Ethical Rhetoric in Unethical Times: Five Strategies for the Writing Classroom

By John Duffy

profile_duffyOne of the challenges facing teachers of writing in the twenty-first century United States is how best to teach practices of reasoned, fair-minded argument when contemporary public discourse is so polarized, strident, and deeply dishonest. The college writing course has many purposes, but widely accepted as one of those purposes is to prepare students to engage in the political and cultural conversations that will shape their personal futures and the future lives of their communities. To that end, we teachers of writing have promoted norms of argument that privilege habits and dispositions of truthfulness, accountability, open-mindedness, intellectual generosity, intellectual courage, and other such qualities. We have promoted, to say it another way, norms of ethical argument.

Yet we now inhabit a rhetorical moment in which those norms have been destabilized by powerful political and media discourses that have treated truth as transactional, dismissed evidence-based reasoning, and normalized arguments grounded in racism, misogyny, and religious hatred.

How do we respond?  More to the point, how do we prepare our students to respond? Which of our classroom practices—our questions, readings, and writing prompts—will most effectively enable our students to resist the toxic currents of contemporary discourse and argue in ways that strengthen the bonds of community and civic life?

My purpose in this brief essay is to suggest, proceeding cautiously and with humility, how we might encourage practices of ethical argument in our classrooms. I invoke caution and humility in this undertaking because the teaching of rhetorical ethics, as I have noted elsewhere (Duffy 2019), does not lend itself to off-the-rack lesson plans or syllabi that can be applied in all classes, for all students, at all times. Rather, such lessons are best worked out in the particulars of local contexts, accounting for the needs of students and families, the goals of teachers and programs, and the resources available to institutions and communities. Recommendations about how best to teach ethical argument, then, are offered in the understanding that readers of this essay already know a great deal about what is most likely to work in their classrooms, with their students.

In that spirit, I propose here five modest strategies for consideration by teachers seeking to promote practices of ethical argument in the writing classroom.[1]

Teach Situations, Not Rules

In his wonderful essay, “In Pursuit of Rhetorical Virtue,” John Gage argues that what makes for ethical argument, or argument that is “tolerant, judicious, and reasonable” (Gage 2005, 32) cannot be achieved through the formulation of abstract rules and precepts. Instead, Gage writes, students develop ethical sensibilities in response to situations that call for ethical judgments. Gage recommends that teachers of writing concern ourselves less with teaching rhetorical precepts—“all the rhetorician’s rules,” as Samuel Butler mockingly phrased it— and instead create situations that call for the exercise of those ethical habits and dispositions we wish to encourage.

Let us imagine, for example, the following scenario. The future of the football program at Big State University is on the line. Football is a revered tradition at Big State, beloved by students and alumni. On crisp fall Saturdays, the stadium is filled to raucous capacity by 80,000 cheering fans who cherish the excitement of game day.  Moreover, Big State football is lucrative; revenues brought in by the football program pay for non-revenue producing sports and fund student scholarships.

Nonetheless, let us imagine, several of the trustees at Big State are troubled by what they are learning about the relationship between football and concussions leading to brain damage. These trustees have come to believe football is inconsistent with the mission of a university, and they are preparing a motion recommending that Big State drop its football program.

The role of the teacher in this conception shifts from promoter of rules to creator of situations. The teacher might ask students to assume distinctive roles in the context of the situation—university president, faculty member, football coach, student—and compose arguments concerning the future of football at Big State. In their respective roles, students would be called upon to read about the issues, balance multiple perspectives, present their views to others, and eventually draft an opinion on the right, or ethical, decision about the future of football at Big State.

For her part, the teacher poses questions along the way related to ethical discourse practices. How would an ethical writer respond to this situation? What questions would she ask, what authorities would she consult, what kind of language might she use in making her argument, and what language might she refrain from using? What principles would guide her decisions?

The goal of such discussions would not be to reach consensus, which would be unlikely, but rather to engage students in reflection on what an ethical writer might say in that situation, how she might say it, and why it should be said in precisely that way.

Name the Behaviors You Want to See

Perhaps the most straightforward way we can introduce ethical discourse practices to students is to name the practices we want students to adopt. Let us suppose, for example, students in a first-year writing class are discussing newspaper editorials on the Trump administration policy of separating children and parents at the U.S. border. Some opinions defend the policy as a deterrent, while others see it as inhumane. As students discuss the essays, the teacher occasionally comments and raises questions phrased in the vocabulary of an ethical rhetoric:

“All right, so you disagree with the author’s perspective. But would you say it’s intellectually honest?”

“How does this writer communicate empathy for the families? How is the rhetoric of empathy communicated in this paragraph, this sentence, this metaphor?”

“How does this author address arguments that contradict her own? Does she seem open-minded?  Would you describe her as intellectually generous? What do we mean by such terms?”

“Consider the adjectives the writer uses in this paragraph. Does she seem angry? Is her anger justified, in your opinion? Under what circumstances, would you say, is justifiable anger or righteous indignation appropriate?”

What is common to such questions is the explicit naming of the ethical qualities we want our students to adopt. Students do not, of course, arrive in our classrooms unfamiliar with such language. They arrive, rather, as complex moral beings with their own conceptions of what it means to be honest, empathetic, justifiably angry, and the rest. Perhaps fewer of our students, however, come to our classes having learned to associate these qualities with acts of speaking and writing. Perhaps fewer arrive with the understanding that their rhetorical practices speak as much to their ethical commitments as to the messages they wish to convey. In this sense, the explicit naming of ethical qualities can make unfamiliar what was previously familiar, and so suggest to students new and potentially generative ways to think about the activities of speaking and writing.

Model the Practices You Wish to Teach

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, write that one of the mistakes they have often made as teachers is to announce on the first day of class that they believe in class discussion, tell students why such discussion is good for them, and then place students into small groups to begin discussing. “The trouble with this scenario,” the authors suggest, “is that it omits a crucial element: we have neglected to model for students how to engage in the activity we are urging on them . . .” (41). If we are committed to teaching students to speak and write truthfully, generously, and courageously, Brookfield and Preskill’s self-evaluation suggests, we ought to model these behaviors ourselves.

So, for example, when students ask questions, or make comments on classroom readings, we can demonstrate attentiveness by listening carefully and thoughtfully. If a student offers an opinion that seems to us naïve or poorly reasoned, we can model tolerance and respectfulness by withholding criticism and hearing out that student. Should conflicts between students in a writing group become heated, we can model diplomacy by addressing differences calmly and tactfully.

We can also model ethical discourse in interactions with colleagues. Brookfield and Preskill recommend inviting colleagues into our classrooms to engage in unrehearsed conversations about a contentious issue. As students look on, Brookfield and Preskill advise faculty to “listen attentively to each other’s comments, reframe and rephrase what you’ve heard, and check with colleagues to make sure you’ve caught their meaning accurately” (52). Such conversations offer opportunities to demonstrate how ideas may be clarified and new perspectives gained through respectful disagreement.

Exemplars, Exemplars, Exemplars!

The philosopher Linda Zagzebski defines the exemplar as “a paradigmatically good person,” a person whose actions or life fills us with feelings of admiration, and whom we are moved to imitate (2010). “Exemplars are those persons who are most imitable,” Zagzebski writes, and they are most imitable because they are most admirable” (52). Just who should be regarded as an exemplar speaks to a complex blend of ideological, cultural, religious, and other commitments, but commonly cited as exemplary figures are spiritual leaders, such as Buddha and Jesus; historical actors, such as Dorothy Day and Nelson Mandela; and fictional characters, such as Hermione Granger, and Lisbeth Salander. We might introduce such figures in our classes, asking students to reflect on the ethics of their speeches and writings.

For example, when the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam War, stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” (Hauser 1991, 144–145), he became for many a reviled public figure. Sportswriters rebuked Ali as an unworthy champion, and US senators and congressmen denounced him as a traitor. He was stripped of his title, his boxing license was revoked, and he was placed under FBI surveillance. Nonetheless, Ali continued to speak out, identifying resistance to the war with the civil rights struggle of African Americans. After a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in Louisville, in which Ali spoke in support of the struggle for fair housing practices in the city, he made the following statement to reporters:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. (Hauser, 167).

Teachers can discuss with students whether Ali should be considered an exemplar, whether his words and actions were admirable, and whether his statement to the press offered examples of ethical rhetoric. Students might consider which ethical practices, if any, were enacted in Ali’s speech, and where in the text these are expressed. The teacher could ask how the ethical qualities of Ali’s speech, should students see any such qualities, might inform students’ own writings—which of Ali’s ethical practices might students imitate? Should students object to Ali’s speech, the teacher could discuss with them why they object to Ali’s rhetoric and which moments in the text—which paragraphs, sentences, or words—they find objectionable.

We might share other exemplary texts with students. Some we know well, such as King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or Ronald Reagan’s eloquent address to the nation after the Shuttle Challenger disaster. Others are perhaps less known, such as Carrie Chapman Catt’s 1916 speech, “The Crisis,” on women’s suffrage, or Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson’s address to the congregation at the Greater Grace Church in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, a speech Newsweek described as “riveting” (Mejia 2014). Finally, we might invite students to bring to class examples of ethical discourse that speak to students’ own experiences, traditions, narratives, and histories. Should students be willing to share, they may further expand and enrich our understanding of ethical discourse practices.

Embrace Dissensus

The everyday work of the writing class often leads us, teachers and students, into discussions of difficult, controversial, even painful topics. The readings we assign and the topics students write about may involve questions of race, gender, or sexuality. Classroom discussions may consider such issues as economic inequality, immigration, or gun violence. In the diverse classrooms in which we teach, we may find it difficult to achieve consensus on such controversies. Nor should we try. Instead, we might be better off embracing dissensus.

By dissensus, I mean the practice of encouraging diverse perspectives, making space to explore those perspectives, and acknowledging that reconciliation of incommensurable points of view may not be productive, or even possible. Insisting on the resolution of difficult or provocative topics, were we to do so, risks imposing a false sense of unanimity upon students who may hold fundamentally different views. More, it risks silencing minority perspectives by creating a rhetorical environment in which students in the minority feel pressured to go along with the views of the majority.

Dissensus, in contrast, acknowledges that conflicting positions may frustrate compromise and elude the search for common ground. And while consensus implies closure—the group having agreed to a position is now free to move on—dissensus speaks to continuing conversation, ongoing negotiation, and, perhaps, evolving points of view over time. Finally, dissensus makes clear that ethical discourse can thrive in conditions of agreement and disagreement, harmony and dissonance, unity and division. The ethical writer operates in all such contexts.

* I offer the strategies in this essay, modest as they may be, as a starting point, a beginning, an invitation for reflection.  Should these strategies serve as intended, they will provide students and teachers with occasions to work toward deeper, richer, more fully realized understandings of what it means to be an ethical speaker and writer in these unethical times.

John Duffy teaches at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program. He has published on the ethics of writing, the rhetoric of disability, and the historical development of literacy in cross-cultural contexts. In his recent book, Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writinghe examines the ethical dimensions of teaching writing in a post-truth world.


Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. 1999. Discussion as a Way of Teaching:       Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duffy, John. 2019. Provocations of Virtue: Ethics, Rhetoric, and the Teaching of Writing.    Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Gage, John. 2005. “In Pursuit of Rhetorical Virtue.” Lore: 29–37

Hauser, Thomas. 1991. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon and     Schuster.

Mejia, Paula. 2014. “Sharpton, Captain Johnson Give Moving Speeches at Ferguson   Memorial for Michael Brown.” Newsweek, August 17,   2014.

Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. 2010. “Exemplarist Virtue Theory.” Metaphilosophy 41(1-2):  41–57.

[1] The strategies discussed in this essay are adapted from Duffy, 2019.


That’s an Ugly Quote: Some Thoughts on Fear, Identity, and Indirect Activism

By Jeffery Klausman

Klausman office doorIn the Symposium of the spring 2018 TETYC special issue on academic freedom, Annie Del Principe and Jacqueline Brady include this:

In this vein, Jeffrey Klausman asks us: “Can we say that a person with a Master of Arts in Imaginative Literature and little graduate training in composition, who is not current in the field and does not read the journals or attend the conferences, who relies upon lore primarily in his or her teaching, is a ‘professional’ in composition? It would be difficult to say so.” (244)

My gut reaction was, “Well, that’s an ugly quote.”

Even now, I feel some shame and trepidation that something I’d written so long ago was still out there (“Mapping” came out in 2008). After all, I try to be a nice guy (a secular Buddhist, practicing mattri, the principle of loving kindness), and here I am saying in print that the majority of composition faculty, contrary to what they might think and feel, are not professionals, at least by my definition.

But what gives me the right to say such a thing? Who the hell do I think I am?

In my own contribution to that special issue of TETYC, I go even further and clearly define academic freedom as grounded iScreen Shot 2019-02-27 at 12.59.11 PMn disciplinary knowledge and practice, not simply in the fact of employment status at an academic institution (“Academic”). The right to speak freely as an academic employee, I argue, is protected under Constitutional rights of the freedom of speech, whereas academic freedom, I claim, following the AAUP, has to do with disciplinary “speech”: the right to determine curriculum and pedagogy based on disciplinary but only based on disciplinary knowledge, not “lore,” as we’ve come to define it.

Is that a harsh thing to say? Does it disrespect people? When a colleague of mine—contingent, involved in the field, a leader in our department—read my article, she came to me and asked, “Won’t people get mad when they read your article? You’re basically saying they’re not professionals.” I responded, “They would, if they read it. But no one does.” In fact, I’ve heard nothing from anyone in my department to indicate that anyone was even aware of the article.

Which, perhaps, proves the point.

Still, I admit that I am afraid of people’s reactions, of offending people, of disrespecting them. I have to think there’s fear in all of us who have privilege—tenure, the ethos that comes with active membership in our field—and attempt to shape a writing program. We do not want to come across as elitists, “knowing better,” forcing onto others what we think is better practice. (“You might think you know what you’re doing, but you’re wrong,” such an act says—another ugly quote.) We are all of us, to a fault, “democratic” and want to believe that we are all equal, that everyone has equally valuable knowledge because to do otherwise implies—what?

That some of our colleagues do not know as much? That some knowledge is better than other knowledge? That we, in the profession, do know better and they should listen to us? If they’re not willing or able or interested in becoming part of the discipline, they should teach what we tell them?

Yes, that’s exactly what we fear. We fear knowing and saying it, at least out loud. That would be a series of ugly quotes to be sure.

Still, we know we’re not necessarily to blame. Joe Janangelo and I wrote up our findings to a study that Joe, then president of the CWPA, spearheaded. We wrote,

Finally, the very idea of a single, underlying theoretical approach to teaching writing as a ground to a program is itself a contentious issue. One respondent put it bluntly about whether there was a shared philosophy to teaching writing expressed in something like a mission or vision statement: “We don’t have one. It seems that a number of English faculty are opposed” to such explicit statements. Another said that it was “hard to say how much [underlying theory] is shared, but [it’s] easier to talk about with full-time faculty.”

“We can only conclude that at these colleges, the notion itself of an underlying theoretical frame is clouded with fear—that is, we surmise based on our own experiences and the responses to our questions on assessment (see below) that a shared theoretical approach—or even discussion of one—may seem threatening to a faculty member’s sense of autonomy, professionalism, and competence. That the majority of composition faculty at two-year colleges are adjunct, and that adjunct faculty overwhelmingly do not feel appreciated nor valued by their institutions (see Klausman “Not”) and thus feel vulnerable; such concerns raised by any talk of “underlying theoretical frames” are understandable, and thus may be part of a larger cultural, economic, and labor issue fissure. (136 emphasis added).

And later, I wrote up a chapter for Joe’s book on institutional missions in which I go further. I argue that corporatized academic institution constructs a division in labor—the “faculty-manager” and the composition instructor (though not the infamous “comp-droid” that Cary Nelson so unfortunately invoked). This class structure is at odds with the democratic principles we want to believe in and which we don’t want to let go of, in spite of all the signs all around us that such principles do not really reflect reality (see “Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Brand”).

But even more disturbing: such an acknowledgment might also challenge our unspoken beliefs, or our hopes, about our labor structures, that they are at least to some degree meritocratic, and thus to our own sense of self: While we want to believe that we have worked hard to earn our disciplinary knowledge and thus our positions (of privilege), we also know how fortunate we are to have such positions in the first place, knowing as we do the hundreds if not thousands of qualified people who could just as easily have our tenure-track positions.Screen Shot 2019-02-27 at 1.09.37 PM

So what are we to do? Patrick Sullivan writes, “To be uninvolved—to teach our courses, grade our papers, and go home—is to help regressive forces do their work and to support bad ideas and bad public policy (Newkirk)” (349).

And most of us are involved (otherwise, why would we be reading this blog?). We work directly against economic models that create labor inequities.

But we also work indirectly to mitigate the effects of those inequities, by creating opportunities for contingent faculty to become involved in the field, to become “full members” of the academy, at least as much as that is possible given limitations of time and money.

To do otherwise, we recognize would be irresponsible to those positions of privilege we may hold, however fortuitously, because, I would argue, to allow our fear of offending people, of violating our shared principles of respect and democratic ideals, or even further, of challenging our own identities as agents of equality, would be to do a disservice to those students whose educational experiences we have at least partial responsibility for.

In other words, while we’re fighting on one front against the most pernicious effects of a corporatized academic labor structure, we’re also fighting another front to get the best teaching and knowledge to our most vulnerable students. We can’t let our students suffer as well from an unjust labor system, even if it means we must give voice to ugly quotes.

Jeffrey Klausman has taught at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington, since 1996, after earning a Doctor of Arts in English at Idaho State University. As a composition instructor and Writing Program Administrator (WPA), his main area of research is how programmatic reform can foster student success, especially for systemically non-dominant students. His textbook, Active Voices: The Language of College and Composition (Fountainhead Press 2019), seeks to provide instructors of composition, ALP-courses, and first-year experience courses a foundation to teach in a socially just way.

Works Cited

Del Principe, Annie, and Jacqueline Brady. “Academic Freedom and the Idea of a Writing Program.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 351-360.

Janangelo, Joseph, and Jeffrey Klausman. “Rendering the Idea of a Writing Program: A Look at Six Two-Year Colleges.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 40.2, (2012): 131–44.

Hassel, Holly. “Symposium: Academic Freedom, Labor, and Teaching Two-Year College English.” TETYC 45:4  (2018): 29-46.

Jensen, Darin. “Freedom Requires a Place.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 345-347.

Klausman, Jeffrey. “The Two-Year College Writing Program and Academic Freedom: Labor, Scholarship, and Compassion.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 385-405.

—– . “Not Just a Matter of Fairness: Adjunct Faculty and Writing Programs in Two-Year Colleges.” TETYC 37:4 (2010): 363-371.

—–. “Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Brand: How the New Two-Year College Mission Shapes the Faculty-Manager.” Provocations and possibilities: A critical look at institutional mission (2016): 77-91.

Klausman, Jeffrey. “Mapping the Terrain: The Two-Year College Writing Program Administrator.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 35.3 (2008): 238-51.

Sullivan, Patrick. “Different Kinds of Freedom.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 45.4 (2018): 347-351.

NCTE/CCCC/TYCA: A Community of Advocacy

By Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt

As I begin my year as CCCC Past Chair, the last year of my term in the CCCC officer’sCarolyn rotation, I find myself increasingly reflective about the organization and my time in it. This is my third time serving on the CCCC Executive Committee, having previously served in ex officio roles in conjunction with my elected TYCA positions. This extended period of involvement in CCCC (and TYCA and NCTE) leadership has provided me with many opportunities as a teacher, scholar, and activist. It has also given me a unique perspective, most particularly in the policy and advocacy realm, which I believe is integral to our work as teachers and makes tangible our work as scholars.

I have long been attracted to education policy, likely due, at least in part, to my personal history as an educator. I began my career teaching in public schools at the middle school and high school levels and spent the majority of my career teaching at the two-year college, educational spaces that are both at the heart of democracy and the center of public critique and policy reform efforts. My leadership work in NCTE/CCCC/TYCA paralleled the organization’s formalized effort to extend its role beyond professional development and into policy work, to, as former NCTE Executive Director Kent Williamson put it, find its “external voice” (qtd. in Risolo 24). Kent believed such a shift was necessary to engage current members, attract new members, and deepen the organization’s influence by protecting and expanding literacy educators’ decision-making spaces (Risolo 24), and I, then and now, embrace the organization’s vision of serving its members through policy advocacy.

During this period (beginning in 2006), I had several opportunities to engage in developing NCTE’s federal policy recommendations as a member of the NCTE EC Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee and to participate in NCTE’s annual Policy Advocacy Day, now the Advocacy and Leadership Summit, in Washington, D.C. As a member of NCTE, TYCA, and CCCC Executive Committees, I collaborated with my EC colleagues to create 2020 vision statements for each respective group, all of which included language related to advancing public understanding of our work and advocating for the conditions needed to do our work effectively. Later, I presided over the approval of CCCC’s new mission statement, developed under the direction of Linda Adler-Kassner, a statement which defines advocacy as one of the core tenets of our work. I had the opportunity to serve on and, later, charge taskforces with the development of position statements representing important issues to our members–statements members could use to advocate in their local contexts. I also served two years as Washington State’s Higher Education Policy Analyst as part of NCTE’s inaugural Policy Analysis Initiative, providing regular updates on state policies and trends that may impact teaching and learning, especially as related to writing studies. All of these activities reflect the organization’s commitment to advocacy work.

In 2014-2015, I was appointed as the first (and only) CCCC Policy Fellow, a position designed to connect CCCC expertise to NCTE’s legislative efforts and relay relevant national policies and trends back to CCCC leadership and members. At that time, the Department of Education under President Obama had recently introduced the College Scorecard (or PIRS, Postsecondary Institution Rating System), a system intended to tie federal funding to institutional performance as rated by series of “value” metrics, mostly centered on economic and credential-based outcomes. This proposed rating system provoked much concern from a range of higher education groups, including our own, and became a priority for CCCC during my term of service as Policy Fellow. I attended a hearing and met with representatives of allied groups in DC, participated in several online public forums and informational webinars, and conducted research and wrote reports and responses to internal and external audiences. At the same time, I led a CCCC task force charged with developing an “alternative scorecard” for composition studies. By the time the task force developed its initial draft for CCCC EC feedback, the rating system portion of the College Scorecard was abandoned in favor of a consumer tool, also problematic (see Toth, Sullivan, and Calhoon-Dillahunt, “A Dubious Method” in TETYC), rendering our “alternative scorecard” obsolete. (Admittedly, the task force struggled with audience and purpose throughout its truncated process: Who would use–or even consider–this “alternative scorecard” and for what? How would it be used? Key questions to consider when trying to communicate with or influence public audiences!)

My experience as CCCC Policy Fellow, while positive and interesting, reinforced several lessons about organizational policy advocacy work: (1) that, as a non-profit disciplinary organization, NCTE/CCCC is not nimble enough to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-shifting dynamics of federal policymaking, (2) that the organization is also not large enough, broad enough, or monied enough to wield great influence on federal education legislation, especially given that federal higher education policies do not directly address our area of expertise, literacy education, and (3) that the national trends and federal legislation that impact literacy education most often manifest themselves in state and local policies.

This does not mean there is not a space for organizational policy advocacy at the federal level. In fact, under the direction of NCTE Executive Director Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE has made some important strategy shifts in its policy advocacy work in recent years, both in forming alliances with groups who share our values and interests (e.g., its collaboration with 87 civil rights group this fall in sponsoring full-page newspaper ads in NYT and Pittsburg Gazette expressing solidarity with victims of gun violence) and, more importantly, in positioning the organization as a resource to federal policymakers, as a “trusted public voice” on matters related to literacy and writing in educational contexts (“About CCCC”). This position is proving productive as increasingly lawmakers are turning to NCTE and its constituencies for information and feedback, including a request for a definition of writing instruction, developed by NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA leaders, to inform the statutory language proposed in last year’s proposed Higher Education Act (HEA) Reauthorization. NCTE also provides regular “Action Alerts” on its website, with information about legislative issues that may impact members and steps for how to take action, often by writing or calling their respective senators and representatives.

However, the organization’s greatest power in the public sphere is rooted in its members, most especially its members’ expertise. NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA members have long produced and shared the knowledge that grounds our discipline and shapes our practice through publications, collaborative spaces (e.g, conventions and conferences), and sponsorship and recognition of research. As I argued in my Chair’s Address (see “Returning to Our Roots,” CCCC, Dec. 2018), CCCC’s (and TYCA’s) particular area of expertise is first-year writing, the whole of it–all iterations (including dual credit courses and AP tests); its support courses, resources, and programs; the courses and programs it supports (including graduate programs); and related assessments. First-year writing is also the space where we have expertise of value to policymakers and other public audiences. CCCC and TYCA members have already had some success influencing national policy in relation to first-year writing; for instance, Les Perelman is credited with bringing down the robo-scored SAT essay exam (Weiss), and Peter Adams and his County of Baltimore Community College colleagues developed a new approach to developmental writing, ALP, that has since been adopted as a best practice by higher educational reform groups (see “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates”).

But we have not consistently used our expertise toward achieving CCCC’s 2022 Vision of becoming “the leading voice in public discussions about what it means to be an effective writer and to deliver quality writing instruction” (“About CCCC”). Despite our expertise and our rhetorical skill, we have yet to change the public narrative about what writing is, how it develops, and why it matters. That is where, as an organization, NCTE/CCCC/TYCA can help. It can support its members’ advocacy work by providing the resources and support members need to affect change in their local contexts.

NCTE, CCCC, and TYCA have long contributed to member’s advocacy efforts through the development of position statements on a range of pedagogical, professional, ethical, and policy issues. CCCC has a process for regularly updating its position statements and guidelines for creating statements that can be used effectively with external audiences. In recent years, CCCC has made a concerted effort to provide professional development opportunities and resources for members interested in advocacy and activism work. For example, at the CCCC 2016 convention, Linda Adler-Kassner featured a series of “Taking Action” workshops–”Naming and Narrowing,” “Building Alliances,” “Framing Messages,” “Influencing Policy,” and “Making Action Plan–to help attendees develop strategies for taking action. She later referenced these principles in her April 2017 Teacher-Scholar-Activist blog post, “Taking What We Know to Make a Difference.” In recognition that the role of teachers is changing to include policy and advocacy work, Cathy Fleischer developed the Everyday Advocacy website as a toolkit for literacy educators at all levels. In response to CCCC members’ growing concerns with working conditions, CCCC appointed Holly Hassel to serve as its inaugural Labor Liaison in 2017, and she has developed a collection of resources and serves as a contact for members dealing with labor-related issues.

Most recently, the CCCC Strategic Action Task Force, chaired by Steve Parks, has unveiled its “Strategic Action Toolkit,” a comprehensive collection of resources designed to “allow graduate students, adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, and program administrators to speak effectively to the public on the value of their pedagogical, curricular, and civic work.” Task Force members John Duffy, Eli Goldblatt, Laura Gonzalez, Megan Faver Hartline, Alexandria Hildalgo, Veronica House, Darin Jensen, Seth Kahn, Paula Mathieu, Jessica Pauszek, Donnie Sackey, Stephanie Wheeler, and Megan Opperman lent their intellect, experience, and labor to developing a robust website of resources, including interviews, informational videos, and links. According to the site’s “About” page, “[t]he goal was to support faculty and administrators who actively work towards the success of all students across heritages, genders, classes, and legal status.” The site is organized around the concepts of building (getting started), expanding (networks of support), responding (changing the public narrative), and mentoring (connecting with experienced volunteers). In addition, the “Now” section of the website features case studies, which will be updated periodically, of members taking action in their local contexts. The first “Now” case study features responses to the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally,” and there is a link provided to suggest other events and local actions.

The role of the NCTE/CCCC/TYCA, then, is to create a community of advocacy: infrastructure, expertise, resources, and networks that support members’ efforts. Change is, after all, a collective responsibility, so our professional organization can and should play a critical role in promoting and sustaining such a community. Additionally, because advocacy and activism are crucial elements of the work we do, of being a professional in this field, they are critical parts of professional development, which has long been at the heart of the organization’s mission.

As I begin transitioning out of my leadership roles in the organization, I reflect on the many ways NCTE/CCCC/TYCA have provided me with an advocacy community to support my work in context. Reading recent scholarship, attending conference presentations, conversing with folks who are doing work I am interested in, and keeping abreast of state and national trends and policies have been the primary instigators of change in my own classroom and in my college’s writing program–from piloting labor contracts in my developmental classes (thanks, Asao Inoue!) to implementing an ALP program in our department (grounded in CBCC’s initial work, but shaped by the work of many others) to overhauling our college’s writing placement (informed by TYCA’s white paper, CCCC’s position statements, myriad scholarly presentations and articles related to placement reform, multiple discussions with TYCA and CCCC colleagues, and the various reform movements centered of placement and developmental education). These local changes are making a difference for me, my colleagues, and, most importantly, students. These changes have required me to embrace all aspects of my professional identity–teacher, scholar, and activist–and have been enabled by the community of advocacy I have in my professional organization.

Where are your spheres of influence? What problems can you convert into possibilities? How can we, your professional community, help?

Works Cited

“About CCCC.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, NCTE, 1998-2018,

Adams, Peter, et al. “The Accelerated Learning Program: Throwing Open the Gates.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 28, no. 2, 2009, pp. 50 – 69.

Calhoon-Dillahunt, Carolyn. “2018 CCCC Chair’s Address: Returning to Our Roots: Creating the Conditions and Capacity for Change” College Composition & Communication, vol. 70, no. 2, 2018, pp. 273 – 293.

Risolo, Donna. “The Paradox of Power.” The Language Arts Journal of Michigan, vol. 26, iss. 2, 2011, pp. 23 – 28. ScholarWorks@GVSU,

Toth, Christie, Patrick Sullivan, et al. “A Dubious Method of Improving Educational Outcomes: Accountability and the Two-Year College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 4, 2016, pp. 391–410.

Weiss, Joanna. “The Man Who Killed the SAT.” Boston Globe 14 Mar. 2014,

Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt teaches writing at Yakima Valley College, a two-year college in Washington State. She has been a member of NCTE for more than two decades and has had the privilege of serving the organization in a variety of capacities and is a former TYCA Chair and a former CCCC Chair. She has authored or co-authored several articles in TETYC and CCC, including the forthcoming “Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activism: Reconstructing the Disciplinary Matrix of Writing Studies” with Christie Toth and Patrick Sullivan, part of a CCC special issue. Her particular teaching, scholarly, and advocacy interests lie in developmental and first-year writing and the related areas of placement and assessment. Believing in the transformative potential of educational spaces for students and communities alike, she is now actively embracing her college’s “equity agenda” and looks forward to presenting her college’s preliminary work at CCCC 2019 . . . and perhaps discussing it in a future Teacher-Scholar-Activist blog post!

Higher Education, Disinvestment, and the Teacher-Scholar-Activist

by Deborah Mutnick

Peanuts_OverthrowOn June 28, Western Illinois University announced it will be sending layoff notices this summer to 24 faculty, including seven with tenure. For many of us in higher education, this grim news is not surprising as the sword hovers above our heads, too. Such trends recently led Adam Harris, writing in the Atlantic, to suggest that higher education will die not as a bubble that pops but as “a long slow slide.”

Falling enrollments, budget cuts, high tuition costs, adjunctification, student debt, concerns about the worth of a degree: each of these factors alone is worrisome but together, as some of us know firsthand, they are driving nonelite schools to consolidate, merge, close, and/or otherwise contract. The cause of this “death spiral,” as Harris calls it, citing self-proclaimed education futurist Bryan Alexander on industries that decline after “peaking,” is a business model that subsumes all other values to marketplace exigencies. Rationalizations for the commodification of education—changing demographics, increased costs, bond ratings, federal scrutiny of metrics like graduate rates—more or less preclude its function as a “public good” in favor of “value-added” measures of “returns on investment” (ROI). It is no longer education per se that is valued but rather its profitability.

The political economy of higher education should be a major concern not only for those immediately involved in it—teachers, staff, students, parents, campus workers—but also for society as a whole, a bellwether for our collective future. As early as 1997, Bill Readings saw signs of the impact of transnational capitalism on higher education, distinguishing between its function as a “microcosm of the nation state” (166) and a new model that would be reinvented in “the ruins of the university.” According to Readings, the ruined university, at best, can be put to new uses as a “détournement of the spaces willed to us by a history whose temporality we no longer inhabit” (129).

But some twenty years later, in their rush to reinvent higher education as a corporate enterprise, it seems that federal and state legislators and university trustees and presidents are obliterating even the remnants of the ruins in which Readings thought we could dwell. As I have suggested elsewhere, just as it calls into question Readings’ cautious appeal to reimagine its contours, this new university makes David Bartholomae’s view in 1986 that students need to “‘appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse’” in order to reinvent it—which at the time drew some criticism—seem “almost quaint” (Mutnick 377).

By now, the critique of austerity in higher education and other public programs—and parts of the private sector that traditionally served the “public good”—is well known (see, e.g., Welch and Scott). We are in the midst of a transformation of higher education achieved through technology, corporate partnerships, adjunctification, and other practices mostly antithetical to actual missions of teaching and research to awaken and enlighten minds and discover, create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. For the more than 70 percent of all U.S. faculty in the contingent labor force, these austere conditions mean on average an annual salary of $20,000, if not homelessness, hunger, or worse. For those lucky enough to have tenure or tenure track jobs, there is a loss of dignity, autonomy, and job security as programs are eliminated, tenure and promotion more frequently denied, and colleagues pitted against one another in competition for scarce resources. Though careful not to idealize the past, several authors writing about intensifying attacks on higher education perhaps not surprisingly voice concern about the loss of its soul (e.g., Schrecker; Fabricant and Brier).

For students hammered by debt from public disinvestment and rising tuition costs, going to college in the ruins of higher education means racking up as many AP and pre-college credits as possible before their first class, deciding on careers as high school seniors, choosing a course of study based on market demands and salary potential, and racing through those pesky general education requirements in the liberal arts and sciences as fast as possible. Some, typically more affluent students face fierce competition for spaces in elite schools or programs along with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Others, many from working-class families, who may struggle academically and/or financially are increasingly advised to skip college altogether, further contributing to the gaping class divide.

While commitments to democracy, justice, and equality can obviously be found across the disciplines, those of us remanded to the academic “basement” of writing studies and forged by the consciousness of new rhetoric, writing, and English studies as they were remade in the politically charged 1960s and ’70s like to place ourselves, rightly or wrongly, at the forefront of change. What we see is a ripple effect from federal and state disinvestment—the “austerity blues” as Fabricant and Brier call it—to endless justifications by college trustees and presidents of their ruthless pursuit of better returns on investment. Nancy Welch has called such rationalizations “la langue de coton,” or the woolen language of official calls like those at my university to participate in a strategic planning process defined by the empty rhetoric of “prominence in academic excellence” and recognition “as a ‘best value’ institution.”

Market forces in higher education, like those in other sectors such as urban real estate development, can feel inexorable. Whether orchestrated by university boards of trustees or urban development corporations, they assert a neoliberal claim to reorganize political and economic life in ways that profit a few at the expense of the many, thinly veiled by the hollow rhetoric of a democratic process in which all stakeholders have a voice. The university president asks faculty to participate in strategic planning to be able to claim that they helped author the plan and then goes ahead and does whatever the board decides in the name of fiscal exigency. The urban development corporation holds hearings about a major new real estate plan that will displace local residents and commercial tenants and then disregards the community’s strenuous objections to it. It can feel as though we can do little to stem, let alone reverse, the neoliberal tide of austerity, financialization, privatization, and deregulation in all spheres of life.

The language of “death spiral” to describe higher education resonates for us because we see and feel it happening. We see it in our own or other institutions as faculty and staff are laid off, enrollments decline, budgets are cut, and protests—petitions, faculty votes of no confidence, resolutions—seem to have no tangible effect other than to document the destruction of the educational institutions we helped build as the corporate university digs in its claws. Apart from the weapon of the strike for unionized faculty, increasingly limited by federal laws and court rulings, our power to shape higher education from within is negligible despite shared governance agreements to which trustees and administrators more or less adhered for generations. Epitomizing this trend, for example, is the erasure in the most recent edition of the Middle States Commission’s Standards for Reaccreditation and Requirements for Affiliation of the words “shared governance.”

But the bleakness is not unremitting. The wildcat strikes by public school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona dramatically attest to the power we do hold, signaling that masses of people are ready to refuse to accept lives of duress, scarcity, and insecurity. The West Virginia teachers’ call for a severance tax on coal and natural gas industries to pay for the underfunded Public Employee Insurance Agency shines a light on the path ahead. It represents a victory for democracy in the form of a politically conscious, highly effective class revolt not seen since the 1930s. And commitments to a just, democratic educational system in writing studies, however much they may be riddled with contradictions of a two-tiered hiring system dependent on contingent labor, can form the basis for mobilization and collective action across institutions.

Fabricant and Brier put it this way: “The overarching challenge facing all of us is to protect the public university as a democratic experiment firmly planted in the public commons” (9). How do we do that? Rather than lament predictions of higher education’s “death spiral,” we can work to change the narrative. As teacher-scholar-activists, we can help build—and join—labor and other activist coalitions to push back against austerity, contraction, inequality, and precarity. We can be clear about the underlying market values undoing bourgeois democracy and the emancipatory vision contained in its own contradictions (see Brown). We can at least begin to reclaim higher education’s mission by contesting the logic of market forces, resisting what Jean Anyon long ago called the “hidden curriculum,” and demanding the right to a liberal arts education for everyone.

Deborah Mutnick is a professor of English at Long Island University Brooklyn. She is theMutnick_Photo_TSA.jpg author of Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education (Boynton/Cook 1996) and has published widely in edited collections and journals, including College Composition and Communication and College English. She is currently co-editor with Laurie Grobman of Reflections: The Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning.

Works Cited

Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” The Journal of Education,Vol. 162, No. 1, 1980, pp. 67-92

Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books, 2015.

Fabricant, Michael, and Stephen Brier. Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2016.

Harris, Adams. “Here’s How Higher Education Dies.” The Atlantic, 5 June 2018. Accessed 6 June 2018.

Mutnick, Deborah. Pathways to Freedom: From the Archives to the Street. College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 3, 2018, pp. 374-401.

Schreck, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education. The New Press, 2010.

Welch, Nancy. “La Langue de Coton: How Neoliberal Language Pulls the Wool Over  Faculty Governance.” Pedagogy, vol. 11, no. 3, 2011, pp. 545-553.

Welch, Nancy, and Tony Scott, editors. Composition in the Age of Austerity. Utah State UP,2016.

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 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.” . Accessed 1 June 2018.

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

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.

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. -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,.

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,

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,

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.

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.

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—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 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.

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.