The Council on Basic Writing and Teacher Empowerment: The First Equity

By William B. Lalicker

The great Mina Shaughnessy, one of the Founding Mothers of our professional praxis in basic writing, famously analyzed the programmatic assumptions that stigmatized Lalicker_Photos_TSA_JUN2018.jpgneophyte academic writers and that supported ineffective pedagogies. We remember how, in Errors and Expectations, she excoriated the institutions and practices that eschewed research (whether cognitive science or the compilation of teacher experience); she condemned ways of teaching that reflected the most sinister biases about race and class and that focused on the mere surface features of texts rather than on the intellectual lives of students challenged by written academic English. But it is easy to forget that Shaughnessy, while concerned with basic writing’s program structures and pedagogical methods, aimed a forceful focus on the agency of the teacher. The material conditions under which the teacher labored, the freedoms granted or exigencies exacted on the teacher, had (and have) a manifest effect on the success of the basic writing student. Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations was about helping student writers mainly by helping teachers: helping teachers to see basic writing students in a new light, and encouraging teachers to trust and apply their own teacherly knowledge. As Shaughnessy said in her introduction describing her approach,

Sometimes I offer actual lessons; sometimes I recommend a method or strategy…and at others, I merely urge a fresh perspective on an old problem. The teacher therefore who is searching for a tightly and fully structured writing program will not find it here. This book is concerned with the orientations and perceptions of teachers in relation to a specific population of student writers. It assumes that programs are not answers to the learning problems of students but that teachers are and that, indeed, good teachers create good programs…(6)

But have good teachers been afforded the agency to create good programs? In the four decades since Shaughnessy wrote, we have found the freedoms of the basic writing teacher consistently restricted, the exigencies regularly exacerbated, and the respect for teacher knowledge continually attacked by administrators, public pundits, legislators. One could argue that there’s been great progress in the acceptance of program structures that recognize the burgeoning body of research into what helps basic writers write. When I wrote “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing” in 2000, and even in the subsequent decade when that article was republished and anthologized, the great Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) model for mainstreaming basic writers was, I believe, not much known beyond the Community College of Baltimore County; now this highly successful basic writing model is practically a field of study itself, with conferences on ALP, textbooks based on it, 296 colleges and universities using it (ALP Schools List) at last count—Peter Dow Adams, ALP’s guiding light and paterfamilias, is like Abraham founding a tribe for the ages. Unfortunately, even programmatic improvements and respected research in basic writing have not resulted in the empowerment of basic writing teachers, who do their jobs in ever more scholarly and productive ways while still largely being denied the choice of employment options beyond part-time and non-tenure track status. And thus it is high time to shift our focus again on empowering basic writing teachers.

Fortunately, the Council on Basic Writing has consistently focused on empowering teachers through scholarly and practical approaches to basic writing. Karen Uehling’s history of the Council on Basic Writing (originally the Conference on Basic Writing) makes clear that creating a community of mutually supportive practitioners was a central step in the origin of this professional organization; she references early chairs of the organization, notes the diversity of intellectual contexts that basic writing teachers represented, and emphasizes “the organization’s democratic nature” (8).

The Council on Basic Writing has a long history of activism and social justice in defense of basic writing students, with Susan Naomi Bernstein providing the impetus behind the CBW 2008 Social Justice Statement. Bernstein notes that “systematic disparities in educational conditions for our students enrolled in our basic writing courses across the United States present substantive roadblocks to full matriculation to college”; and while her emphasis is on conditions for basic writing students, she goes on to follow Shaughnessy’s example by connecting the injustice to students to its compound effect in the systematic inequities to basic writing teachers: “It is recognized that many basic writing educators work under considerable challenges, including substandard wages, large course loads, and lack of sustainable employment and job security”—but she holds out hope that programmatic change that creates equity for students will lead to equity for teachers: “it may be argued that improved conditions for students will inevitably lead to more equitable circumstances for teachers.” Ten years later, we can see that, though programs have improved for many students, we are still seeking equity for most teachers.

And as recently as March, 2018, at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, the full-day CBW Workshop opened with a segment on “Reconsidering Graduate Education and Teacher Training in Basic Writing Contexts,” an active presentation and dialogue facilitated by Darin Jensen and Christie Toth based on their article “Responses to the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College” (TYCA is the Two-Year College Association), part of a September, 2017 special issue of TETYC focused on the preparation and professionalization of two-year college faculty. As a large proportion of basic writing teachers are two-year college faculty, it’s clear that agency and empowerment for basic writing teachers remains a topic of prime importance. In the workshop, Jensen and Toth specifically focused on preparation for basic writing faculty—a faculty category whose heavy teaching workload (generally teaching more classes per term than their four-year college counterparts) means a sometime denial of scholarly opportunities and moments for reflection on innovative practices. The final segment of the CBW Workshop was a discussion, led by William Lalicker and Wendy Olson, continuing work on a Statement of Basic Writing Principles originally generated as a draft in the CBW Workshop of 2017 led by Michael Hill, and equity for basic writing faculty remains an ongoing issue as the members of the CBW continue to work toward a final draft (see Klages-Bombich). Clearly, we still have work to do when it comes to basic writing teacher equity.

In fact, as an activist for justice in higher education, I think justice and the provision of agency for teachers is the first condition for righting some of the wrongs visited upon students, especially basic writing students. In my chapter “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program Within a Department of English,” I make faculty hiring practices the first equity. (For the whole chapter-length argument, go to https://wac.colostate.edu/books/minefield and see pages 293-320.) Although faculty of many disciplines, and even teachers of the more traditionally prestigious areas of English Studies (such as literary criticism), are suffering from a neoliberal trend that treats teaching work as piecework rather than a profession—with the shrinkage of fully professional tenure-track positions that support academic freedom and thus teaching innovation—basic writing teachers and two-year college teachers have long borne a second-class faculty status, with inimical results for their students and for our field. To summarize my “Five Equities” argument: rank and tenureability are generally tied at least partly to scholarship; scholarly production represents the prestige currency of most institutions; this prestige currency, and the policy influence that accompanies it, means power in the discussions that determine officially approved and resource-supported program conditions—that is, what we teach, how we teach, who we can teach. Basic writing needs policy influence to enact progressive program structures like the Accelerated Learning Program; to keep the number of students per class section small enough to encourage teacher-student interaction; to include support services for second language students; and for a host of needs that determine student success. And in the competition for resources, if (for instance) the literature faculty is largely tenured and promoted, producing scholarship and voting in policymaking committees in the department and division and college, but basic writing faculty are mainly part-time freeway flyers without the right, the time, or the reward system to do that policymaking, lit will get the resources and policies, and basic writing—our basic writing students—will be stuck with leftovers. Justice for basic writers requires attention to justice for basic writing faculty, this first equity.

It’s not just that basic writing teachers (or composition teachers, or two-year college teachers, or non-tenure track teachers: choose the ingredients of your Venn diagram where we all meet!) usually don’t receive the professorial perquisites—time and promotion for research, support for conference travel, even the recognition for innovative teaching—that literature faculty, or college faculty generally, can take for granted. It’s that denying the first equity denies the value of teaching, of basic writing, of basic writers themselves.

Forty-plus years after Shaughnessy, thirty-plus years after the Wyoming Resolution championing part-time and graduate faculty rights (Robertson et al.), almost three years after “The Indianapolis Resolution: Responding to Twenty-First-Century Exigencies/Political Economies of Composition Labor” (Cox et al.), we still haven’t, in our programs, adopted their principles of equity for writing faculty, in particular basic writing faculty and non-tenure-track faculty. It’s not necessary that our institutions all make our lives easy, or that our departments and divisions suddenly become model employers; it’s only necessary, as a start, that the material conditions under which we labor, the intellectual freedoms with which we make our teaching work for our students, match those of English faculty for whom writing is not a central concern. It matters that the first equity recognized in our striving for better basic writing is equity for basic writing teachers. It matters that basic writing teachers achieve the first equity because they do the most challenging and most important intellectual work in higher education, for students whose intellectual empowerment through their ability to communicate effectively in the dialect of authority has the most transformative potential for themselves, for the workforce, and for our larger culture.

The irony is that we’re in an era when the supposedly traditional liberal arts (never mind that our field originates in the high-tradition of classical Greek rhetoric) such as literature are institutionally sidelined, as some strain to see the relevance of these disciplines when all that matters is employability in a job-insecure age. Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times essay summarizes and analyzes a Chronicle of Higher Education special report with the unacademic gibe, “History is on the ebb. Philosophy is on the ropes. And comparative literature? Please”—making the point that these high-prestige traditional majors aren’t what employers need (3). And although I might argue for the value of the liberal arts and against an anti-literature reconstruction some would see in the futurism of the Chronicle report (see, for instance, Selingo), nobody is disputing the value of writing. Bruni’s essay is called “Aristotle’s Wrongful Death”; I would argue that we should keep Aristotle the philosopher alive, but also Aristotle the rhetorician, a guiding light for our student rhetoricians in our basic writing classes. In fact, every employer survey seems to put written communication at the top of the list for academic skills that employers want (see, for instance, Hart Research Associates). Yet the institutional assumption is that literary criticism (where it still exists) requires a stable, scholarly tenure-track (where it still exists) set of teachers. Well, good for those lit teachers. But it is time to confront the injustice that teachers of writing—teachers who share the most practical and job-applicable discipline in the broader world of English Studies—and especially basic writing teachers, are still not granted equity for our vital calling. Let’s apply Shaughnessy’s visionary emphasis on empowering teachers to the current conditions and real needs that basic writing, with its focus on effective written communication in so many applications in our culture, can provide in the maturing 21st century. We can start by focusing on the agency of basic writing teachers as the first equity, the necessary priority.

About the author: William B. Lalicker (Ph.D., University of Washington, Seattle) is Professor of English at West Chester University. A former co-chair of the Council on Basic Writing, his publications include research on structural equity and labor justice in writing programs; basic writing; and transnational and intercultural composition pedagogies.

Works Cited

“ALP Schools List.” http://www.alp-deved.org/alp-schools-directory/ . Accessed 1 June 2018.

Bernstein, Susan Naomi. “CBW’s 2008 Social Justice Statement.”

https://bwe.ccny.cuny.edu/7.1%20Social%20Justice%20Initiative%20for%20BW.html.

Cox, Anicca et al. “The Indianapolis Resolution: Responding to Twenty-First-Century Exigencies/Political Economies of Composition Labor.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 1, 2016, pp. 38-

Hart Research Associates. “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” Liberal Education, vol. 99, no. 2, 2013. American Association of Colleges and Universities. www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/it-takes-more-major-riorities-college-learning-and.

Jensen, Darin, and Christie Toth, coeditors. “Symposium: Responses to the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College.” TETYC, vol.. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 29-46.

Klages-Bombich, Marisa. “Workshop Redux: Reconsidering Graduate Education and Teacher Training in Basic Writing Contexts.” Council on Basic Writing Blog. 15 March 2018. https://cbwblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/workshop-redux-reconsidering-graduate-education -and-teacher-training-in-basic-writing-contexts/

Lalicker, William B. “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing: A Baseline and Five Alternatives.” BWe: Basic Writing e-journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 2000,. http://www.asu.edu/clas/english/composition/cbw.

Lalicker, William B. “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program within a Department of English” A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs, edited by Justin Everett and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, UP of Colorado, WAC  Clearninghouse, https://wac.colostate.edu/books/minefield

Robertson, Linda R., Sharon Crowley, and Frank Lentricchia. “The Wyoming Conference Resolution Opposing Unfair Salaries and Working Conditions for Post-Secondary Teachers of Writing.” College English, vol. 49, no. 3, 1987, pp. 274-80.

Selingo, Jeffrey J. “It’s Time to End College Majors as We Know Them.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 May 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/It-s-Time-to-End-College/243448.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. Oxford UP, 1977.  

Uehling, Karen S. “The Conference on Basic Writing, 1980-2005.” The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing, second edition, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Gregory R. Glau, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 8-23.

Teacher-Scholar Activist wins the 2018 John Lovas Award from Kairos

cropped-darin-logo-2-jpg-small.jpgOn May 25th at the Computers & Writing Conference, Kairos awarded Teacher-Scholar-Activist the 2018 John Lovas award for best academic blog. The editors of TSA are deeply honored. We want to thank the committee and all of our contributors from the last year and a half.

John Lovas was a teacher, scholar, and public intellectual whose work continues to influence the Teacher-Scholar-Activist project and our personal work, too. We’d like to believe that he would’ve have been a reader and contributor. We look forward to continuing our work that connects what we do in the classroom and our scholarship to the larger public good.

Eulogy for UWS

The Rebel Professor

I did not plan to be a college professor when I entered my PhD program in sociology. I was interested in more directly community engaged work and writing. I fell in love with teaching during my fieldwork at a movement run high school for adults in Buenos Aires, where I co-taught social sciences in a classroom populated primarily by young women who lived in the neighboring shantytown. But even so, I was highly suspicious that this experience could be replicated inside of a bureaucratic institution of higher education in any meaningful way.

It was only toward the end of my tenure as a graduate student when I saw one particular job listing that I decided to look for jobs teaching at the university level. The job was at the University of Michigan-Flint, a regional comprehensive university where my mom had graduated when I was a kid.

Looking at the posting…

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On Code-Meshing the Call for Proposals in 2018

By Paul Beilstein

In a 2016 article for Written Communication, Bethany Davila critiques practices in Paul for TSAwriting pedagogy that continue to privilege the standardized variation of English, even though the field’s research and theory have been challenging that privileging for decades. Davila cites, among others, Geneva Smitherman, whose work defies claims that Standardized Academic English (SAE) is “the only dialect that can accomplish the work of academia” (129). As Smitherman has proven time and time again since the 1970s with her own rhetorical performances, incorporating multiple dialects into an academic text is generative and expands our notion of academic ethos to include strategic and political forms of personhood, potentially innumerable ways of being. Davila’s research reminds us that SAE is still constructed as ideologically neutral by many writing instructors, who pose it against “other, marked language use” (135). The “expectations of sameness” (137) remain high, and student performances that do not meet those expectations continue to be ‘corrected’ by instructors who find the identity differences that are associated with “marked language” to be unfit for the academic occasion

Students, of course, are not the only ones who are subjected to expectations of sameness. Recently, Vershawn Ashanti Young’s call for proposals to the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication prompted a variety of responses from contributors to the WPA listserv. Some critiqued Young’s meshing of SAE and African American English (hereafter, AAE; I use this term here, rather than the other available terms, because Young uses it in his 2009 JAC article); others defended his rhetorical style. And though a number of perspectives were offered on this contentious issue, I am interested here in the suggestion made by several contributors to the listserv that first-year composition (FYC) instructors who include code-meshing in their curricula are requiring students to mesh codes in their writing, and that such a practice conflicts with students’ need to develop competency in SAE. These contributors view AAE as inappropriate to the occasion of a call for proposals to the field’s largest national conference; likewise, they find it inappropriate for inclusion in student writing.

One implication that simmered at the surface of the listserv threads in response to Young’s call is that writing instructors who put code-meshing on the syllabus seek to indoctrinate their students into a naïve idealism about their agency as language users. This strikes me as hyperbolic, if not simply false. Though it is probable that some number of composition instructors use first-year composition as a forum for advancing their own non-standardized language ideology, it is almost certainly the case that most composition instructors implicitly or explicitly privilege SAE (again, see Davila 2016), due to its (presumed) dominance in academic and professional settings.

Rather than looking at this issue through the false dilemma that a teacher must align with either a standardized or a non-standardized language ideology—and thus require students to adopt the practices associated with that ideology uncritically—I would argue that we should (and, in very many cases, do) posit language ideology as an object of inquiry for our students. Critical inquiry is a familiar term in the stated learning objectives of FYC courses, and the nearly ubiquitous rhetorical approach to FYC gives us ample opportunity to think about the “available means of persuasion” as legitimate options, and not as a multiple-choice problem with only one correct answer.

 Though the idea obtains throughout much of American culture that competency in standardized literate practices is a necessary prerequisite to achieving or maintaining a desired socioeconomic position, teachers who understand that all such notions are socially constructed should de-stabilize the idea by presenting it as hegemonic, not as inevitable. In this case, we can treat SAE as an option that has come to be seen as a requirement, due to the frequency with which the people involved demand it and comply with it (or simply perform it as the familiar means of accomplishing something). By demanding SAE without encouraging critical awareness of it, a composition instructor simply reproduces hegemonic practices (and probably strengthens them). This is a low-risk approach to FYC, in one way of looking at it, because it seems an efficient way to serve students’ need to assimilate to the norms of the various academic disciplines and professional domains they may enter in the future.

If, on the other hand, composition instructors were to enforce a non-dominant language practice (for the sake of consistency, let’s say meshing AAE with SAE), they would be participating in a resistant or radical countermovement. And by requiring students to participate in this practice, they might be enlisting support for their political project among a population that has a practical motivation (the grade) to comply with her requirements. Even though such a pedagogical practice might, on the surface, have an activist orientation in opposition to social injustice, it also has a potentially coercive mission.

As an activist, I join those who are committed to changing the dominant narratives of what language says about the people using it, and of the ways of being that are and should be available to us as we use language in particular settings. As a teacher-scholar, I am opposed to the uncritical acceptance of SAE, just as I am opposed to curricular acquiescence to norms such as the five-paragraph essay (at least most of us can agree about its limitations, right?). So, how do I reconcile my desire for the dismantling of language prejudice with my belief that pedagogy is not doctrine?

In the classroom, I try to place the object of inquiry into the center of the room, where all of us can examine it and develop our own views on it. This seems no radical practice, of course, but it potentiates a variety of perspectives, as well as a variety of ways of being. For example, I have offered texts by both Geneva Smitherman and Vershawn Ashanti Young to students who have been placed into the basic writing course sequence at my current institution. Students are placed into the course by their ACT English subscore (that’s the multiple-choice, mostly grammar and mechanics part of the ACT, so SAE is a particularly salient topic), and most are students of color. I, it should be noted, am a cisgender white male with a graying beard (but, Dr. Kynard, if you’re out there—no elbow patches!). Whenever I offer these texts, a part of me hopes that students will take up the texts with the same excitement I have when I read them—the excitement that their authors’ language practices might proliferate and spawn more new hybrid forms of discourse. Admittedly, I also hope that some students will deploy their AAE in the texts they compose for my class, but I certainly do not require it (I have the rubrics to prove it).

Nevertheless, in the case of the Smitherman text, it is more typical for students to react in a manner that is not unlike how contributors to the WPA listserv responded to Young’s call. That is, though they agree that non-dominant varieties such as AAE are legitimate linguistic codes, they are reluctant to accept the idea that such varieties should be used in academic or professional settings.

The Smitherman text I offer is her March 1974 “Soul ‘n Style” column from The English Journal. In that column, Smitherman classifies people’s views on AAE into three groups—eradicationists, bi-dialectalists, and legitimizers. Many of my students, as well as contributors to the WPA listserv, represent the bi-dialectalist view. This view claims that AAE is legitimate for use “in the home environment, but not in school and mainstream America,” and that “Blacks will need to acquire the ‘prestige’ usage system in order to facilitate they socio-economic mobility” (14). Smitherman posits legitimizers as the antidote to the problematic “sociolinguistic attitudes” that perpetuate the other two viewpoints. Legitimizers speak out against linguistic prejudice, and as is seen by the responses to Young’s call, they risk a backlash from the broad range of people who inhabit the bi-dialectalist perspective. A great many who inhabit that range have the would-be legitimizer’s best interests in mind, and the WPA listserv is populated by teacher-scholars who want their students to succeed.

I, too, want my students to succeed. But I do not want them to acquiesce uncritically to received notions of success. That is, I do not want them to think that the only way to get by is to learn the most privileged way of being and then perform as such a being. I also do not want to dictate to them that they should not adopt a privileged way of being—doing so would assume from the outset that they cannot develop their own cunning strategies for getting somewhere good. I want my students to construct their own aims, and to choose from the available means those that might help them achieve their goals. My role is to roll the map out onto the table, point out where groups of people have assembled and what their allegiances tend to be and get my students thinking about what to pack for the trip. This, I believe, is an activist orientation toward the work of the classroom, one that encourages students to intervene critically in the lifeworlds they currently know and the ones they will encounter, wherever they may go after the term of our work together ends.

Bio: Paul Beilstein is a PhD student in Writing Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He earned an MFA in Poetry from the University of California, Irvine, where he also taught writing courses for seven years. He then taught first-year composition at Portland Community College, Rock Creek Campus before returning to Illinois, where he was born and raised. He lives with his wife Shereen, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at UIUC.

Works Cited

Davila, Bethany. “The Inevitability of ‘Standard’ English: Discursive Constructions of Standard Language Ideologies.” Written Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-22.

Smitherman, Geneva. “Soul ‘n Style.” The English Journal, vol. 63, no. 3, 1974, pp. 14-5.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “‘Nah, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching.” JAC, vol. 29, no. 1/2, 2009, pp. 49-76.

Ghosting the Region II: Rural Students Deserve Better

Important reading to understand the high stakes of our ongoing struggle.

UW Dismantle

Ray Cross loves the humanitiesIn October 2017, UW Superior led the way in moving to withhold access to liberal arts major programs for northern and rural students, suspending majors and minors like journalism, sociology, history, geography, photography, art history, and an array of other majors and minors. Further evidence of the gap between northern Wisconsin and southern Wisconsin is to be found in UW Stevens Point’s recent announcement to close major programs grounded in liberal arts fields in favor of  ‘vocationalizing’. The rural/urban divide first described by Kathy Cramer in The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker is more starkly shown than ever in these university decisions that will eliminate accessible, affordable, and high-quality education throughout the state.

What public higher education has always done is make it possible for people without a lot of financial means to access the same kinds of quality programs that…

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Cognitive Dissonance, Social Judgement, and the Liberal’s Quandary in the Composition Classroom

by Mark Blaauw-Hara

“Professor has heavy liberal bias, so all students injecting a leftwing mentality in their papers will pull a higher grade than those of the conservative. A professor to be avoided.”

Mark Blaauw Hara TSA picI was thinking of this post—one of my reviews on RateMyProfessors.com—earlier this month as I prepared for a section of first-year composition. We were slated to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on how school shootings spread. The date was February 15, the day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglass school shooting. I had originally assigned the article because it is an accessible, in-depth, and well-researched exploration of a difficult problem in our society, but I did not anticipate that we would be discussing it on the day after an actual shooting. I struggled with how to handle the topic in class, both in terms of how best to navigate the difficult emotional impact of the topic and whether any research I brought—statistics linking gun ownership with incidences of mass shootings, or data on how many mass shootings were carried out with guns purchased legally—would be heard, or whether it would be discounted because of my perceived liberal bias.

It’s true that I am a liberal. Two of my earliest pedagogical touchstones were Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, both of which explore how educational systems can perpetuate class differences. One of the most significant reasons I pursued a job at a community college was because I wanted to be the teacher students from disadvantaged backgrounds needed. I am deeply concerned about racial and socioeconomic inequality, labor issues, American neocolonialism, growing anti-intellectualism, gun violence, climate change, the increasing influence of multi-national corporations, and a host of other liberal favorites. I serve on the board of my local natural foods co-op, installed solar panels on the roof of our barn, and own a plug-in hybrid. One of the reasons I insist on satellite radio in our cars is because it plays NPR for twenty-four hours.

However, in contrast to the interpretations of my online reviewer, I am careful not to advantage one side of the political spectrum over another in class. As a teacher heavily influenced by Freire, I privilege dialogue and critique in my classrooms; to reward a liberal ideology (even one that I personally think is right) while punishing a conservative one would shut down that dialogue. I bring in readings about contemporary problems like gun control, climate change, crime, and drug use not because I necessarily want students to believe the same things I do, but because I think they should research, debate, and write about real issues without easy solutions, thereby developing techniques of critical thinking and persuasive writing that will help them be less vulnerable to the machinations of those in power. And, of course, I hope my students will grow into informed, active citizens who will advocate for solutions to those problems.

Community-college students, in particular, can benefit from the critical thinking and dialogue that are the hallmark of many college writing classes. Nationally, about one-third of community-college students are first-generation; about half receive financial aid (“Fast Facts”). Some community colleges, such as my own, are located in rural areas with little racial or cultural diversity. In other words, many students attending community college come from backgrounds where research, critical thinking, and dialogic problem-solving are uncommon, and they tend to have had few chances to interact with people who are significantly different from themselves. Writing classes—and other classes—should teach not only marketable skills but also habits of mind that help students become more informed, critical participants in society.

However, as we choose readings and facilitate discussions, we also need to choose how we will represent our own views. I struggle with this latter choice. Most teachers would probably say that when I facilitate discussions about potentially controversial issues—gun control, say—I should consciously minimize my own perspective so as to encourage open critical dialogue from my students. Adopting a clearly liberal perspective while facilitating a discussion would likely shut down students who did not share a similar perspective.

In her 2003 article in College Composition and Communication, Karen Kopelson argues that the gains made by the progressive movement in America have resulted in a conservative backlash that has primed many students to disregard anything associated with liberality. (Kopelson’s social analysis seems all the more prescient considering the changes in national politics subsequent to her piece: the rise of the Tea Party, the seeming inability of America to do anything meaningful to combat climate change, and the election of Donald Trump.) Kopelson argues that if we want to support students’ critical engagement with controversial issues—especially those that have been heavily politicized in the larger American society—we should perform neutrality. As she writes,

It is not a complacent refusal to interrupt or interfere with the expression of any and all student views; it is not the liberal-humanist acceptance of all views as equally valid. The performance of neutrality I am advocating is a deliberate, reflective, self-conscious masquerade that serves an overarching and more insurgent political agenda. (123)

Kopelson’s argument certainly has merit, and I agree that if our goals are to inspire critical thinking and rational debate, we will more effectively do so by crafting a space in which students feel as though they can argue their viewpoints without fear of being immediately shut down by the professor. However, our country’s public discourse has proceeded to a place where coverage one finds disagreeable can be labeled “fake news” and even calling for a reasoned debate on certain issues—gun control, dealing with climate change, exploring alternative energy sources—is seen as a liberal “tell.” In such a climate, some readings and discussions stand to be quickly rejected by students, no matter how neutral the professor’s presentation of them. I imagine that, like me, many liberal teachers find it deeply perplexing that even raising the issue of gun control should be considered a “liberal” move—after all, doesn’t everyone want to prevent mass shootings? And doesn’t it make sense to decrease access to the tools that are repeatedly used to commit murder? Shouldn’t we at least talk about what the research says?

In their examination of why anti-vaccine websites are persuasive, Moran et al. describe two communication theories that can have relevance to discussions of controversial issues. The first, social judgment theory, posits that some attitudes that we hold toward certain issues become interwoven with our senses of self. When we are confronted with arguments that challenge our strongly-held attitudes, we experience those arguments not only in relation to the issue at hand but in relation to our identities. For example, in my rural area, hunting is a family tradition and way of life for many people. Gun ownership is widespread, and frankly, gun violence is low in my area. Understandably, national arguments to limit gun ownership not only strike my students as unneeded but also threaten multi-generational family traditions.

Moran et al. also address cognitive dissonance theory, which proposes that we are most comfortable when our attitudes, values, and beliefs are consistent. When new information causes our internal compass to spin, many of us react (at least initially) by rejecting that information, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. As Moran et al. describe, anti-vaccine attitudes are frequently connected to distrust of conventional medicine and a preference for “natural” health care, and these attitudes are frequently bolstered by an individual’s membership in a like-minded community. Accepting that vaccines are generally safe can drive a wedge—at least mentally—between different beliefs the individual may hold. Basically, it causes less cognitive discomfort to distrust all conventional medicine than it does to evaluate each potential intervention—vaccines, antibiotics, allergy medicine, ibuprofen—individually. To expand this argument to guns, it causes less cognitive dissonance to believe that guns are never the problem—that the problem is inadequate school security, failings of the FBI, or poor mental-health screening—than it does to accept that there are very real differences between assault weapons, handguns, and hunting rifles and that some of those weapons should have significantly tighter regulations (or be outlawed).

When we talk about guns, then, we teachers of composition face several challenges. The first, as alluded to by Kopelson, is that we are already marked as liberals, who, as “everyone” knows, hate guns. Secondly, when we provide what we see as unbiased data, such as statistics on gun-related deaths in the developed world, that data may challenge students’ sense of self. If America has vastly more gun deaths than the rest of the developed world, and those statistics seem to be tied to the availability of guns in the U.S., does that suggest that the family traditions of rural students—hunting, sport shooting, gun collecting—are somehow part of the problem? And thirdly, if statistical data on mass shootings suggest that guns are too available and reducing that availability will save lives, it reduces cognitive dissonance to reject that data, label the professor a liberal, and advocate for changes that do not have to do with reducing gun ownership (i.e., increased school security).

Our situation seems somewhat hopeless, and one might be forgiven for deciding to focus on how to craft topic sentences and in-text citations rather than taking up hot-button issues like gun control. However, I bet that many of us who subscribe to the teacher/scholar/activist approach see writing as a way to make sense of difficult problems, and when we teach critical reading and analysis, our current problems seem to be ideal fodder. Additionally, our society is badly in need of reasoned, well-researched dialogue. Our students—especially those at the community college—need to learn how to have such dialogues. College should be a space for critical thinking, informed argument, and debate. A college writing class is an ideal space to teach these skills.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly how we should build those skills. I think Kopelson’s recommendation to perform objectivity has merit; I’m just not sure I can do it. Moran et al.’s suggestions help me understand why some topics are threatening to students, but I still wonder what to do in class. Moran and her co-researchers found that people were more likely to accept health information from trusted sources, such as organizations (natural-food stores and the like) that already had ethos with those who were resistant to vaccines. We can work to build trust with our students, which might help them be more open to legitimate critical discussions of controversial issues. Moran et al. also recommend connecting challenging information to the values of a resistant community—for example, a vaccine-resistant community might hold healthy, “natural” living in high esteem, and vaccines might be presented as a part of a “natural” health plan that would minimize the need for antibiotics or radical medical interventions. I have had some success in preceding discussions of climate change with discussions of values—most students would like to minimize destructive tropical storms and protect human life, for example. We can then discuss how climate change affects weather patterns, and then take a few steps into the more ideologically charged realm of how to deal with climate change.

I also like in-class group writing assignments that ask students to propose, if not solutions, next steps to address our problems.  I prefer to do these in class for two main reasons: They force students to work with others who may not share their opinions, and they require them to do research that does not lead them down a rabbit hole of sources they already agree with in the way that a take-home assignment does. They have to agree that the sources the group uses are reliable, and they do that through critical reading and discussion.

However, the unfortunate truth may be that there is no way we can have open, critical discussions of hot-button problems like gun violence. There will probably be students in our classes who will, like my RateMyProfessors.com evaluator, insist that we only want to hear one side of the debate. However, I still think we need to keep trying.

Mark Blaauw-Hara is a Professor of English and WPA at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, MI. He is currently the Vice-President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and a reviews co-editor at Teaching English in the Two-Year College. His writing has appeared in TETYCTheCommunity College Journal of Research and PracticeComposition Forum, and a number of edited collections, including the forthcoming WPAs in Transition and Teaching Composition in the Two-Year College. He has also served as his faculty union’s President, Vice-President, and Trustee, and currently plays the drums in a classic honky-tonk band.

Works Cited

“Fast Facts.” Michigan Community College Association. 2018. http://www.mcca.org/content.cfm?m=87&id=87

Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55.1 (2003): 115-146.

Moran, Meghan Brigid, et al. “What Makes Anti-Vaccine Websites Persuasive? A Content Analysis of Techniques Used by Anti-Vaccine Websites to Engender Anti-Vaccine Sentiment.” Journal of Communication in Healthcare 9.3 (2016): 151-161.

What I did Today

By Jenny Bruck

Jenny_Bruck_TSA_PhotoToday was our first day back at school after a five-day weekend. Let me tell you what I did today. I assured multiple students, some who came quietly to my desk by themselves, some who called me over to a table with their friends, that I had a plan to keep them safe if there was an active shooter. This is the third distinct time I’ve had to do that in my career as a teacher.

The first time I remember doing this was in the wake of the Millard South shooting. I had a conversation with my homeroom about what we would do. They offered that the strongest of them should be the one to secure the door, and I replied that, no, that was my job as an adult. It was at that remark that a hush fell over them and we all fell silent, tears slipping down our faces as we realized that this was a possibility we all needed to take very seriously. I promised I would keep them safe.

After Sandy Hook, I remember crying in my room as I thought about my own babies who were just starting school. But I also obsessed about my students-where I would put them all, how I would have to get them past the windows of the adjoining classroom to get them into the old darkroom where we would wait? Again, as soon as the students found out, they asked me if I had a plan. Could I keep them safe? Again, I promised I would.

So today, when these children, who, at the ages of 15, 16, 17 and even 18 seem to be so grown, asked me if I had a plan, if I could keep them safe, I promised I did and I would. I showed them, told them, what we would do. They looked at me and then went about their business like small children would once you’ve assured them that there was nothing under the bed or in the closet. This happened throughout the day all over my building, just as it has been happening in classrooms all over the nation. Just as it does after every school shooting. And when we as a nation fail to protect our kids and there is another school shooting, they will once again come to us. And although we are filled with fear and uncertainty ourselves, once again we will reassure them that we will do our best to keep them safe.

Please help us keep them safe. Don’t give me a gun, don’t lock down my school until it resembles a prison more so than a place for emerging young minds to stretch and grow. Do it with common sense. Do it with the recognition that we must fund mental health. Do it with the commitment to pay teachers and fund schools so there are quality professionals in manageable ratios to ensure real relationships between students and teachers. Do it with common sense gun laws that put the safety of the majority over the death grip on antiquated ideals. Do it by truly looking at what you need as opposed to what you are afraid to let go of lest you find yourself on a slippery slope. Do it by investing yourselves in the lives of our students by fostering strong communities that let people young and old know there are others out there who care for them.

I know this won’t change anyone’s mind. I know that if you believe as I do, you will find this missive to reinforce the things you already believe. I know that if you don’t agree, this will seem to be an overly emotional piece of fluff designed to pull at your sense of morality. Nothing I say will change your mind. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I just thought you should know what I did today.

Jenny Bruck is a former English teacher and current librarian on the fringes of Omaha, Nebraska.