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.

What I did Today

By Jenny Bruck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Community College as a Site of Resistance

By Keith Kroll

“Macomb [Community College] is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.”

-Community College president

KROLL_Photo_TSAAs I walk down the main hallway on my campus, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), I pass a large glass display case containing photographs and memorabilia celebrating the college’s  50th year anniversary. Founded in 1967, during the heyday of community college expansion, KVCC began classes in the fall of 1968.
The most prominent photograph (see below)—the one that always grabs my attention—shows students holding the college’s president on their shoulders (in a pose reminiscent of football players carrying a coach off the field following a stunning victory); other students hold signs, reading “Trust the Trustees” and “A Better Future Through Better Education[.] KVCC”


The brochure accompanying the display states:

From the beginning, it was clear that something very unique was happening at Kalamazoo Valley.  In the late 1960s, while college campuses boiled with anti-war, and even anti-establishment protests, in contrast, Kalamazoo Valley made national news, when on April 15, 1969, students staged a pro-administration rally, complete with “Lake is No Fake” and “Cool School” signs.  (50 Years)

In other words, during a period remarkable for widespread campus student protests against American involvement in Vietnam, students at KVCC publicly celebrated “the establishment“ (the administration and the board of trustees and, indirectly, those who supported the war).  Each time I look at the photograph two questions come to mind: (1) Why weren’t the students publicly protesting a war being fought by soldiers that often came from the same poor and working-class demographic?  (2) Why weren’t there (even) more instances of student activism on my campus and on community college campuses around the country?

During my time at KVCC, there have been a handful of student protests. The most recent two occurred response to the board of trustees approving an increase in fees to use the campus wellness center and approving a substantial increase in tuition.  Student protest signs should read “Don’t Trust the Trustees.”

City Colleges of Chicago has a  history of student campus activism, particularly among Black students.  In 2012, Santa Monica College students were pepper-sprayed while protesting the board of trustees plan to raise course fees for popular classes. More recently, in December of 2017, students who attend St Louis Community College campuses protested faculty layoffs during a board of trustees meeting, and a student is currently suing an Illinois community college alleging her right to free speech was violated. But for the most part, community college campuses don’t appear to experience much student activism.

My immediate answer to the questions raised by the photograph was that community college students aren’t involved in campus activism do to what Doug McAdam describes as “Biographical Availability”:

In the context of social activism, biographical availability refers to the “absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities” (McAdam 1986: 70). Individuals who have spouses, children, or less time-flexible occupations are expected to be less willing and likely to participate in collective action because familial and occupational commitments can reduce the amount of time and energy available for activism and increase the risks associated with it. (In  Beyerlein, K. and Bergstrand, K. 2013. Biographical Availability. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. )

To a great extent, McAdam is describing community college students. Community college campuses are (most) often commuter schools, so students attend classes and leave. Very few students—despite the salutary effects of being on campus—spend much time on campus beyond attending classes.  Other than cohorts of students in defined programs, for example, nursing or dental hygiene, or, most importantly, in classrooms, students spend little time in groups.  Community college students work; a large percentage attend part-time (and schedule their courses two days a week so that they can work the other three days); many have family responsibilities. In short, as McAdam’s points out, activism requires time—perhaps the one thing community college students seem to have little of.

I was also quick to blame students for their lack of social activism on campus.  Along with being too busy, I reasoned they are basically apathetic towards politics and social issues, spending too much time on their phones and social media—as evidence one only need to walk down the hallway of any community college and observe students waiting for their next class.

But then I came across a piece in USA Today titled “Is this the Golden Age of College Student Activism?” which argued that student activism on college campuses is actually on the rise. An earlier The Atlantic piece, “The Renaissance of Student Activism,” made a similar argument.  Perhaps college students weren’t as politically apathetic as I first imagined.

“The American Student Protest Timeline, 2014-15,” lists numerous campus protests, many in response to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But only one community college is included on the timeline, and, interestingly enough, it is not St Louis Community College-Florissant Valley (St Louis CC-FV)—the college closest to Ferguson.  An Inside Higher Education article about St Louis CC-FV titled “Ferguson’s College Refuge” provided an answer: rather than a site for student activism, St Louis CC-FV was a “safe haven” and a “way out.”

As I read the article, I recognized the narrative used to describe St Louis CC-FV: it was very much the same narrative told by the KVCC photograph from 1969. The narrative—despite the marketing department claim that it was “unique—was not unique at all. In fact, “trust the trustees,” trust the establishment, trust those in power, don’t question authority, the community college as a “safe haven” and a “way out” are all parts of the same grand narrative of the community college.  The community college is, according to the narrative, “Democracy’s College.” To use the (propagandistic) language of the American Association for Community College’s (AACC)  latest report on the future of the 21st-century community college, the community college is about Reclaiming the Dream.  But the way to “reclaim the dream,”  to be “democracy’s college” is not, as one might expect or as “democracy” demands, through education and citizenship but rather through vocational-technical education (or in 2018’s lingo, “career technical education”).

This grand narrative became a central part of the Obama Administration’s neoliberal education policies in response to the Great Recession: community colleges would be fundamental to the administration’s economic plan to “make America great again”; community colleges and community college students would be asked to save an economic system—one  that had rarely been in their favor—from the very establishment who had wrecked it.  And the best way for community colleges to accomplish this, and to promote democracy, according to the narrative, was not through education—but through a curriculum focused on job training, on meeting the (supposed) demands of the business community.  After all, as the story unfolded,  it was not (actually) the economy so much that needed repair as it was the American worker: they lacked the necessary skills needed in the 21st Century workforce. In this way, “Skills-gap” became the leitmotif of the Great Recession. The narrative continues in 2018 with the Trump administration and Secretary of  Education Betsy Devos visiting community colleges to announce new job training programs. In fact,  the president literally removed any pretense that community colleges provide an education by declaring they should all become “vocational schools.”  If Democratic and Republican politicians agree on one thing, it is this: community colleges are job-training centers.

Any curriculum not related to job training should be diminished or cut. Kentucky’s governor, while drastically reducing higher education funding in the state—a central tenet of neoliberal policy involves defunding higher education—has repeatedly called for colleges to cut disciplines and programs that don’t directly lead to jobs. The AACC’s Reclaiming the Dream states, the community colleges should “find ways to align programs and degree offerings more closely with labor-market demand. . . .” (11).  In response to such pronouncements and policies, KVCC’s AAS (“go-to-work”) degree is now promoted to the detriment of (general) education, the very courses where students might learn to not trust the trustees, to actually question authority. That is, students in various AAS programs no longer need to take courses in biology, chemistry, economics, foreign languages, geology, geography, history, humanities, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology. (Fourteen faculty members of the college’s Academic Leadership Council voted in favor of the cuts.  Three faculty members, including the head of the welding program, voted against the cuts.)  The English department fought to keep college writing as a requirement. (As the college president asked at a college-wide faculty meeting in 2007, Why do auto techs and welders need to learn to write?)   The argument that saved it had nothing to do with teaching students to express their ideas (with clarity and grace) in writing but had everything to do with students needing to learn documentation. In other words, if a particular course does not have a utilitarian purpose directly related to job training, it’s no longer of value.

The grand narrative of “Democracy’s College” tells students they don’t need an education; they need training. In Digital Diploma Mills, David F. Noble describes the distinction between training and education this way:

In essence, training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that his or her mind can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person. . . . Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation bu the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge.  (2)

Under the guise of training, democracy is defined in economic terms, and community college students are repeatedly told that the sole purpose of schooling is “to get a job.”

Those of us who teach in the community college and critically examine the community college know this narrative to be fundamentally a myth.  That’s not so say that community colleges aren’t without their student success stories—the community college version of the Oprah-Winfrey myth—which the AACC, politicians, and administrators are quick to retell.  Student X, despite coming from a disadvantaged background, attending a failing public school, working two part-time jobs, suffering from food insecurity and, at times, homelessness, and after being laid off from their factory job, is attending the local community college to get (re)trained or has gotten retrained and is now  productive member of society.  Student X gets trotted out each time a politician visits the campus to announce a new job (re)training program. (Disclosure: I graduated from a community college, but I have come to realize my success at the community college had little to with the community college and much more to do with my privileged background.) What’s never asked, of course, is why Student X’s public school was so underfunded, or why Student X had to work two jobs while in school, or why, as a society, we would allow any person to suffer from food insecurity or to be homeless, or why Student X was laid off, or why was the factory closed.  To ask these questions would be to reveal the mythical nature of the narrative and to expose the real nature of the current economic system.

The data on community colleges across the country exposes the falsehood of the grand narrative. The reality is poor retention, abysmal graduation rates, low transfer rates, and failed job (re)training.   For example, the “refuge” that is St Louis CC-FV has a  “graduation rate [of] 6.4 percent [. . . ]. And 19 percent of Florissant Valley students transfer to a four-year institution. . . .”   These numbers do not suggest “a way out.” As numerous community college scholars have argued, the community college is much more about maintaining social stratification than it is about promoting economic advancement.

Another answer, then, to why KVCC students would carry a president on their shoulders and carry signs that read “Trust the Trustees” is this: Community college students are rarely offered a curriculum, a critical literacy, that promotes social agency; that provides students the opportunity to express their opinions and find their voice; that teaches them to reflect, to ask questions, to know, and to resist, rather then simply accept the local, state, and national world in which they live; that teaches them what it means to be actively engaged citizens, to question the establishment.  Sadly, too much of the teaching in community colleges falls short of this. Instead, students are taught to “trust the trustees.”

In his study of community college teaching, Honored But Invisible, Grubb wrote, “a central conclusion of this book is that many community colleges as institutions pay little attention to teaching [. . .] (2), and that the teaching that does occur is often teacher-centered with little attention to critical literacy. For example, Grubb found that occupational instructors very rarely critique the notion of work:

Implicitly instructors emphasize the role of occupational education as a means of conveying the expectations of employers. They are preparing workers to function in an accepting mold—“punctuality, being there, doing the very best they can, willing to learn”—not workers as citizens who might have something to say about the conditions of their work. (130, my emphasis).

As Ira Shor wrote in Culture Wars, “Trade-school pedagogy is the most anti-intellectual and depoliticized form of education” ( 17).  Furthermore, the 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement: Essential Elements of Engagement reported that with respect to critical thinking 64% of respondents reported that “quite a bit or very much” of their coursework emphasized rote memory” (14).  The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that community college classrooms are often lecture-oriented with little in-class writing or experiential learning (18).  From what I have observed on my campus, I would agree: a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom — Freire’s “banking” model—appears to be the dominant mode of instruction.  When I tell my writing students one reason they need to learn to write—my one concession to English as “service” department—is in order to write well in their other courses, they generally laugh at me.

As the community college moves closer and closer to a job-training center that resembles a (for-profit) trade school rather than an educational institution, critical literacy will all but vanish.

To prevent this extinction, community college faculty must offer a counter-narrative that promotes education and critical literacy in the classroom. On community college campuses, “the classroom may be the only place students interact with one another and with faculty, the only place where they can be effectively engaged in learning” (2). In other words, the classroom is one of the last spaces where what it means to be an actively-engaged citizen can be fostered; where not trusting the trustees can be discussed; where questioning authority and offering anti-establishment views can be encountered.  The critical pedagogy that provides the theoretical framework for such a classroom is readily available in the work of Freire, Shor, bell hooks, Bradley J. Porfilio, Henry Giroux, and many other scholars. Barry Alford, on this site, describes the critical literacy possible in a composition classroom. (Alford’s composition classroom looks nothing like the English 1A I took at the community college, which taught the five-paragraph essay and (misused) rhetorical strategies—the comparison and contrast essay, the definition essay, etc.)  In my American literature courses, I encourage my students to make connections between the texts we read and discuss, for example John Winthrop’s idea of “a “City upon a hill”—a phrase oft repeated by current politicians in describing America—and the country in which they live, and to investigate the ideology evident in those texts.  Rather than simply regurgitate facts and fill in boxes on a Scantron sheet, students produce interesting and thoughtful writing with titles such as “Is the Slavery Part Left Out Because Nicholas Cage Stole It? A Response to Jefferson,” “What Am I to Think? A Letter to Thomas Jefferson,” and “Nationalism versus the Self: Reading Howells’s ‘Editha’ in current American society. “ (Yes, my pedagogy is political, but so, too, is the course that asks students to regurgitate facts and to fill in Scantron boxes.  Despite Stanley Fish’s protestations to the contrary, pedagogy is political.)

The challenge to such a critical pedagogy, which offers a counter-narrative, arises from the realization that it requires community college faculty to be subversive: to resist the neoliberal education policy that makes community colleges job training centers, vocational schools, or credentialing mills. It requires community college faculty to resist the idea of the community college student as an economic commodity.

Such subversiveness, however, is not easy.  After teaching at a community college for thirty-two years, I believe they are generally conservative institutions, where administrators, faculty, staff, and students too readily accept their place as second best.  It requires tenured faculty to be subversive within the very institution and economic system from which they benefit—no easy task. For faculty who teach writing, it requires resisting the idea of English solely as a “service” department, whose purpose is utilitarian.

Subversiveness is in short supply for a variety of other reasons as well.

A large percentage of community college faculty teach part-time and work under precarious conditions: low pay, one-semester contracts, no role in faculty governance, and often without union representation.  The last thing they want to do is subvert college policies, which could lead to losing their jobs. Moreover, the community college’s continued growth in online education—despite research that such courses have lower retention rates than face-to-face courses—and the concomitant disappearance of students and faculty from campus reduces the opportunity for meaningful student-teacher interaction both inside and outside the classroom.

The community college’s current fascination with “Guided Pathways” will further erode general education courses and narrow students’ opportunities for exploration and discovery, as they are tracked into (meta-) majors and limited in taking courses outside their major.  Current financial aid rules may limit students—as it did for one of my former students— in career programs from taking courses not directly related to training.  For example, if a student is in a welding program, then there’s no place for an American literature course—the argument being welders don’t need to read, discuss, and write about literature: It has no utilitarian or economic benefit.

I am not arguing that community colleges outright reject job (re)training as a part of its mission. It would be naïve to do so.  Community college students attend college to get a job, or, more likely, to get a better job.  It would also be naïve to believe that critical literacy will somehow result in (all) community students becoming outstanding citizens and/or engaging in social activism (on or off campus). After all, John Yoo, with a liberal arts degree from Harvard University, wrote the “Torture Memos.”


While I originally despised the photograph in the display case, I have come to appreciate it as a stark reminder of what is required of me each day I walk into the classroom, whether teaching writing or literature. What is required of me—what is required of all community college teachers no matter their discipline or program— is to offer a critical literacy that encourages students to read, write, and/or discuss topics that explore the conditions of their lives and the world in which they/we live; and to help them learn to better negotiate that world—even if that simply means a former student approaching me in the hallway to tell me how good she felt to understand the newspaper headline “Dream Accomplished” (published the day after Barack Obama’s election in 2008) within the context of Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and Hughes’s”Dream Deferred” (two texts we had read, discussed, and written about in a previous semester).

Works Cited

Grubb, W. Norton and Associates.  Honored But Invisible. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Noble, David F. Digital Diploma Mills.  New York: Monthly Review P, 2002.

50 YearsKalamazoo Valley Community College. Kalamazoo.  KVCC, 2016.

Shor, Ira. Culture Wars. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.


Keith Kroll has taught in the English Department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College since 1986.