support Dr. Biden’s advocacy of our students’ success, please e-mail Patrick Sullivan at or Darin Jensen at

We will add your name to our list of signatories. Please include your department, college name, and location.

List of Signatories

  • Howard Tinberg, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Patrick Sullivan, English Department, Manchester Community College, Manchester, Connecticut
  • Dr. Brett M. Griffiths, Macomb Community College, Warren, MI
  • Dr. Darin Jensen, Des Moines Area Community College, Carroll, IA
  • Sarah Z. Johnson, Two-Year College English Association National Chair, English Department Chair, Madison College, Madison, WI
  • Dr. Cheryl Hogue Smith, Two-Year College English Association Past Chair, English Department, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY
  • Dr. Leigh Jonaitis, Professor, English and Theatre, Bergen Community College, Secretary, Two-Year College English Association (TYCA)
  • Renee Rule, Chair,  TYCA Midwest, English Department, Associate Professor, Ivy Tech Community College
  • Dr. Stacey Donohue, Professor of English, Central Oregon Community College
  • Dr. Cheri Lemieux Spiegel, English Department, Northern Virginia Community College
  • Dr. Annie Del Principe, English Department, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, Brooklyn, NY
  • Dr. Bethany Sweeney, English and History, Des Moines Area Community College, Carroll, IA
  • Robert Lazaroff, Ph.D., English, Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY
  • Dr. Christie Toth, Department of Writing & Rhetoric Studies, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Dr. Deborah Mutnick, Professor of English, LIU Brooklyn, New York, NY
  • Dr. Jason Evans, English Department, Prairie State College, Chicago Heights, Illinois
  • Sravani Banerjee, English Department, Evergreen Valley College, San Jose, CA
  • Stacy Wilson, English Department, Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona
  • Christie Bogle, Department of English, Linguistics & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Jerri A. Harwell, Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Stacey Van Dahm, Department of English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Ron K. Christiansen, English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies Department, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Lynn Kilpatrick, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Charissa Che, English Department, Queensborough Community College, Bayside, NY
  • Bruce Martin, Department of English. Lone Star College-North Harris, Houston, TX
  • Emily Suh, Graduate Programs in Developmental Education, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX
  • Jeffrey Klausman, Professor of English, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, Washington
  • Holly Hassel, Professor of English, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota, past editor, Teaching English in the Two-Year College
  • Elizabeth H. Keefe, Professor of English, Gateway Community College, New Haven, Connecticut
  • Stephanie Dowdle Maenhardt, Department of English, Linguistics & Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College
  • Rose-Mary Rodrigues, First-Year Studies English, Gateway Community College, New Haven, CT
  • Dr. Sarah Snyder, Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator, Communications Division, Arizona Western College, Yuma, Arizona
  • Margot A. Edlin, Ed.D., Professor of English, CUNY-Queensborough Community College and Treasurer, Two-Year College English Association – Northeast (TYCA-NE)
  • Barrie McGee, Curriculum and Instruction Dept., Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas
  • Alan Hutchison, English Department, Des Moines Area Community College, Ankeny, Iowa
  • Dr. Anne Canavan, Department of English, Linguistics, and Writing Studies, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Stacy Wilson, English Department, Mesa Community College, Mesa, Arizona
  • Clint Gardner, Program Manager of Collge Writing & Reading Centers, Salt Lake Community College, Past-President, Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association.
  • Tiffany Rousculp, Director, Writing Across the College, Salt Lake City Community College

  • Brian Anderson, Humanities Department, College of the Mainland, Texas City, Texas
  • Cara Diaconoff, English Department, Bellevue College, Bellevue, Washington
  • Kate Sullivan, Instructor, Writing, Cinema History, Division of Arts and Humanities, Lane Community College, Eugene, OR
  • Dr. Sharon Mitchler, English Department, Centralia College, Centralia, WA
  • Ronald Weisbergerr, History Department, Bristol Community College
  • Dr. Karen S. Uehling, Professor Emeritus, English, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho
  • Dr. Rhonda C. Grego, Dean/School of English and Humanities, Midlands Technical College, Columbia, SC
  • Ron K. Christiansen, English, Linguistics, & Writing Studies Department, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Dr. Lynn Kilpatrick, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Krystal Cox, English, Des Moines Area Community College
  • Dr. Jean-Paul Nadeau, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, Massachusetts
  • Dr. Bill Kelly, Professor of English (retired), Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Martha Ucci, Ph.D, English Department, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Michael Geary, Associate Professor of English, Writing Center Coordinator, Vice President of the Faculty and Professional Staff Senate, Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA
  • Robyn Rohde, English Department, College of Southern Nevada, Henderson, NV



Reconnoitering: Looking Back over the ‘ A Year in Activism’ Blog Series and What Lies Ahead

We are over eight months into the global pandemic, and nothing is any more certain. The phrase “uncertain times” has become tired and cliche; yet, there are few words that capture the fear, doubt, anxiety, and restlessness of this time. All across America, teachers of all levels juggle remote, hybrid, “hy-flex”, or risky in-person teaching while also providing emotional support to their students, colleagues, families, and communities. In the wake of unanticipated expenses and budget shortfalls that have been largely ignored by federal and state governments and under the banners of austerity and retrenchment, university boards and upper administrators are laying off and furloughing campus workers in unprecedented numbers–from facilities workers, to staff, to faculty members of all ranks, to student workers. Meanwhile, politicians and groups like Campus Reform have weaponized universities’ COVID-19 responses and organized attacks on faculty members for their activism, research, and pedagogies (see for example the attacks on Scholar Strike participants at Texas A&M and the University of Mississippi). As these groups try to control university administrations and launch personal attacks against individual faculty on Facebook and Twitter, COVID-19 cases continue to spike on college campuses where football games, bars, and social events drive numbers up. States and counties with varying mask mandates (or none at all) continue to see numbers rise as we enter the fall. Recent data points not only to another surge in the virus but to record breaking death and hospitalization rates. Against this backdrop, what many are calling “the most decisive election in a generation” looms on November 3.


When we created the blog series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” we had intended to use the series as a space where writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies scholars of all ranks and from various institutional types could address issues related to the elections and their teaching, research, and service. On one hand, we saw the series as an extension of both Spark and Teacher-Scholar-Activist. The series maintains our foci on activism but also initiates immediate and ongoing conversations related to one topic: the elections. On the other hand, we saw the series as an activist intervention. We had hoped that the blogs in the series would contribute, if even in some small way, to shaping the outcome of the elections. In terms of reader response, the series has been a success. Thousands of folks have read blog posts from the series and shared them on social media and in classrooms. In terms of recruiting contributors and maintaining regular contributions, the series increasingly became challenging and fraught with complexities amid the pandemic: How could we ask people to take on more work under these ever-shifting conditions? We feel the uncertainty and strain. We feel the pull to organize in defense of colleagues, against retrenchment and austerity measures, and to get out the vote on our campuses and in our communities in order to steer the U.S. toward greater democracy. We also feel the need to keep our loved ones close and to devote time and attention to our own economic, health, psychological, and emotional needs.

At the same time, we feel our attention shifting from making arguments about the Trump administration and ensuring that America’s democratic process, such as it is, actually delivers despite decades of concerted effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans through various means and in light of renewed efforts across the country to suppress votes. Most recently, well-reported efforts to suppress the vote include how, in mid-October, the California Republican Party placed more than 50 fake ballot boxes around the state in order to steal and destroy early-voting ballots; an October 19th letter from the owner of a mobile home park in Fort Morgan, CO, who threatened to raise tenants rents if Biden won the election; a ballot box in California was set aflame in an attempt of suspected arson; and the October 30 attack by Trump supporters on a Biden/Harris campaign tour bus heading from San Antonio to an event in Pflugerville, TX. But, social media is full of videos, photos, and written accounts of people making their way to polls being harassed by Trump supporters who stand near or circle around polling stations and shout threatening messages. These extra-legal and illegal efforts to suppress voters supplement Trump and the Republican Party’s attempts to steal the election through various means: from gutting the U.S. Postal Service in order to ensure that many mail-in ballots miss the deadline, to trying to throw out thousands upon thousands of votes, to spreading lies that votes counted after election night will not count in election totals. Trump and the Republican Party have myriad tactics at their disposal, and they are using all of them. However, all these tactics may pale in comparison to their success in filling the Supreme Court with underqualified figures–hacks who could play a decisive role in the election itself.


This post serves as a coda to the series as a reconnoitering; it reflects that shift from figuring out who to support in opposition to Trump and what issues we need to focus our attention and efforts on to focusing on not letting Trump and his white supremacist coterie steal the election. Whatever the outcome after November 3 ( once all ballots cast get counted), there is still much work to be done to move struggles for social justice forward. Spark’s mission, whether in this series or in the journal, has always been about calling attention to this work. In reconnoitering, we take this moment to draw attention to the thoughtful posts that contributors wrote for this series:


We also point toward the future and urge you to check out Spark’s Volume III call for papers. Edited by Jaquetta Shade Johnson and Phil Bratta, the call deals with the role that coalitions play in advancing activism. We also encourage you to contact Teacher-Scholar-Activist’s editors and contribute to the ongoing blog. Overall, we must continue the difficult work of organizing in our communities. A day, a week, a month from now, our world will look different, and as teacher-scholar-activists, we need to be ready.

In solidarity and action,

Don Unger and Liz Lane

Co-managing editors, Spark: a 4C4Equality Journal


An Open Letter to Judge Amy Coney Barrett From Your Notre Dame Colleagues

October 10, 2020

Dear Judge Barrett,

We write to you as fellow faculty members at the University of Notre Dame.

We congratulate you on your nomination to the United States Supreme Court. An appointment to the Court is the crowning achievement of a legal career and speaks to the commitments you have made throughout your life. And while we are not pundits, from what we read your confirmation is all but assured.

That is why it is vital that you issue a public statement calling for a halt to your nomination process until after the November presidential election.

We ask that you take this unprecedented step for three reasons.

First, voting for the next president is already underway. According to the United States Election Project (, more than seven million people have already cast their ballots, and millions more are likely to vote before election day. The rushed nature of your nomination process, which you certainly recognize as an exercise in raw power politics, may effectively deprive the American people of a voice in selecting the next Supreme Court justice. You are not, of course, responsible for the anti-democratic machinations driving your nomination. Nor are you complicit in the Republican hypocrisy of fast-tracking your nomination weeks before a presidential election when many of the same senators refused to grant Merrick Garland so much as a hearing a full year before the last election. However, you can refuse to be party to such maneuvers. We ask that you honor the democratic process and insist the hearings be put on hold until after the voters have made their choice. Following the election, your nomination would proceed, or not, in accordance with the wishes of the winning candidate. 

Next, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish was that her seat on the court remain open until a new president was installed. At your nomination ceremony at the White House, you praised Justice Ginsburg as “a woman of enormous talent and consequence, whose life of public service serves as an example to us all.” Your nomination just days after Ginsburg’s death was unseemly and a repudiation of her legacy. Given your admiration for Justice Ginsburg, we ask that you repair the injury to her memory by calling for a pause in the nomination until the next president is seated.

Finally, your nomination comes at a treacherous moment in the United States. Our politics are consumed by polarization, mistrust, and fevered conspiracy theories. Our country is shaken by pandemic and economic suffering. There is violence in the streets of American cities. The politics of your nomination, as you surely understand, will further inflame our civic wounds, undermine confidence in the court, and deepen the divide among ordinary citizens, especially if you are seated by a Republican Senate weeks before the election of a Democratic president and congress. You have the opportunity to offer an alternative to all that by demanding that your nomination be suspended until after the election. We implore you to take that step.

We’re asking a lot, we know. Should Vice-President Biden be elected, your seat on the court will almost certainly be lost. That would be painful, surely. Yet there is much to be gained in risking your seat. You would earn the respect of fair-minded people everywhere. You would provide a model of civic selflessness. And you might well inspire Americans of different beliefs toward a renewed commitment to the common good.

We wish you well and trust you will make the right decision for our nation.

Yours in Notre Dame,

John Duffy, English  

Douglass Cassel, Emeritus, Law School

Barbara J, Fick, Emerita, Law School

Fernand N. Dutile, Professor of Law Emeritus

Joseph Bauer, Emeritus, Law School

Jimmy Gurulé, Professor of Law.  

Thomas Kselman, Emeritus, History

Catherine E. Bolten, Anthropology and Peace Studies

Karen Graubart, History and Gender Studies

Margaret Dobrowolska, Physics

Aedín Clements, Hesburgh Libraries

Cheri Smith, Hesburgh Libraries

Antonio Delgado, Physics

Atalia Omer, Peace Studies

Eileen Hunt Botting, Political Science

Jason A. Springs, Peace Studies

David Hachen, Sociology

Manoel Couder, Physics

Jacek Furdyna, Physics

Carmen Helena Tellez, Music

Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Biological Sciences, Philosophy

John T. Fitzgerald, Theology

Debra Javeline, Political Science 

Philippe Collon, Physics

Cara Ocobock, Anthropology

Amy Mulligan, Irish, Medieval Studies and Gender Studies

Stephen M. Fallon, Program of Liberal Studies and Dept of English

Jessica Shumake, University Writing Program and Gender Studies

Mandy L. Havert, Hesburgh Libraries

Dana Villa, Political Science

Stephen M. Hayes, Emeritus, Hesburgh Libraries

Catherine Perry, Emerita, Romance Languages & Literatures

Olivier Morel, Film, Television, and Theatre.

Darlene Catello, Music

Encarnación Juárez-Almendros, Emerita, Romance Languages & Literatures

James Sterba, Philosophy

Laura Bayard, Emerita, Hesburgh Libraries

Susan Sheridan, Anthropology

Mary E. Frandsen, Music

Mark Golitko, Anthropology

Christopher Ball, Anthropology

Gail Bederman, History

G. Margaret Porter, Emerita, Hesburgh Libraries

Cecilia Lucero, Center for University Advising

Peri E. Arnold, Emeritus, Political Science

Amitava Krishna Dutt, Political Science

Julia Marvin, Program of Liberal Studies

Julia Adeney Thomas, History

Michael C. Brownstein, East Asian Languages & Cultures

Christopher Liebtag Miller, Medieval Institute

Maxwell Johnson, Theology

John Sitter, Emeritus, English

Robert Norton, German

Hye-jin Juhn, Hesburgh Libraries

Denise M. Della Rossa, German

Sotirios A. Barber, Political Science

Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Film, TV and Theatre

Jeff Diller, Mathematics

Ann Mische, Sociology and Peace Studies

Zygmunt Baranski, Romance Languages & Literatures

Robert R. Coleman, Emeritus, Art History

William Collins Donahue, German, FTT, & Keough

Sarah McKibben, Irish Language and Literature

George A. Lopez, emeritus, Kroc Institute

Mark Roche, German

Nelson Mark, Economics

Vittorio Hosle, German, Philosophy and Political Science

Tobias Boes, German 

A. Nilesh Fernando, Economics

Fred Dallmayr, Emeritus, Philosophy and Political Science

Greg Kucich, English

Kate Marshall, English

Mark A. Sanders, English

Christopher Hamlin, History

Meredith S. Chesson, Anthropology

Ricardo Ramirez, Political Science

Stephen Fredman, Emeritus, English

Dan Graff, History and the Higgins Labor Program

Henry Weinfield, Program of Liberal Studies (Emeritus)

Mary R. D’Angelo, Theology (Emerita)

Asher Kaufman, Kroc Institute, History

Stephen J. Miller, Music

Janet A. Kourany, Philosophy and Gender Studies

Michelle Karnes, English

Jill Godmilow, Emerita, Film, Television & Theatre

Mary Beckman, Emerita, Center for Social Concerns

Clark Power, Program of Liberal Studies

Richard Williams, Sociology

Benedict Giamo, Emeritus, American Studies

Ernesto Verdeja, Political Science and Peace Studies 

Catherine Schlegel, Classics

Margaret A. Doody, English, Professor Emerita 

Marie Collins Donahue, Eck Institute of Global Health

 David C. Leege, Emeritus, Political Science

Xavier Creary, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (Emeritus)
Romana Huk, PhD, English
Joseph M. Parent, Professor of Political Science
Mary Celeste Kearney, Film, Television, and Theatre, and Gender Studies
Richard Sheehan, Ph.D., Department of Finance, Mendoza College of Business
Marty Wolfson, Emeritus, Economics
Michael Kackman, PhD, Department of Film, Television, and Theatre
Ann Marie Power, PhD, Sociology

“When the Looting Starts, the Shooting Starts”: Anti-Black Higher Ed Pedagogical Ideologies and Practices

By Jamila Kareem

The Precedents.

“America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. So looting is what you do; we learned it from you. We learned violence from you.” –Tamika Mallory, Activist

“Break precedent!” –Victor Villanueva in “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism”

In the 14th century, Mansa of Mali, Abubakari II dared explore the reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. He never returned.

Over 100 years later, Christopher Columbus found a world that already existed and called it new.

Most of our schools teach only one of these legends. Like the bodies that hold its histories, one of them is seen as simply unworthy of systematic knowledge.

When we tell you to “Say their names” …

Screen Shot 2020-07-21 at 1.31.50 PM

… we are combating long-held habit of cultural forgetting. We are resisting the institutionalized erasure of our people.

The Testaments.

The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Jerame Reed, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Tanisha Anderson, Emmett Till, and too many others occurred alongside the propagation of education ideals that demote Black existence in the U.S. and across the world. Like Trump, the police departments, commissions, and supporting legal system that interacted with these lives were inculcated in a hierarchy of schooling that devalues the same lives. I concur with Jones and Williams that “white America tends to focus on the ‘progress’ of this nation through racialized lenses, [but] Black America has had to grapple with the terrors and tragedies that have come out of the white imagination.” So when universities, colleges, textbook publishers, education councils, and K-12 school districts say some version of “we stand with Black Lives Matter,” I am skeptical. I am wary. How can I not be after being both a victim and a beneficiary of the racialized social system that influences these entities?

I think the first time someone said to me “You talk like a white girl” outside the home happened in third grade. At that age, the accusation affected me minimally. My school teachers were White, some of my friends were White, and the people who lived in the nice well-kept clean houses on TV were White. In fact, I, along with the other kids from the hood, was bussed 35 minutes one way to an all-White neighborhood to attend school throughout the week. Talking White didn’t feel like an insult but an observation. Although most of my real friends were other Black kids from the hood and the cadence of my speech came unintentionally, in truth, I probably thought to talk like a White girl was a preferable way to be in the world. My teachers rewarded it because the speech had been a byproduct of something greater–the adoption of a whiteness-centric lens on the world. A world where invoking the mannerisms and ideologies associated with venerated whiteness is the controlling perspective.

You’ll notice that I won’t mention POTUS much in this post. Comedian Dave Chappelle might have summated my thoughts best: “He’s not making a wave; he’s surfing it.” Mr. Trump is the product of a system that has told him that his life as a rich, White, heterosexual American Judeo-Christian male is worth more than other lives, as are the lives of people like him. Our higher education systems have been structured to imply to students and teachers that they must represent that existence as much as possible for their lives to have worth.

You literally strip our histories, voices, experiences—our proofs of existence—from your knowledge bases, therefore not only racializing the curriculum but also racializing what we consider common knowledge. Natasha N. Jones and Miriam F. Williams remind us that even as, “America perceives itself to be a nation of imaginative thinkers, often the imagining of Black folks is not productively acknowledged, properly amplified, or respectfully appreciated.”  So how can we not expect so many of our students and their families to feel, at best, excluded or, at worst, persecuted by the very system meant to acclimate them into an American society that will only induce these attitudes?

The Deeds.

In the last three years, The Chronicle of Higher Education published 794 articles and special reports related to issues of race in higher education. To say that racism has permeated the education of our college students long before they enter college classrooms for the first time is a comment on more than the curriculum. The coursework that students complete reflects but one relic of anti-blackness rather than represent the ideology on its own.

One of several controversial, racially-biased tweets by University of Central Florida psychology professor, Charles Negy. Following the racial awakening from the protests around George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders by police, a vast number of students, staff, and faculty of the university called for Dr. Negy’s termination. As of the writing of the post, Negy still works for the university.


While many of our conservative-leaning counterparts in academia, like the author of the tweet above, sing tales of the leftist social justice snowflake warrior university systems blanketed in the liberal values of multiculturalism, most racial justice efforts of the academy come only as far as they reproduce the established order. Most instruction about African peoples in the U.S. begins with ancestors as chattel in shackles at the whim of White citizens. These lessons tell us that the most honored culture of whiteness enslaved us and freed us. As if to insinuate, behave—model our behaviors—or you will remain in shackles. If not physically, then socially and psychologically. And while what has become known as White guilt may manifest some remorse or simply regret in the consciousness of dominant White American racial group, having this point of initiation for the Black American community also defines a racial contract (Mills) in the consciousness. This is a contract that tells a teacher—White, Black, or otherwise—that it’s acceptable, even commendable, to punish Black students for exhibiting common child and adolescent behaviors. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Black American students are suspended at a significantly higher rate than any other racial group in pre-college schools.

It’s the same racial contract that correlates the educated voice to “talking White” and writing White. These imprints on our collective racial consciousness cause teachers, administrators, and education policymakers to accept Black American language patterns in lower scale academic sociolinguistic situations but not in higher scale contexts (Blommaert). This way of perceiving allows White adolescents to streak their hair in blue or green or pink and gets braided up Black young women sent home or suspended. Such a perception gives education institutions—both the system itself and individual sites—license to loot the artifacts of Black cultures that they see fit and to demolish the remaining pieces to cultural rubble. It tells society that the best way—perhaps, the only way—to survive truly is to revere, assimilate into, and practice Whiteness-validated ways of knowing. This innate sense of racial socialization reduces the beginnings of a millennia-long history of an entire rich, abounding culture to only 500 years of presence—to a foundational point of enslavement, subjugation, tragedy, and defeat. Even among the snowflake social justice warrior liberals.

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. culturally and ideologically loots and shoots Black people, as it has for so long, with little to no sustainable alteration in the collective racial consciousness. In popular culture, we can witness this through things like the appropriation of box braids, micro braids, cornrows, afros, and other Black-created hairstyles. The validity of these styles as well as Black-invented dance styles, and even Black American language vernacular only hold cultural capital when they are proliferated through mainstream White American social structures. this approach is true of the higher education system overall as well. There, black American cultural customs and histories are used as a tool to feign ideals of diversity, inclusion, equality, even anti-racism–within the confines of the Euro-Western Judeo-Christian middle-class straight cisgender male power structure. The emblem of the White savior social justice Warrior. But would any of these proponents of inclusion take the time to design a curriculum that teaches the lifestyles of medieval West Africa with the same appreciation of medieval Europe? Are they willing to research and understand Afrocentric or Black-American-centric worldviews the way that Black children and families have to assimilate into whiteness-centric worldviews? How significantly are they willing to even contemplate, let alone address, the ways their ideologies in and out of classrooms and conference rooms might harm Black students, faculty, and staff? As discussed above, mainstream education practices (figuratively) shoot Black Americans by attempting to force the blackness–our original sin–out of us by any means necessary.

If U.S. higher education truly wants its antiracist, inclusive talk to be trusted, and to have meaning in Black American communities, it must systemically address the ways it has and continues to contribute to the ideological loading and shooting of black communities. We are not there yet.

Jamila M. Kareem, Ph.D., is a teacher-scholar researching critical race theory in Jamila_Kareem_Bio_Pic(small)composition studies. Her research examines the connections between race, discourse, writing, and pedagogy. She is a CCCC Scholar for the Dream, whose work has been published by Teaching English in the Two-Year CollegeJournal of College Literacy and LearningJAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, and in the collections Diverse Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Writing Across the Curriculum: IWAC at 25 and The Good Life and the Greater Good in a Global Context. She has scholarship forthcoming in Literacy in Composition Studies and in the collection Mobility Work in Composition. She teaches as an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.


Abe, D. (2016). Eric Garner [Photograph]. Black Past.

Anderson, J. (2020). Breonna Taylor was an EMT working at two hospitals when she was shot and killed in March [Photograph]. P. Ashley, Wave3 News.

Associated Press. (2020). George Floyd, 46 [Photograph]. ABC7 Eyewitness News.

BBC News. (2014). Michael Brown in headphones from Facebook [Photograph]. BBC News.

Blommaert, J. (2007). Sociolinguistic scales. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4(1), 1–19. DOI 10.1515/IP.2007.001

Dean, M. (2015). Tanisha Anderson [Photograph]. The Guardian.

Gray, F. (2015). Freddie Gray photo from Instagram [Photograph]. C. Rentz, The Baltimore Sun.

Hartsfield-Reid, L. (2016). Jerame Reid, 36, of Upper Deerfield Township [Photograph]. M. Miller, The Press of the Atlantic.

HBO. (2018). Profile of Sandra Bland, a former Naperville resident who died in police custody in a Texas jail in 2015 [Photograph]. The Chicago Tribune.

Jones, N. N. & Williams, M. F. (2020, June 11). The just use of imagination: A call to action. Teacher Scholar Activist.

Law Offices of John Burris. (2018). Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old transit rider who was shot and killed by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009 [Photograph]. E. Baldassari & D. Debolt, Mercury News.

Leiderman, S., Potapchuk, M., & Butler, S. (n.d.). The anatomy of white guilt. Racial Equity Tools. Retrieved July 12, 2020 from

Library of Congress. (2015). Emmett Till [Photograph].

Loopmaniac. (2020, June 10). Tamika Mallory – The Most Powerful Speech of a Generation (No Music) [Video]. YouTube.

Mills, C. W. (1997). The racial contract. Cornell UP.

Mother of Aiyana Jones (2013). Aiyana Jones photo from mother Facebook page [Photograph]. D. Bukowski, Voice of Detroit.

Negy, Charles [@CharlesNegy]. (2020, June 2). I’ve often said something similar: People who think “whites are the problem” would find if whites suddenly disappeared from earth [Tweet]. Twitter.

Nunley, C. (2019, May 3). Hair politics: How discrimination against Black hair in schools impacts Black lives. The Politic.

Olson, R. (2017). Philando Castile [Photograph]. Star Tribune.

The CWPA Executive Board and Officers. (2020, June 23). CWPA Statement on Racial Injustice. Council of Writing Program Administrators.

U.S. Department of Commerce. (2019, February). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. National Center for Education Statistics.

Villanueva, V. (1999). On the rhetoric and precedents of racism. College Composition and Communication, 50(4), 645-661. doi:10.2307/358485.


Educator-Activism: The Linchpin of a Rewarding Career

By Sarah Thomas

When asked to meet an “Ides of March” deadline, I scarcely could have imagined the foreboding tone–this reference to Julius Caesar’s murder– would be more apt than humorous.

Just a few days before my March 15th deadline, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shut down.  For the semester.

It’s common knowledge Midwestern universities are proud of their resistance to external interference. Blizzards or edification? The experienced bet on the latter.

But close indefinitely, schools did.

And within just a few weeks, our lives radically altered through coronavirus impacts.
While we all are getting our bearings, taking care of individual needs, and finding our way during this wildly disorienting time, there is a kind of symmetry in writing about educator-activism.


Because educator-activists are attuned to disruptions and external interferences—Sarah Thomas 1observe them as a call to reflection and responsible professional action. While Covid-19 is an unprecedented disruption and interference, preparing to resist and overcome antagonistic forces is well-practiced for the educator-activist.

Tracing through nearly thirty years of practice, it’s clear I’ve always been an educator-activist. I’ve learned that to protect democratic education and sustain meaningful learning, we need fighters in our field, and I’m proud to be one.

I’ve served as a professor of practice in Secondary English Education and Foundations for over ten years, and before that, taught for nearly twenty—mostly as a high school English teacher with a short early career stint of middle school teaching. My partner landed his dream job, so we lived a few years in Austin, Texas when George W. Bush was governor and NCLB was piloted.

Through my tenure at Lake Travis Middle School, I now understand that period as catalyst for shaping my educator-activist identity.  Though nearly twenty-five years ago, I still recall my time there in two vivid parts: pre-NCLB and post-NCLB.

Pre-NCLB, my school was known for its creative and experimental ethos, its multi-disciplinary approach to learning, its valuing of student-centered and teacher-designed pedagogy, and its resistance to bureaucratic methods slicing learning into slivers. Students were taught the scientific method, then experimented in constructivist projects now described as “maker-spaces,” learned from visiting artists, created portfolios to exhibit learning process and achievements, and weren’t distracted with the trifles of lifeless worksheets and invasive bells. Austin’s temperate climate allowed us to flow naturally into the center courtyard–the hub for all of our classrooms–for recess or what we now hyperbolize as “nature bathing.” The science teacher brought favorite critters out—the tarantula was king—and my Language Arts colleague often played her acoustic guitar, as she played weekend gigs on 6th Street, the site of nationally-renowned South by Southwest music festival.

So, that was the nostalgic part.

The post-NCLB part, where all Texas schools piloted State Standards, is less vivid than the previous scene.  Pervasive tension instead of dynamic imagery remains most memorable. The atmosphere changed—felt heavier and unfamiliar. Invasive, even dehumanizing. I remember an incremental shift in organizational structures—more meetings, more discussion about “getting on the same page,” more observed relief from less talented teachers desiring control in curriculum clarity and classroom life; more outrage from teachers well-known for their relational, intellectual, and creative gifts.  My much-beloved guitar-playing colleague started looking into graduate school in the fine arts; the magical science teacher retired early; my first mentor, our 8th grade team leader who remains among the most inventive and relationally elegant teachers I’ve witnessed, resigned.

They just couldn’t see promise in our field’s future with such massive, decontextualized intrusions from the state, then federal government, from policy makers unqualified to make sweeping  professional demands.  These well-meaning structures and dictates aiming to leave no child behind felt ironic from the beginning.  Who, indeed—first through disenfranchising excellent teachers–would stand to get ahead, the exiting gifted and relationally talented teachers wondered. What legitimate scholarship or even anecdotal experiences would support standardization as an inspirational and motivating framework for teaching and learning?

And they were right.  Still are right.

I was only in my fourth year of teaching at that point.  I was too young to lose hope.  And like my FDR-revering grandfathers, I could close down a tavern arguing for a more humane world. So, I started preparing for a career of resistance and professional activism.

I went to grad school. For ten years.  I thought I could educate my way toward resolving the problem of our increasingly mandate-loving field which pressures teachers to lead through fear of non-compliance and students to lose investment and heart.

The longer I taught and felt too hemmed in, the more I felt compelled to lead through field-loving resistance.  This orientation led me to critical and relational pedagogy, aesthetic philosophy and constructivism.  I devoured Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Ernest Morell; couldn’t get enough of Antonia Darder, Parker Palmer, and Nel Noddings; then became saturated with Maxine Greene, John Dewey, and Elliot Eisner.

Conversations with scholars like these turned into a lifestyle.  And a refuge. When national mandates kept slicing teaching and learning into small and fractured slivers, these wise perspectives kept pushing for teaching the whole human, for placing relational and life-enhancing work above test preparation, for honoring my developing expertise and innovative capacities in service of radiant and rewarding education.

What I’ve learned through the sustained tensions defining my career is that educators must fight against playing themselves small in service of bureaucracy above education.

I’ve learned that self-identifying as an educator-activist is supremely important for enjoying the work long term.

And with that satisfaction, I’ve learned that life-touching is made possible when teachers—who have the expertise– stand up and take field-loving risk for the integrity of their profession.

Since a vibrant education led by highly qualified, innovative teachers, not bureaucrats, is the bedrock of a healthy democracy, I remain proud to have committed my life to a field that needs me to be a fighter.  That needs me not to shrink from self-identifying as an educator-activist.

Has the process been easy?  Absolutely not. Like many white mid-to-upper middle-class women raised to be a people pleasers and conflict avoiders, I’ve had my share of sleepless nights, major disappointments, and conflicts. As a recovering people pleaser and conflict avoider, I also now realize those hardships were not as hard or risky as they seemed at the time.  Still, identifying as an educator-activist can feel “maverick” and lonely to the point where I’ve considered changing careers.

But as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Anything that’s worth having is worth fighting for.”

While fighting for the integrity of educational excellence and against the de-professionalizing of teachers represents the lion’s share of my educator-activism, another fight needs laser-beam and unrelenting attention.

As educator-activists, we lead most honorably and effectively when students, their families, and our communities observe us fighting for wellness and justice in multi-marginalized communities.  While classroom life is enveloping, I’m now acutely aware educators must be value-adding and advocating community agents. All those years of advocating for teacher agency and curricular integrity was well worth it; and yet, if I had it to do over again, I would more fierce-lovingly advocate for students’ well-being and thriving beyond the classroom.

My shift in educator-activism now addresses community-impacting issues, our families, and ultimately, our classrooms.  My professional context has widened.  And like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide, I am seeing the more I reach out in support of my larger community, the more healthy reverberation spills into the classroom.

A watershed moment amplified this growing part of my educator-activist identity in February of 2019. Alarmed by dehumanizing rhetoric and threatening policy targeting immigrant students and families across the nation—which reached an unthinkable fever pitch through “Zero Tolerance” policy producing thousands of family separations–I felt gutted.  I couldn’t look away from this human rights atrocity and remain only or even primarily focused on my campus responsibilities. So much more was demanded from us. Our students, their loved ones, were being traumatized across the nation. I felt immense shame and ethical conflict when focusing on unrelated aspects of my work.  Given how normalized dehumanizing rhetoric and practices from our President had become and how unchecked, I knew his abuses of power would continue with impunity.

I felt nauseous.  I couldn’t sleep. I felt guilty as a bystander.

Previously, a Lincoln High School Social Studies educator and I were working in close collaboration through the Husker Writing Project featuring university professors working alongside secondary educators.  The experience was reminiscent of my Lake Travis days. Over the course of two years, these university—high school partnerships yielded innovative curriculum positioning students as writers for authentic community audiences.  When opportunity arose to join a national Teach-In coordinated by Teachers Against Child Detention, the experience felt like a natural outgrowth of that civic-engaged work.

The event was orchestrated by the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, and involved Teachers of the Year across all fifty states. The Teach-In ended in a march to the Juarez/El Paso border alongside Mexican educators, where we formed a circle of solidarity at the border I will never forget.

It was at that point I made a commitment to return and amplify my community engagement and activism in Lincoln, Nebraska.

On the plane, I wrote an editorial about the Teachers Against Child Detention Stand In for our local paper. That publication inspired a TEDx Talk eventually shared at the Lied Center for Performing Arts with a handful of speakers from wide-ranging fields addressing disruptions.

While writing my TED Talk, famous cellist, Yo Yo Ma’s, image surfaced and brought with it a reminder of my commitment as community educator-activist.  Cello against concrete with no accompanying orchestra, he played his instrument at the southern border.  In fact, he rearranged his concert series to take place at southern border spaces that year—to hold space in the music of hard questions and moral courage.

Yo Yo Ma offering his passionate instrumental voice at the border became an apt metaphor for the community educator-activist.

After TEDx, I inquired through social media if others were interested in building coalition with area churches for weekly “Stand Ins” supporting immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.  The idea was to remind our community on Sunday mornings that injustices persisted against those fleeing desperate circumstances in Central America and Mexico, and affirm community values of love, inclusion, diversity, and compassion.  Signage would be positive, attempting to counter the race-baiting and fear-mongering stoked at our highest levels of government. Offering responsive positive messaging felt urgent, as upticks in documented bullying, racism, and hate crimes in schools and communities pervaded nation-wide.

Nearly one year and over sixty weekly Stand-Ins later, the initial vision featuring immigration advocacy and justice grew into more formalized structures: three mutually reinforcing grassroots human rights organizations under the Stand in for Nebraska canopy:  Stand in for Lincoln, Stand in for Omaha, and the Nebraska Poor People’s Campaign.  Leadership across these organizations reflects horizontal structures—Community Organizing Circles (COCs)–comprised of diverse, multi-generational members leading different organizational facets.

The binding tie centralizes advocacy for Nebraskans on the margins. Challenging oppressive realities (systemic oppressions) impacting Nebraskans through persistent advocacy, education, voter registration and turn-out support, and policy demands to empower the most vulnerable are central modes across the three organizations.

Fierce and unyielding love is our driving force advancing demands for justice, for wellness, for Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the “beloved community.” Fierce love, we believe, is the most hearty, sustainable and transformational human force.

Fierce love also drives realization of Bryan Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world by:

1, Challenging and changing toxic narratives: Stand in for Nebraska members repeatedly ask, ‘What stories are being told about groups of people that diminish and disempower—that warrant refutation, a community counter-narrative?’ For educators, ‘How will we use our positions as educator-activists in and out of school to help advance a healthy counter-narrative and robustly advocate for impacted students? Stand in for Nebraska uses these questions as a compass for planning value-adding community actions. In effect, educators may become more trusted change agents working in coalition-building roles. These are the role models our students desire to see—ones who will stand up and stand in for all students’ well-being and thriving.

2. Getting inconvenienced: To change toxic narratives and develop empowering infrastructures naturally requires presence: showing up over….and over….and over.  Getting inconvenienced. It’s important to interrogate how we spend time in and beyond our school communities. Does our lifestyle reflect multicultural community engagements and meaningful relationships? Pushing beyond inclinations to gravitate to and enclose ourselves in familiarities is essential to build educator-activist self-identification.

As we interrogate our lifestyles and priorities, the next inconveniencing question is how much time are spent actively working to disrupt systems of oppression?  Reading Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, is implicative in this way. Becoming an educator-activist requires identifying systems and cultural norms favoring one group and hindering others through community engagement and activism.  The educator-activist is one who notices and names patterns in school and community contexts reinforcing inequities. Such professionals don’t merely identify them but then actively work to change them.  For instance, he/she may notice more black and brown males are taking on-level or remedial reading courses. Why is that true? And rather than blaming the student or observing the pattern as inevitable, the educator-activist gets curious, creative, and collaborative—sees the inequity as opportunity for disruption and innovation.  A project is born…

While that disruptive work may feel daunting within layered professional commitments, such an emphasis need not become a second job.

In a developing educator-activist’s personal life, re-routing a family routine to involve an evening at the Yazidi Community Center, when invited can feel inconveniencing and uncomfortable; and yet, the growth likely will be significant. Participating in a fundraiser for RAICES, an organization offering legal representation for immigrants seeking asylum instead of going to the movies may inspire more hope and community connection.  Supporting a First Friday community art exhibit featuring diverse up-and-coming artists will inspire new ways of looking at the world and potentially more expansive curriculum ideas for the classroom.  Participating in a State Capitol demonstration supporting the MMIW Movement (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) and defending indigenous rights offering an education and perspective that may change your life. Such experiences certainly changed mine. Instead of grading papers one Saturday afternoon, my partner and I decided to attend an MMIW demonstration at the State Capitol to learn and show or solidarity. Months later, I now am working on a partially funded project in which leaders of this movement are developing curriculum for community education to empower Native women and girls. My role now is to use my writing and networking skills to secure more funding for a five-year vision. The vision involves building a community center for Native women fleeing domestic violence and starting a new protected and empowered life. The center also will offer employment opportunities securing socioeconomic mobility for Native women.

So, the above are examples of small lifestyle shifts an educator-activist seeks to make.  One never knows, then, how such small shifts can afford substantial solidarity-building and innovations serving multi-marginalized communities.  By extension, then, students observe classroom role models who “walk the talk”—who are fighting for a better world in and out of the classroom.

Branching out from our routines and “getting inconvenienced” is never easy but most always rewarding if we aspire to be strong advocates for all of our students and their families.

3. Getting proximate: By disrupting our routines and extending the scope of our community experiences and connections, we get close—proximate—to issues and people with whom we may partner to build connection, understanding, effect change, and disrupt systemic oppressions. Getting proximate in multi-marginalized communities requires much humble persistence involving listening, inquiry, and learning above all. Such efforts often feel uncomfortable for awhile, as one’s otherness is evident and blind spots are exposed.  Embracing the discomforts and working on genuine trust-building gifts us with invaluable perspectives, stories, insights, and relationships.  Diversification of experience enriches our scope of understanding and worldviews and affords priceless competencies—especially empathy– through our development as respected and trusted instructional leaders.  Getting proximate builds community networking and infrastructures that, over time, yields possibility and hope in and beyond our school communities.  Healthy leaders have, among other things, the capacity to empathize. Getting proximate is an indispensable move in an educator-activist’s development.

4. Staying hopeful. Reaching in—doing the necessary introspection and personal work to understand one’s culture and others—while reaching out–prioritizing community networking with others over time–are rejuvenating and hope-affirming lifestyle patterns.  Primarily identifying as academic leaders, over time, is draining, isolating, and imbalancing.  Extending our scope of connection and value-adding influence feeds educator-activists in ways that nurture heart and mind leadership and impact.  As my father would say, such energies expended “fill our buckets” as we work to create a better world and, in doing so,  carve 0ut a fulfilling long-term career.

Through my career arc, I’m convinced embracing Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world—in and beyond our classrooms—helps educators develop self-identification as activists, as morally courageous fighters who can better leverage their advocacy resources and influences.  I implore more celebration of the good fighter in all of us, as student, community, and democratic education’s integrity depends upon it.  Lisa Delpit’s  recently published anthology, Teaching When the World is on Fire, opens with this poignant observation—an urgent call for educator-activists to rise. “Too many schools, day in and day out, are organized to smash creativity and courage, initiative and ingenuity.  This is the brutal masquerade called school offered to the descendants of formerly enslaved human beings, First Nation peoples, and immigrants from colonized communities.” (4) For it is when we fiercely love the whole child in and beyond our classrooms and fierce-lovingly resolve to build coalition in support of all students and their families, that American culture will better realize a more complete advocacy and national impact.

Sarah Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Secondary English Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches pre and in-service teachers. As a teacher educator, Dr. Thomas’s passions feature innovative curriculum design, mentoring new teachers in the field, and examining how democratic and international contexts inform 21st-century education.  Exploring new cultures with family, students, and solo is a great passion.  Most recently she enjoyed co-leading study abroad experiences in comparative education with UNL students in Costa Rica and South Africa and enjoyed a professional writing workshop in Prague, Czech Republic. During this sheltering in place period, she misses her adult children, Samantha and Jack, spends a lot of time hugging on her golden doodles, taking long walks with her partner, Jay, and finding ways to creatively advance Stand in for Nebraska activism. Protecting incarcerated populations is our major focus during the pandemic.



The Unprecedented: Teaching in an Age of Crisis and Mutation

by Brett Griffiths

I am impressed by you. Yes, you, all of you, all of us. In the middle of March, 2020, schools and colleges around the country began to close down as the Coronavirus s200_brett.griffithspandemic swept across the nation and emphatically nudged teachers and students online. Within hours—maybe a day?—a Pandemic Pedagogy group opened on Facebook. There, I watched as teachers-scholar-activists invited suggestions and shared resources, tested out philosophies for learning transfer in digital spaces, and emphatically encouraged one another to seek balance: balance their students’ learning outcomes with their emotional needs during a once-in-a-century global crisis, balance their own needs as humans with their responsibilities as teachers, balance the needs to shore up the appearance of safety through routine with the need to acknowledge catastrophe across our social, political, and wellness spheres.

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff writes, “The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented” (p. 12). Presenting examples from early industrialism (“the horseless carriage”), colonialism (the greeting of the first colonists as gods from across the water), and the domestic (collecting photographs as a fire rages through the structures of the home), Zuboff makes the case that our responses to the unprecedented are nearly always responses to a more familiar echo of the current situation rather than the situation as it is. “This is how,” she continues, “the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past.”

The current disruption in our education system differs in kind—and end, I hope—from the disruptions identified by Zuboff. However, her use of “the unprecedented” as a lens for observing our responses in the midst of the unknown and unknowable may be generative for thinking about how we—two-year college instructors, student support specialists, writing centers and tutors—respond to our current crisis. It may be a particularly productive lens for analyzing the teaching we do in two-year colleges because unprecedented affords an opportunity to slow our movement and observe our thinking—at least after the first chaotic sweep it made of business as usual. Having been required to “reform” on demand and “scale up quickly,” such a slowing down may be overdue. This moment invites us to observe the assumptions we made just prior to the unprecedented and to appreciate—and direct—the mutations in structure that follow. Indeed, we are creating them even now.

It is my argument that we have been pitching ourselves into the unprecedented for decades, that the current pandemic only makes the many failures of our adaptations to successive, exponential expansion and access in higher education visible. My argument calls us to name the short-term adaptations teachers, institutions, and administrators have made to “keep up” with the unprecedented, always through a lens of crisis and short-term outcomes. My call is to rethink the praxis and theories of our teaching and to identify the internal changes necessary in higher education successfully reach and enable all learners to succeed.Guardian Image


Mutations vs. Adaptations

Zuboff draws on Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of the “mutation”—“enduring, sustainable, qualitative shifts in the logic, understanding, and practice of capitalist accumulation” from “random, temporary, or opportunistic reactions to circumstances.” Schupeter’s original use of the term “industrial mutation” referred to the ways many industries had “revolutionized [their] economic structure[s] from within” (83, Kindle Loc 1712). There, Schupeter described revolutionizing industrial practices during the eras of early and post-industrialism through 1950, paying specific attention paid to U. S. Steel.[1] Schupeter’s critical frame is useful precisely because it highlights the behavioral responses of workers within a system restructuring the industry from within to shift the logic, understanding, and practices of their work. That restructuring intended to create more sustainable, resilient outcomes aligned with and in keeping with professional practices and excellence.

For educators, the framework of mutation may prove useful for identifying and establishing practices that shift our logic, understanding, and practices in response to the unprecedented expansion of higher education in the last half century. To reflect on our practices through this framework, we must distinguish between “adaptations” and “mutations”[2]. Adaptations in this framework are short-term, unsustainable responses. We might think of adaptations as bandages and tourniquets applied during crisis and mutations the medical interventions and preventative care necessary to sustain quality and longevity of life. In the end, chronic and severe medical complications will emerge, no matter how many emergent and first-aid interventions we implement for short-term management of their complications.

We can find no shortage of adaptations in higher education during the proliferation of college-for-all, including automatic registration systems, learning management systems, expansive adjunct hiring, expanded teaching overloads, deprofessionalization of faculty, placement testing, developmental course work, etc. We have lagged, nevertheless, in our development of mutations—sustained structural changes in our logic, understanding, and practices around higher education. In other words, we have developed many bandages aimed at sustaining the internal, physical, and intellectual lives of our students, of perpetuating a wounded and fundamentally obsolete system, and they cannot hold. Gaps exist, however, between these measures and the changes needed to sustainably and ethically support college-for-all in this country. There are myriad examples of such gaps.

One is highlighted in our current crisis: As colleges shifted to all-online learning with the frenzy that characterizes a crisis response, we ran into multiple barriers that made that herculean task even greater. Not only did many of our students lack access to computers and internet in their homes, so too did many of our faculty. More, we recognized that our educational institutions served expansive community missions beyond learning, including as distribution services for food through K-12 lunch programs and college food pantries and as public sites for information for the many citizens who access their newspapers, internet, and community news through our libraries, computer labs, and coffee shops. Access to the Internet and the knowledge and means to use it is a prerequisite for participation in nearly all civic and intellectual activities in this country. Our culture distributes the knowledge necessary to participate in society predominantly through digital means, including internet and HD-integrated cable news. Yet many of our college students, adjunct faculty, and teachers lack access to these very resources we have identified as “core” and “foundational” to civic life. The economic infrastructure of this country have left them digitally disenfranchised from all civic life.

In our current situation, teachers are again scrambling to attend to the most urgent of student needs while providing the best sense of normalcy they can for their students and for themselves. We see this playing in the synchronous/asynchronous online teaching wars right now. Whereas many instructors argue that synchronous, video-streaming is the best way to keep students feeling connected and to reinforce a sort of normal routine—arguments that certainly speak to the needs of many students—others caution that the lives of our most vulnerable students have changed in ways that are qualitatively different. They are caregivers at home. They may be working overtime as grocery delivery drivers, cashiers, healthcare aids, and other “essential” positions, especially as other family members may have lost their jobs in the crisis. These immediate concerns fail to even begin to register the additional risks to students who may face additional risks when required to attend their courses via video.

As we watched the city of New York make decisions about closure of their schools, we were neither surprised nor appalled by the knowledge that the districts were weighing the cost-benefit analysis of food access to virus spread.  It was a lives to lives cost benefit analysis they were conduction.  When the decision to close a school to save lives puts an entire district of families into a “trolley dilemma,” the structures that uphold that educational system can only be described as insufficient and obsolete. They are made so by the insufficient and obsolete structures of the society that shapes them. Of course, while New York City took center stage in the media as it made its decision, its dilemma was not singular. The same evaluation played out in the offices and conference calls of superintendents, principals, and teachers, of college provosts, faculty, and college presidents in rural, suburban, and urban settings. We have developed a school system that has scaffolded upon it the nutritional, moral, and civic responsibilities of a 21st century Frankenstein. Charged with a spectrum of missions and outcomes and perishing structural supports and resources, education—and educators—are doomed to chase our tails into eternity. That teachers every day in K-16 seek to fulfill these missions is inspiring; that such heroic machinations are necessary is a source of shame for our country. Shelley’s monster, we remember, had a creator.

A third example of the way higher education has sought to reify the familiar in the face of the unprecedented can be seen through analysis of the genesis of our Unprecedented—the expansion of access to higher education in the throes of uneven opportunity and racial constriction following incomplete and inequitable racial integration in the schools. The hangovers of racial mistrust and class privilege in higher education has resulted in a multi-tier hierarchical system of higher education. The elite and middle-class tiers remain steeped in the “familiar” structures of the early modern university. They adhere to academic structures that ritualize privilege and rely on the availability of one or more members of a family unit to devote four years of his or her (historically his) time to learning. It assumes the family can absorb or defer those costs. The lower tiers provide access to instruction, first through land-grant institutions and then through public, open-access two-year colleges. The successive waves of access have responded to industrialism and integration, with each social epoch of progress resulting in an additional tier of “access.” Institutions that offer “access” remain most prolifically defined by what they are “not”—they are “not” like the elite, residential colleges that perpetuate “the familiar.” Within these tiers, the access missions of two-year colleges remain unprecedented—impossible to understand and sustain except through the lens of the familiar—the traditional college, a framework that perpetually casts the historically unprecedented expansion of instruction in terms of its distinction from the familiar, and a failure to develop sustained mutations to make such instruction equitable, sustainable, and—yes, understandable through its’ own lens.

During this time of disruption, the unprecedented requires that we observe ourselves through a Schroedinger lens—to see ourselves as both adapting and failing to adapt to the circumstances. The full contexts and experiences of our students are fundamentally out of view, because it has been designed this way, because Americans have wanted it this way, because it is easier to declare hard-working winners and lazy losers when we do not have to see our students and workers scraping by.  We have to be willing to name the behaviors we identify.  Instructors who aim to recapture “class time” they view as “time lost” through a cascade of additional, supplemental work, those who require synchronous class meetings despite the known technological and personal barriers experienced by their students can ONLY be seen as clenching tightly to the reigns of this new “horseless carriage,” doing their best to keep at bay the unprecedented through the framework of the familiar. But everything has changed. Everything has been changing for decades. We must stop restructuring the shape of our wake to resemble a path we are no longer traveling. In the words of Chris Riddell, editorial cartoonist at the Guardian: “What must change after all this is over? Everything.”

Everything Must Change

A sustainable restructuring of higher education requires a restructuring of American life, K-12 education, our food distribution system and our assessment of winning and losing within the capitalist paradigm. Expanded access to college—and the subsequent implicit expectation for college-for-all—should have resulted in an equitable distribution of students across socio-economic backgrounds and geographies, but that is not the case, and our academic journals are replete with reasons why. Yet,  college educators, administrators, and education policy-makers have layered additional adaptations within the system, expanding and then contracting developmental course work, revising placement procedures, accelerating and stretching curriculum content over time—all the while recognizing that all of these reformations fail to change the one thing that must change: how we structure our K-16 education system to prepare and support all learners to participate capably in a college-for-all culture. We keep adding tools, options, bridges, and scaffolds to make a fundamentally unsustainable system hobble further forward. We have failed, nevertheless, to examine what needs to fundamentally change—what educators need from one another and how they can work with one another to redesign system in which we work to make “enduring, sustained, qualitative” shifts in our systems. Such an examination would put kindergarten teachers and college instructors in the same room to discuss learning trajectories for all students. Such an examination would examine the potentials and protocols for randomly assigning school enrollment and sustainably funding school districts—yes, revised bussing and equitable distributions of tax funds. Such an examination would begin and end with individual learning and cultural contexts and would have the luxury of asking first what concepts are essential to 21st century living and now, how can we keep our students alive, fed, and “on track” for another day.

If we have been living within the unprecedented for decades, then how do we make the invisible visible to ourselves? Once visible, how do restructure from within against a dominant, deprofessionalizing narrative that seeks to undermine those very efforts (e.g., the educational industrial complex). Even as I am writing this, I am mindful that I cannot *see* the very changes I want us to consider. But certainly, we can agree that any educational system must be found insufficient and obsolete when both students AND faculty lack the basic technology and tools necessary to participate in the dominant definitions of civic life. We can agree that we cannot first assess schools on their students’ learning outcomes when they must prioritize keeping students alive, fed, and attending above the elite and esoteric goals of gaining and critiquing knowledge, of applying knowledge to new situations, of synthesizing what they’ve learned into their expanding goals of what it means to be human, capable, and contributing. And a country and culture endorses such insufficient structures—or worse, denies or reduces funds from schools who must divert their energies to provide the essentials of human living prior to intellectual engagement—is not merely naïve but criminally negligent in its assessments. A country that creates an expansive system of open-access colleges and promotes them as an avenue of democracy and social advancement while shackling the possibilities of its teachers and administrators with insufficient funds, too, stands similarly accused.

To rethink the unprecedented is to ask, if had understood what was happening in that moment as I understand it now, what would I now know was necessary? We can easily look back on the invention of the automobile and identify it as something different from a stagecoach. We have accepted its horselessness into our schema of vehicles. In fact, for most of us, the sight of a horse and carriage is a novelty. Like creating reigns for a horseless carriage, our adaptations have responded to the familiar—added modifications that in essence strain to reaffirm the familiar—to remake and reify the elite university model by offering layered adaptations that, rational and well-intended, establish all other modes of higher education as “other” and fail to address the one crucial truth: higher education for all is unprecedented. It is now, and it was in the 1960s when the open college movement began. In the decades that followed, we have expanded and contracted in our commitment to its promise. We have lauded its goals and criticized its outcomes. In all of these moves, however, we have overlooked the one quintessential quality necessary to acknowledging and advancing its promise: it is unprecedented. It cannot be known until it exists, and all efforts to structure its form in the shape of the familiar will, nearly by definition, fail.

If we imagine a future in which education is perfected—one in which we are not identifying the limitations of what we have nor attaching bandages to what ails the current system, what keeps two-year colleges from looking and operating like universities, we can perhaps open new ways of thinking. What do we need for a college-for-all culture to succeed? What does that look like? What would need to change in our culture and in our colleges to make learning neither “other” nor “familiar” but to offer it precedence, the beginning of the new normal? What must we see to unsee our own famiilars and to radically reinvent our teaching and learning to accommodate those ideals? We need to revolutionize from the inside. The concept of the unprecedented and the lens of mutations offers a heuristic for articulating those structural changes, and it is quite possible that in our conversations in Facebook groups and in our Zoom classrooms, those shapes of those changes are beginning to emerge. I, for one, hope so.

[1]  I acknowledge that deleterious effects have nearly always resulted when applying economic theory to educational outcomes. Those deleterious effects stem from applying a supply and demand notion of capitalist gains, wherein “learning outcomes” stand in for “goods and services,” and teachers are substituted for the machines that make such products possible.

[2] Apologies to scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who I believe would transpose these definitions.

Brett Griffiths directs the Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, where she serves as a teacher-scholar-activist for trauma-informed, anti-racist writing pedagogy. She also teaches workshops on scientific writing for the Big Data Summer Institute at the University of Michigan. Her work primarily examines how faculty identities are developed and sustained in two-year colleges, as well as through interinstitutional collaborations. Her academic work appears in PedagogyTeaching English in the Two-Year College, and College Composition and Communication, and in several anthologies on writing instruction. Her Creative work has appeared in Ohio State’s The JournalPoemMemoirStory, and elsewhere.

The Job of Teaching in Uncertain Times

by Michael Hill

In 2014, back before we had a president who would explicitly admit that he didn’t trust Muslims, I had a Muslim student who was convinced he being followed by Immigration, the FBI, and local police. He told stories of black SUVs, of white dudes where there should be no white dudes, of squealing tires and corners. Now, to be clear, it would not be such an unusual situation to have immigration or the FBI tailing someone in our city. My college is a community college in Dearborn, MI, the Middle-East of the Mid-West. White dudes have been watching people in this town since the Iranian hostage situation and the situation of watching has only grown more intense, more oppressive in the past twenty years. Still, this student’s claims were a bit laden with conspiracy theory, a bit performative, a bit boastful, a bit tinged by the “what if?” It was as if he was testing out the possibilities of a reality and scaring himself (and his classmates) with the hint of that reality.

As we progress through a semester that has been made tense by factors external to the classroom–rumors of war, trials about presidential misdeeds, campaigns rife with political conflict, and daily news stories on racist and violent crimes–I’m thinking about that student and the pains that have been inflicted upon his community and his extended family. I’m thinking about how, even if his being followed was partial fantasy, he has still experienced the cultural trauma of constant suspicion from his internet, TV, and world. How he was four when Muslims became evil; how he was ten when the citizenship of an American President was questioned because of his Arabic-sounding name; how he was just learning to drive as black men were being shot for walking the streets; how we have neglected to create for him world where he can feel welcome no matter his religion, his name, his skin. And I’m thinking about how my classroom provided him a bit of a haven where he could test out his fears; express his anxiety–and for a moment feel a little welcome to just be.

As a nation, we are once again, perhaps inevitably so, being drawn into ever more propaganda and rhetoric encouraging us to disparage and deny the humanity of our Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern citizens, neighbors and world-sharers. We all have our 9/11 stories, of course, and many of them involve fear and sadness. Part of my 9/11 story happened in the classroom. I was teaching a Comp I course at 11:00 am, thirty-two minutes after the second tower fell. I was a new Lecturer teaching a class full of first-year students in the second week of classes, so I did what I was supposed to do, I went to class even though I was blind with shock and fear. During that class, a class where we forgot about everything except questions and feelings, I had two distinct moments of clarity: 1) My male students of military age were about to face unyielding pressure to give up their education and 2) My Muslim students were going to have to wake up the next morning in a nation with a rekindled hate for their identities. During that class, we listened and cried and talked about whether we would have class on Thursday and I ended the class by asking students to love and support each other, to think through the jingoism and hate they were going to hear over the next few days, and to reach out in friendship to Muslim students in their midst.

I tell you these stories as a precursor to asking you to think about your classroom as a haven for students who may well be feeling uncertain in the world this semester. College students are in a particularly precarious emotional position—they are, by their very nature, people who have not yet attained, or are in the process of changing, their authority in the world. The college classroom is the one space that allows them the freedom to experience authority, to practice it, to find out what it means to use their voice to declare their truths in the world. This semester we are certain to have students whose entire understanding of the world around them is being challenged by the events and the voices talking about those events. If our classrooms are already spaces that invite students into paradigm change, imagine how students might be experiencing those classrooms in a tense, war-torn, politically volatile, hate-filled world as the one they are going to experience this semester.

We should–we must–consider the well-being of our students in this setting. Student well-being is at the center of our jobs.

The consideration of how our students are doing as developing people, as citizens, as individuals with emotional lives is fraught, of course. Feelings are icky and student-care can be sloppy. I can just hear how some of my own undergraduate professors from the 1980s might have responded to this: “I’m a writing teacher,” one might say, “Not a social worker.” Another might say, “Look, the world might blow up or not, but I just teach Geology.” As instructors though, we open ourselves up to the responsibility to look out for those students who enter our classroom. Certainly, we are responsible for curriculum, but we are also responsible for the lives experience within that curriculum. Indeed, how can we possibly expect students to engage in our classrooms if we never consider how the world outside our classrooms might be affecting their capacities for engagement?

During my time teaching, I have had students experience emotional breakdowns and physical seizures; I have watched students cower in fear during an active shooter event; I have hidden students from violent partners; I have seen students pass out from hunger; I have had students come to class the day after their child had died. My experiences are not all that unique, particularly for a community college instructor. In each case, I had to both deal with the humanity that was presenting itself while also considering how these moments of humanity might affect student learning. As an English instructor, I have, perhaps, slightly more access to the interior lives of my students simply because they write about those lives, but I know my Math, my Electrical Engineering, and my Culinary Arts colleagues all have similar experiences. One cannot have such experiences without building capacity for care and a sense of responsibility for one’s students. Or, at least, one cannot have such experiences without this capacity unless one is a very bad teacher indeed.

This semester, we are going to have students who are afraid of war. We are going to have students who are angry at people who do not look like them. We are going to have students who are stressed out by the rhetorical leaps that our politicians will take as they campaign. Our students are going to experience prejudice, violence, and hate because of their names, their beliefs, the colors of their skin, and the fact that their families originated in a country different from that in which they go to school. We are going to have students who experience death and destruction.

We should be aware of this impending pain. And we must be aware of our jobs. The lives of students are at the center of our jobs.

The classroom, of course, is the space where we, as instructors, might best and most appropriately put support for student well-being into action. This doesn’t mean that our classrooms need become spaces of sharing and processing, though we should be open to that possibility if a day comes when traumas in the news are so overwhelming that there could be no other curriculum than each other. We don’t have to hug, bring cookies, or even put on a veneer of sweetness. But we should be aware that our students have a possibility of safety, self-awareness and empowerment in our classrooms and we can enhance that possibility by building supportive and caring spaces.

So, how can we build such spaces? I will humbly suggest a few guidelines for building a haven for students within our classrooms. There are probably better techniques out there; indeed I would argue that every teacher within every individual classroom with every specific set of students builds their own techniques. These suggestions are largely meant as reminders or as markers to assess how our classrooms become spaces where our students experience support:

  • Welcome students to class, even in April when you are tired. Welcome them daily and let them know that you are there with them.
  • Invite students into the process of your class. Help them be engaged. Make them feel like they are a part of what’s going on. Try creating a more active classroom, a more communal classroom, a more discursive classroom.
  • Create a democratic space wherein students’ voices have authority, power, and validity. Allow them to showcase their abilities in a space where those abilities are appreciated and valued at whatever level they are displayed. Show them how to read with intention and to create with power. Avoid hectoring judgement.
  • Protect your students. Protect them from each others’ biases; from thoughtless and harmful language in the hallway; from oppressive institutional forces; from commentators in the news; from your own fatigue, snarkiness, and cynicism about student efforts.
  • Let students know you are a person. Be open with them and let them experience your ability to listen. Share your thoughts and feelings and experiences so far as they are relevant and helpful to building your classroom.
  • Tender your own political opinions with discretion. Reduce your own hate and fear about what is happening in the world around you to make your students feel more secure in the classroom around them. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask students if they are OK. Be particularly aware of students who might be experiencing stress because of their identities. Don’t push, but reach out and let those students know they are loved by showing them you know they are in your classroom and that their presence matters.

Taking these steps, or others that you will discover with your own students in your own classrooms will help students build the capabilities they will need to walk out of your classroom door to engage the world around them. Our job, ultimately, is to help students move from one intellectual space, one type of authority, into another by taking them throughout the work of our courses in a semester. That’s important work, but we must also be cognizant of the humanity involved in our work. For this semester, for all semesters, really, this job requires a great deal of care for the people in our classrooms in order to attenuate teaching to the vulnerabilities of our students. Let your students in and provide for them a space to experience the awesome power of being safe as students who are sustained within your class. That is your job.


Michael Hill is an English instructor at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, MI. He is a Michael Hillformer chair of the Council on Basic Writing; a former Writing Center director; a former teaching center director; and a current searcher of his next project. And he’s a proud union thug.