This is What Educators Sound Like

On January 29, 2017, I stood chanting in Upper Senate Park, with sign held high, alongside educators, students, and parents. We gathered to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Paige Hermansen has already detailed on Teacher-Scholar-Activist why we must continue to oppose DeVos, even now that she has been confirmed. What continues to strike me about that morning, however, is not just the cause that gathered us, but the significance of teachers standing in solidarity in this particular moment.

In Upper Senate Park that morning, we chanted, among other things: “Show me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like.” This chant is representative of classic protest rhetoric in its use of call and response, repetition, and syncopated rhythm. It’s designed to be both easy to chant and memorable. This chant, of course, did not originate within the context of this DeVos protest. In fact, two hours later it would be heard again as an even larger group gathered at the White House to protest an Executive Order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Undoubtedly, it would fill the air of sister protests across the country that day and in the weeks following.

Yet the notion of teachers standing together proclaiming they themselves to be the image of democracy is something upon which we should pause and meditate. What does it mean for educators to represent democracy? What responsibilities do educators have to the ideals of democracy within the United States?

Here, I hope to briefly examine these questions through a somewhat unconventional route–beginning with the rhetoric of the teacher’s protest.  Protest rhetoric of the kind displayed at the DeVos rally resembles a kind of democratic cheerleading. Its goal is to subvert some movement or ideology.  To do so, signs are raised while voices and drums energize the crowd and build solidarity.  Edward P.J. Corbett[1] called this kind of communication, in post 1960 society, closed-fist rhetoric. It stands in contrast to his concept of open-hand rhetoric, which was certainly a core characteristic of early democracy. Corbett suggests that open-hand rhetoric after 1960 corresponded to sustained, logic-driven, eloquent arguments. Corbett’s description draws to mind Quintilian’s “good man, speaking well.”

I find Corbett’s open-hand and closed-fist to be useful metaphors for questioning the work of educators in a post-2016 democracy. There’s a notion that the real work of democracy ought to take place through channels of open-hand rhetoric. We write and call our representatives. The nation’s leaders propose bills and craft executive orders. We, once more, write our representatives; we show up to town halls and wait our turn to speak. During other administrations, I considered this civic engagement. It was how the work of democracy got done throughout my lifetime. Today, I can’t help but feel that’s just not enough. There are arguments unwelcome in these spaces and voices who do not have access to these channels.

This form of rhetoric, this open-hand, conciliatory rhetoric, represents a fair amount of the instruction that takes place in American education, not just within English departments such as my own, but throughout the writing we ask students to do across the curriculum. We invite them to think critically and then channel their ideas into prose that fits conventions, is sequentially ordered, and demonstrates decorum. We teach students these things in preparation for their engagement within democracy. This instruction is good; it’s important. Again, is it enough to truly respond to the call that we, as educators, must prepare students for engagement in today’s democracy?

As Higher Education for American Democracy, the report composed in response to Harry S. Truman’s Commission on Higher Education indicates, “the social role of education in democratic society is at once to insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups, and to enable the citizens to understand, appraise, and redirect forces, men, and events as these tend to strengthen or to weaken their liberties.”[2] What happens when open-fist rhetoric is not enough to redirect forces that threaten our students liberties?

Our students are going to need other tools.

As teachers gather in protest chanting “This is what democracy” looks like, they claim the rhetoric of the closed fist, for themselves and for the rhetoric of democracy. Yet, I want to push us a step further still. Corbett’s rhetoric of the closed fist evoked the image of the raised fist of the black power movement. Yet the fists of the teachers in this crowd were not raised. This was particularly noticeable to me, as someone who has spent her fair share of time in the front row at punk rock shows, where fist pumping is a cultural norm. The closed fists of the protest were noticeably clinched at sides, on signs, and around smartphones. I make this observation not to criticize the demonstration, but instead to acknowledge its own self-consciousness. For many in this space, this was clearly not a preferred rhetorical form. Some signs gestured toward this discomfort, saying things like “I should be home writing lesson plans” and “You know it’s bad when librarians are protesting.” These people were pushing beyond the confines of their typical rhetorical forms because of their dedication to education and to the students they teach. If we are to help students claim this form of democratic rhetoric as their own, we must develop our own fluency within it.

Protesting sends a strong message in our society; it’s important.  But still a nagging thought within me asks: is it enough to respond to the pressures that threaten our classrooms in today’s democracy?  Will our protests defend our right to teach the findings of scientists across this land?  Will the rhetoric of the open-hand or the closed fist, either one, be enough to respond notions that “alternative-fact” have their place within American democracy or education?

We too are going to need other tools.

Corbett himself spoke to his concerns about closed-fist rhetoric and effects it might have on education, in particular.  While he acknowledges the need for these rhetorical forms in places where individuals must fight for their liberties, he sees others, who are not in such circumstances, also appropriating this rhetorical form. He says (in 1969, mind you),

“I become apprehensive when I see people abandoning the reasonable and reasoning approach in situations where their freedom and welfare is not at stake. I am talking about the habit, both in ordinary conversation or in formal discourse, of saying the thing that is patently untrue or grossly illogical. Mouthing untrue or invalid propositions is of course not peculiar to our age. We have all been guilty of that on occasion; I know I have.  What does seem to be on the increase, however, is the deliberate disdain for, even revolt against, truth and logic among those whom we would expect to be more responsible.”[3]

His concerns were no more peculiar to his age than they are rare in ours.  Logic and fact are being questioned and too often abandoned in both open-hand and closed fist rhetorical domains today.  Corbett saw this same concern coming from the educational domain in 1968.  He cites an AAUP Bulletin article that raised concerns that students were “failing to investigate fully, clarify premises, define terms, think logically, use evidence properly, and write (or speak) precisely, truthfully, and to the point.”[4] Today, students are not the only ones we might charge with these rhetorical crimes. Trace the path to Michael Flynn’s resignation this month. Follow the reports presented by Sean Spicer from one day to the next. Engage with Kellyanne Conway’s notion of counsel. We have a rhetorical problem. To lean on Corbett once more, “[t]he older rhetoricians, who devoted most of their attention to the classroom and in their texts to instruction in strategies of logical appeal, would be appalled at this development in contemporary rhetoric.”[5]

For many years, I’ve had λόγος (logos) tattooed on my right wrist. Thus, when I push my fist into the air at a punk rock show, logic comes with that closed-fist rhetoric.  Of course, let’s be honest: the closed fist is not the only gestured indicative of punk culture. With a nod toward this reality, Geoffrey Sirc introduces a third term into Corbett’s paradigm: he says, “Rhetoric of the Open Hand vs. the Closed Fist? How about the Rhetoric of the Middle Finger?”[6] The display of the middle finger is subversive and is used in the spirit of rebellion. Specifically, Sirc ties the rhetoric of the middle finger to the punk movement of the 1970s, to a spirit which might be summarized by the Sex Pistol’s “Anarchy in the U.K.”: “‘Don’t be told what you want, Don’t be told what you need.”  This movement was most interested in rejecting that which was expected, approved, and appropriate.  Punk is what Ian MacKaye would later define as “the free space.” It operates as a domain wherein individuals find space to articulate particular ideals when freed from binding cultural norms.

I know the middle finger isn’t something one traditionally asks educators to make their own. Many educators take decorum quite seriously. Students evoking the middle finger are met with disciplinary measures. Although I work with these same hand-related metaphors in my dissertation work, I, quite purposefully, took up the term guerrilla rhetoric rather than the middle finger to describe the rhetorical theory I explore there.  However, for today’s democracy, I am compelled to draw upon this metaphor.

If not the middle finger, then certainly the free space. We need a rhetoric that rejects what is expected, approved, and appropriate, yet which also upholds logic and reasoning. I don’t yet know exactly what that will mean. However, as I write these closing words, news comes from Betsy DeVos’ first school visits.  She says educators are in “a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.” No! Educators, “Don’t be told what you want. Don’t be told what you need.”

spiegel-headshotCheri Lemieux Spiegel is Associate Professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s taught writing courses for the last decade. She completed her PhD at Old Dominion University where she began using the rhetoric of punk rockers and graffiti writers to conceptualize guerrilla rhetoric, pedagogy, and writing program administration. In addition to guerrilla processes, her research focuses on issues pertaining to two-year college writing instruction and issues of student engagement. She has published articles in Computers and Composition Online and Teaching English in the Two Year College. She serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.


[1] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5  (1969): 288-296.

[2] George Frederick Zook, Higher Education for American Democracy: A Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (Washington: U.S Government Printing Office, 1947), 5.

[3] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[4] A. M. Tibbetts, “To Encourage Reason on Campus,” AAUP Bulletin, LIV (December, 1968), 466 quoted in Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[5] Edward P.J. Corbett, “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” College Composition and Communication 20, no. 5 (1969): 294.

[6] Geoffrey Sirc, English Composition as a Happening (Logan: Utah University Press, 2009), 246.



David Wallace Foster gave a speech in 2005 and opened with a parable/story/moment that went like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” This parable isn’t as Foster points out, about “older fish explaining what water is to… younger fish”. The “point is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

The obvious, important reality that I need to talk about is this: difference is real. Difference exists. Infinite variety in bodies, beliefs, and experiences are real.

As a teacher I can only do my job, and I mean, really do my job, if I see, feel, love, and celebrate that difference in the classroom. To do my job I need to teach with that difference constantly in mind. I need to be fully identity-conscious.  In a recent piece of retention scholarship called “Closing the Opportunity Gap: Identity-Conscious Strategies for Retention and Student Success,” Sumun L. Pendakur says that the “active consideration of multiple facets of identity” is required in order to teach “with a thoughtful, critical” approach that demystifies instead of reifying “dominant norms” of instruction.” And I don’t want to reify those norms because the other “obvious, important, reality” we struggle to see is that those norms produce injustice.

The dominant norms of instruction ignore the reality of a wide variety of people who promote political, business, and religious aims by framing difference as dangerous, undesirable, and less than. The dominant norms of instruction produce unequal distribution of resources, and results in intolerance and exploitation. The dominant norm of instruction prohibits us from talking and teaching about the “obvious important reality,”—this “water.”

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to address the “obvious reality.” However, acknowledging that it exists, and addressing it means beginning at the beginning—with developing an awareness of the “water”.

That means developing a pedagogy that accounts for the following premises:

1) Few writers come to our first-year writing classes with a deep understanding of how their own identity is related to the systems of inequality, privilege, and marginalization in which they exist;

2) In order to be aware of those relationships we must an awareness of our own identities that accounts for our relationships to the ‘water.” We must become identity-conscious;

3) Developing identity-consciousness begins by developing an understanding of how our own identities affect our relationships with our communities, our institutions, and our governing bodies; and

4) Developing identity-consciousness in the classroom is a thoughtful, intentional, and reflective process.

The waters are the unseen societal norms that frame the way we deal with difference, the ideologies that shape the ways we behave in context to difference, and the institutional systems that maintain and support that behavior. Theorists call these “norms” many things depending on the lens from which they are viewing society. Terms like patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, neuro-supremacy, ableism, classism, elitism, monotheism or even human-centric are used to frame and contextualize the water. All of these terms work to explain and describe binaries, boundaries, power dynamics, and the cultures that make up the water—but none of them capture the nature of water. It slips through our semiotics and lingos.

Like our society, an aquatic environment is a space of endless variance. In one space, warmed by the sun, plants grow and create shelter and sustenance for species that may not live in the waters fifteen feet away where it’s colder. The shallows are one ecosystem, the depths another. Currents change the shape and flow of life and energy one way in the center of ecosystem, and in another way at the edge. It is the same with ways we react, respond, and behave around difference. The rich variance in bodies, cultures, belief systems, language, family structures, and worldviews creates a vast system of interaction. Terminology vast and specific enough to hold it all has yet to be written.

Water is in constant motion. Water responds to every movement and every action. When a body enters the water, the water shifts to make space, every movement is met by a response. Something as simple as breathing in chest deep water creates a ripple effect.

The goal of the identity-conscious writing classroom is to help writers understand themselves as a focal point for movement in the water and to begin their exploration of activism and rhetorical action for social justice by taking some control over own their presence in the water. Being identity-conscious begins by being aware of the affect our bodies have in the water and building on that knowledge in order to control how we affect other bodies in the water, and eventually it can be developed so that we begin to understand the complex science of interaction, of movement, of give and take between ourselves and our students. With practice we can learn to use our bodies to create shifts, currents, and eddies that can help our students move more safely, more confidently, and more powerfully through the water.

Little fish

It is important to point out that the relationship between a body and the water remains true and constant regardless of the ways that body is privileged or marginalized. We all create shifts the water and we should all be aware of that reality. Some of our identities are denser; more packed, and create larger, heavier waves that have visible, local waves. Others create ripples that are felt hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Some of us are less protected from the shift and movement of the water, others barely feel it. But the relationship between the body and the water remains the same. Existing in the water causes a reaction from the water.  This is an underlying shared reality that writing instructors can build on. It is also important to point out that most of us are little fish. Both instructors and writers struggle to develop and maintain an awareness of the water.

Traditionally few of us come to our first-year writing class with a deep understanding of how our identity can affect the water. And so, we seek to make our writers more aware of the water by asking them to read, write, and discuss the ways the water is viewed from a wide variety of different lenses and perspectives. But I think that we, both writers and instructors, become more committed to both awareness and action if when we develop an understanding of our own position and stakes in the work we are doing before we study the water from a different angle. So, in order to teach, to really teach, I try to constantly be engaged in learning how to control the impact of my singular presence in the water because that is the one thing I can each do to make things a little bit better. After all, we all live in these waters—there is nowhere else to go.

Dr. Bernice Olivas is a First-Generation scholar who carries identity markers that have shaped her worldviews and academic trajectory.  She is Indigenous Mexican American.olivas_sketch She grew up as a member of the working poor.  She is the mother of two autistic children. She began her academic career as a high school dropout with a G.ED.  She is a McNair Scholar. She took her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln in 2016; her MA in the teaching of English at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln in 2012; and her B.A. in English with a creative writing emphasis in 2010. During her graduate career, she focused on the intersection between writing and marginalization to better serve student writers from marginalized and underrepresented communities.  Her dissertation “Supporting First-Generation Writers in the Composition Classroom: Exploring the Practices of the Boise State University McNair Scholars Program” reflects her deep commitment to recruiting, retaining, and mentoring First -Generation Students. She has recently published a book chapter that maps strategies for place-conscious writing instruction with diverse students in places that have histories of Native Genocide, Mexican displacement, and segregation. Currently, she is working on a book chapter that works to take literacy, mentoring, and teaching practices from the Boise State McNair Scholars program and adapt them for the community college writing classroom.  In the future, she hopes to develop first-year writing instruction practices that support First-generation students through their first-year experience to improve the First-generation retention rate through graduation.


We Can’t Stop with DeVos (Even if We Stop DeVos)

If there is a taper in our vast political divide—a sliver of common ground, maybe, or a ravine narrow enough that we could almost shout across it and be heard—it might just be the bipartisan rage closing in around Betsy DeVos. We are almost—almost—united in our outrage about President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education. Two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their plans to vote against her confirmation, and various others were rumored to be on the verge of defecting (Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Cornyn of Texas among them). On Feb. 2, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) excitedly tweeted: “The last three days have been the BUSIEST IN CAPITOL SWITCHBOARD HISTORY. By almost double. This is working.” NPR reported that, as of Feb. 3, 30,000 phone calls had flooded into Senate offices by concerned constituents urging their representatives to vote against DeVos.

Her performance during her confirmation hearing was inconsistent at best. She revealed her ignorance about fundamental issues in public education and suggested that schools have the right to arm themselves against grizzly bear attacks. She suggested that charter schools and private schools should not be beholden to the same standards as public schools. She is a generous contributor to Republican candidates for office, she did not attend public schools, and she has no bureaucratic experience.

But her lack of experience is not nearly as offensive as her lack of belief in the very system she would oversee. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “DeVos is the least qualified, the most ill-prepared and the most hostile to public education of anyone who’s ever had that role.” All three of those characterizations ring true, but the last one is the most upsetting to the American people: DeVos wants to destroy public education. Her ideas don’t fit within the traditionally conservative education reform agenda, which includes the widely accepted support of charter schools; instead, she represents a radical view that public education is an inherently unfixable system that must be bulldozed and replaced by more efficient, market-driven alternatives.

The level of widespread and virulent opposition to DeVos is surprising, especially considering the comparative ineptitude of Trump’s other cabinet selections. As CREDO campaigner Heidi Hess told NPR, “Nobody has gotten people as enraged as DeVos.” But the reason is simple: Americans like their public schools. While reformers have insisted for three decades that American public education is a broken system, most Americans don’t buy it. Nine out of ten Americans have attended public schools and hold their neighborhood public schools in very high regard, and despite the pervasive reformist narrative of its failure, American public schools are doing a better job than ever of educating our children.

For those of us who are advocates of public education, teachers, and teachers’ unions, the opposition to DeVos is encouraging—it’s about time we started really paying attention. After all, DeVos did not emerge in a vacuum. She is the conduit of the toxic corporate reform ideology that informed disastrous experiments in cities like Detroit and New Orleans to privatize public schools and channel funding into vouchers. And in the unlikely event that she doesn’t make it through the Senate confirmation process, she would be replaced by a savvier advocate for similar policies, like Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. public schools, who met with Trump during his transition meetings in November. Though Rhee took herself out of the running for the job, it’s worth noting that Rhee and DeVos are not far apart ideologically. Emma Brown of the Washington Post wrote that Rhee “has been a foremost voice pushing for the expansion of charter schools and a rare Democrat who embraces vouchers for private schools — on expanding such taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools, she and Trump see eye to eye.” While Rhee has hoodwinked scores of liberals into accepting her take-no-prisoners approach to reform, including Slate’s David Plotz, who suggested on his Political Gabfest podcast that her nomination would be a breath of fresh air, she is no friend to public schools. In fact, many advocates of public education fear that Rhee would be a more effective, and thus more dangerous, standard-bearer for the corporate reform movement.

But putting one’s faith in DeVos’s incompetency is not the answer. The only answer is to stay angry and keep paying attention. Now is the time to stand up for public education, no matter who ends up at the helm. Public education has been embattled for decades, and the attacks on our schools and teachers are delivered to the public in shinier packages every year. Reformers like Rhee pitch Reagan-esque overhauls with a populist patina, and we must be critical and skeptical of arguments that seem politically agnostic. Every documentary and bestselling book is more convincing and appears more nonpartisan. Vocally defend teachers’ unions. Continue to advocate for your children’s teachers and schools. Run for a position on the school board. Attend local events devoted to discussing public education. Learn about attempts to undermine public education in your area. Learn your elected officials’ positions on public schools. If they aren’t vocal proponents of those schools, you have a right to know why.

We can’t afford to go quiet once this crisis passes, since reformers can (and will) sabotage public education slowly and silently. Sen. Murkowski cited DeVos’s “lack of knowledge” as one of her deepest concerns about supporting her nomination. To be sure, DeVos knows enough to inflict catastrophic damage on American public schools. The more we know about her dangerous ideology, the better we can protect our most vulnerable American institution.


 Bio: Paige M. Hermansen is an Assistant Professor of English at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA. Her research focuses on the rhetoric of education policy and the promotional discourse of colleges and universities. She is a proud member of the Massachusetts State College Association Union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.