By Paul Beilstein
In a 2016 article for Written Communication, Bethany Davila critiques practices in writing 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.
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.
Important reading to understand the high stakes of our ongoing struggle.
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.”
I was thinking of this post—one of my reviews on RateMyProfessors.com—earlier this month as I prepared for a section of first-year composition. We were slated to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on how school shootings spread. The date was February 15, the day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglass school shooting. I had originally assigned the article because it is an accessible, in-depth, and well-researched exploration of a difficult problem in our society, but I did not anticipate that we would be discussing it on the day after an actual shooting. I struggled with how to handle the topic in class, both in terms of how best to navigate the difficult emotional impact of the topic and whether any research I brought—statistics linking gun ownership with incidences of mass shootings, or data on how many mass shootings were carried out with guns purchased legally—would be heard, or whether it would be discounted because of my perceived liberal bias.
It’s true that I am a liberal. Two of my earliest pedagogical touchstones were Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, both of which explore how educational systems can perpetuate class differences. One of the most significant reasons I pursued a job at a community college was because I wanted to be the teacher students from disadvantaged backgrounds needed. I am deeply concerned about racial and socioeconomic inequality, labor issues, American neocolonialism, growing anti-intellectualism, gun violence, climate change, the increasing influence of multi-national corporations, and a host of other liberal favorites. I serve on the board of my local natural foods co-op, installed solar panels on the roof of our barn, and own a plug-in hybrid. One of the reasons I insist on satellite radio in our cars is because it plays NPR for twenty-four hours.
However, in contrast to the interpretations of my online reviewer, I am careful not to advantage one side of the political spectrum over another in class. As a teacher heavily influenced by Freire, I privilege dialogue and critique in my classrooms; to reward a liberal ideology (even one that I personally think is right) while punishing a conservative one would shut down that dialogue. I bring in readings about contemporary problems like gun control, climate change, crime, and drug use not because I necessarily want students to believe the same things I do, but because I think they should research, debate, and write about real issues without easy solutions, thereby developing techniques of critical thinking and persuasive writing that will help them be less vulnerable to the machinations of those in power. And, of course, I hope my students will grow into informed, active citizens who will advocate for solutions to those problems.
Community-college students, in particular, can benefit from the critical thinking and dialogue that are the hallmark of many college writing classes. Nationally, about one-third of community-college students are first-generation; about half receive financial aid (“Fast Facts”). Some community colleges, such as my own, are located in rural areas with little racial or cultural diversity. In other words, many students attending community college come from backgrounds where research, critical thinking, and dialogic problem-solving are uncommon, and they tend to have had few chances to interact with people who are significantly different from themselves. Writing classes—and other classes—should teach not only marketable skills but also habits of mind that help students become more informed, critical participants in society.
However, as we choose readings and facilitate discussions, we also need to choose how we will represent our own views. I struggle with this latter choice. Most teachers would probably say that when I facilitate discussions about potentially controversial issues—gun control, say—I should consciously minimize my own perspective so as to encourage open critical dialogue from my students. Adopting a clearly liberal perspective while facilitating a discussion would likely shut down students who did not share a similar perspective.
In her 2003 article in College Composition and Communication, Karen Kopelson argues that the gains made by the progressive movement in America have resulted in a conservative backlash that has primed many students to disregard anything associated with liberality. (Kopelson’s social analysis seems all the more prescient considering the changes in national politics subsequent to her piece: the rise of the Tea Party, the seeming inability of America to do anything meaningful to combat climate change, and the election of Donald Trump.) Kopelson argues that if we want to support students’ critical engagement with controversial issues—especially those that have been heavily politicized in the larger American society—we should perform neutrality. As she writes,
It is not a complacent refusal to interrupt or interfere with the expression of any and all student views; it is not the liberal-humanist acceptance of all views as equally valid. The performance of neutrality I am advocating is a deliberate, reflective, self-conscious masquerade that serves an overarching and more insurgent political agenda. (123)
Kopelson’s argument certainly has merit, and I agree that if our goals are to inspire critical thinking and rational debate, we will more effectively do so by crafting a space in which students feel as though they can argue their viewpoints without fear of being immediately shut down by the professor. However, our country’s public discourse has proceeded to a place where coverage one finds disagreeable can be labeled “fake news” and even calling for a reasoned debate on certain issues—gun control, dealing with climate change, exploring alternative energy sources—is seen as a liberal “tell.” In such a climate, some readings and discussions stand to be quickly rejected by students, no matter how neutral the professor’s presentation of them. I imagine that, like me, many liberal teachers find it deeply perplexing that even raising the issue of gun control should be considered a “liberal” move—after all, doesn’t everyone want to prevent mass shootings? And doesn’t it make sense to decrease access to the tools that are repeatedly used to commit murder? Shouldn’t we at least talk about what the research says?
In their examination of why anti-vaccine websites are persuasive, Moran et al. describe two communication theories that can have relevance to discussions of controversial issues. The first, social judgment theory, posits that some attitudes that we hold toward certain issues become interwoven with our senses of self. When we are confronted with arguments that challenge our strongly-held attitudes, we experience those arguments not only in relation to the issue at hand but in relation to our identities. For example, in my rural area, hunting is a family tradition and way of life for many people. Gun ownership is widespread, and frankly, gun violence is low in my area. Understandably, national arguments to limit gun ownership not only strike my students as unneeded but also threaten multi-generational family traditions.
Moran et al. also address cognitive dissonance theory, which proposes that we are most comfortable when our attitudes, values, and beliefs are consistent. When new information causes our internal compass to spin, many of us react (at least initially) by rejecting that information, thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. As Moran et al. describe, anti-vaccine attitudes are frequently connected to distrust of conventional medicine and a preference for “natural” health care, and these attitudes are frequently bolstered by an individual’s membership in a like-minded community. Accepting that vaccines are generally safe can drive a wedge—at least mentally—between different beliefs the individual may hold. Basically, it causes less cognitive discomfort to distrust all conventional medicine than it does to evaluate each potential intervention—vaccines, antibiotics, allergy medicine, ibuprofen—individually. To expand this argument to guns, it causes less cognitive dissonance to believe that guns are never the problem—that the problem is inadequate school security, failings of the FBI, or poor mental-health screening—than it does to accept that there are very real differences between assault weapons, handguns, and hunting rifles and that some of those weapons should have significantly tighter regulations (or be outlawed).
When we talk about guns, then, we teachers of composition face several challenges. The first, as alluded to by Kopelson, is that we are already marked as liberals, who, as “everyone” knows, hate guns. Secondly, when we provide what we see as unbiased data, such as statistics on gun-related deaths in the developed world, that data may challenge students’ sense of self. If America has vastly more gun deaths than the rest of the developed world, and those statistics seem to be tied to the availability of guns in the U.S., does that suggest that the family traditions of rural students—hunting, sport shooting, gun collecting—are somehow part of the problem? And thirdly, if statistical data on mass shootings suggest that guns are too available and reducing that availability will save lives, it reduces cognitive dissonance to reject that data, label the professor a liberal, and advocate for changes that do not have to do with reducing gun ownership (i.e., increased school security).
Our situation seems somewhat hopeless, and one might be forgiven for deciding to focus on how to craft topic sentences and in-text citations rather than taking up hot-button issues like gun control. However, I bet that many of us who subscribe to the teacher/scholar/activist approach see writing as a way to make sense of difficult problems, and when we teach critical reading and analysis, our current problems seem to be ideal fodder. Additionally, our society is badly in need of reasoned, well-researched dialogue. Our students—especially those at the community college—need to learn how to have such dialogues. College should be a space for critical thinking, informed argument, and debate. A college writing class is an ideal space to teach these skills.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure exactly how we should build those skills. I think Kopelson’s recommendation to perform objectivity has merit; I’m just not sure I can do it. Moran et al.’s suggestions help me understand why some topics are threatening to students, but I still wonder what to do in class. Moran and her co-researchers found that people were more likely to accept health information from trusted sources, such as organizations (natural-food stores and the like) that already had ethos with those who were resistant to vaccines. We can work to build trust with our students, which might help them be more open to legitimate critical discussions of controversial issues. Moran et al. also recommend connecting challenging information to the values of a resistant community—for example, a vaccine-resistant community might hold healthy, “natural” living in high esteem, and vaccines might be presented as a part of a “natural” health plan that would minimize the need for antibiotics or radical medical interventions. I have had some success in preceding discussions of climate change with discussions of values—most students would like to minimize destructive tropical storms and protect human life, for example. We can then discuss how climate change affects weather patterns, and then take a few steps into the more ideologically charged realm of how to deal with climate change.
I also like in-class group writing assignments that ask students to propose, if not solutions, next steps to address our problems. I prefer to do these in class for two main reasons: They force students to work with others who may not share their opinions, and they require them to do research that does not lead them down a rabbit hole of sources they already agree with in the way that a take-home assignment does. They have to agree that the sources the group uses are reliable, and they do that through critical reading and discussion.
However, the unfortunate truth may be that there is no way we can have open, critical discussions of hot-button problems like gun violence. There will probably be students in our classes who will, like my RateMyProfessors.com evaluator, insist that we only want to hear one side of the debate. However, I still think we need to keep trying.
Mark Blaauw-Hara is a Professor of English and WPA at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, MI. He is currently the Vice-President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and a reviews co-editor at Teaching English in the Two-Year College. His writing has appeared in TETYC, TheCommunity College Journal of Research and Practice, Composition 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.
“Fast Facts.” Michigan Community College Association. 2018. http://www.mcca.org/content.cfm?m=87&id=87
Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, The Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication 55.1 (2003): 115-146.
Moran, Meghan Brigid, et al. “What Makes Anti-Vaccine Websites Persuasive? A Content Analysis of Techniques Used by Anti-Vaccine Websites to Engender Anti-Vaccine Sentiment.” Journal of Communication in Healthcare 9.3 (2016): 151-161.
By Jenny Bruck
Today 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.
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
As 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).
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 Years. Kalamazoo 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.
by Barry Alford
Cultural narratives die hard. Beneath the practices and theories operating in any composition classroom are the base assumptions that situate that classroom in a larger narrative of education and an even larger narrative of merit and mobility. The space that composition occupies is not just contested by arguments about theory and practice: it is contested as part of a cultural narrative that defines the way we value and understand language. Since the Truman Commission Report on Higher Education and Democracy in 1947 (it sounds almost quaint to hear the words education and democracy paired anymore), one of the narratives promulgated about Community Colleges was that they were an engine for increased access and mobility in the new economy following the war. For at least the first two decades after the commission issued its report, that was true. In the 1950’s, individual incomes went up more every year than they did in any decade after that. Union membership was booming, and in the 1960’s when most of today’s Community Colleges opened, the future (at least until the carnage of ’68) looked so bright you had to wear shades.
As we move forward seventy years, that narrative is harder and harder to sustain. The economy has stagnated, mobility in America is among the lowest of any industrialized society, and recent studies have shown that education doesn’t make that much difference in the social and economic future of our students. The mobility narrative was always suspect. One of the first critiques of the Community Colleges was Zwerling’s Second Best, and that critique was continued in Ira Shor’s Culture Wars. The vocationalization of the Community Colleges that Brint and Karabel outlined in The Diverted Dream made it even clearer that Community Colleges were about work and not education. Even though the mobility narrative was amped up in the Obama administration with the euphemism of “workforce training,” the real indicators of student success were trending in the opposite direction.
It makes a difference in how we understand and ‘teach’ language which of these narratives is more accurate. If education in general, and Community Colleges in particular, are still the agents of social and economic mobility envisioned in the Truman Report, then Lynn Bloom’s observation that composition was like “a pool filter” might have some merit. That is, it makes sense to see language as an individual resource in a world where individual resources could shape the trajectory of a student’s future. But if school is, as Evan Watkins said in his book Work Time, “still pretty much a place where people go to learn their place,” then seeing language as a grooming activity for social mobility is severely flawed. Most of the people I know who are dedicated composition teachers would say that the politics don’t matter, that composition shouldn’t be political, an argument often raised against critical pedagogy. Language is always political. Are we teaching language to folks Gramsci called “the 100 at Eaton” so they can make their way into the managerial class, or are we teaching language to students who are more like the Chartists in Ranciere’s Nights of Labor, who need language to create a new social and political reality?
The Chartists disbanded before many of the political reforms they championed came to fruition, but Ranciere’s focus is more on the central role language and literacy played in the movement. In an era where members of the working class were often denied access to education and literacy, the Chartists fought for the right to read and learn, often creating their own night schools. In many ways, this struggle for literacy mirrors the students that Freire wrote about in his early practice, students for whom the simple act of naming the world was a political act. Even though Freire was no stranger to composition studies, the political urgency of literacy was a hard sell in America, which used to pride itself on access to education. I think things have changed. Students in Community Colleges are faced with a crisis of political literacy. The existing discourse of democratic politics is broken and will not help them define a role for themselves in the evolving kleptocracy that America has become. They need to form a new language for themselves that they can use to reclaim a place in a reshaping of a democratic society.
Bakhtin, who wanted to do for language what Einstein and Bohr had done for physics, said that language always was always caught in a dynamic flow of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The centripetal forces worked to make the language tighter and more uniform, and without them we risk becoming incoherent. But language also always has a centrifugal force that is pulling it toward new expressions and concepts. At different moments and different contexts, one of these forces may be more important than the other. I think we have to take a moment and consider which of these forces are more important to students in the 2-year colleges. If the idea that drove Eliot to reform the curriculum at Harvard after the Civil War to prepare not just the elite but a whole new economic class of managers and professionals for a new economy is outdated, then so are the underlying assumptions about language that have driven the enterprise of composition. Those assumptions may still function in some institutions, but they are more than a little problematic for open admissions students. The intellectual crisis facing these students, who have never transferred to and graduated from 4-year schools in significant numbers, is not how to fit through the “pool filter,” but how to create a community of people to challenge an imploding democracy. The centrifugal force of language is more important to their struggle than learning to be compliant.
This is especially true now that the composition classroom in the Community Colleges is so often staffed by severely underpaid adjuncts. Often when students enter one of these colleges, their best bet of meeting their first part-time employee is when they meet their Comp instructor. It wasn’t always this way. When I started teaching in 2-year colleges more than forty years ago, I started as an adjunct. I taught prisoners and guards at the prison in Chillicothe, Ohio. Almost everyone I knew had a similar story about breaking in as an adjunct, but we expected and usually got full-time employment. The first union contract I bargained had a clause that required the college to hire a full-time faculty member if a full load existed for three consecutive semesters. The fate of people entering the profession has followed the same economic trajectory as the students. Bernard Stiegler in States of Shock argues that the idea that knowledge can be created in elite enclaves and then simply transplanted into other people’s lives is not only false but destructive. Knowledge, according to Stiegler, has to be created in the context in which it is used and experienced. What and how students and faculty in the 2-year colleges write and the language they use to write it should be an intensely local negotiation.
I don’t think the issue here is how to create a new textbook for Community Colleges (marketed by Pearson, no doubt) that standardizes a new approach. The idea is to use the tools we have learned and practiced to find new ways to give students who usually go to comp class to be judged on their language skills a way to find their own voice instead, and not in the conventional way we use that term. They need a collective voice, a voice they develop and share with their adjunct instructors to question the corporate inclinations of the Community College. They have a right to a real education, a real job, and a living wage. Looking back on all the years I taught, one of the stranger things to ruminate over is all the ‘papers’ I read. In Textual Carnivals, Susan Miller raises the same issue. Instead of worrying about papers written by individual students for individual grades – the height of centripetal force – these students need a collective language. It won’t be the Marxist influenced language of what was once working -class politics. The cultural and economic conditions that made that a relevant intervention in the last century simply don’t exist anymore and students are going to have to find a new way to articulate their experience.
Adjuncts are often even worse off economically than their students, but they have cultural capital their students do not have. Composition in the Community Colleges needs to focus that capital on the conditions that oppress both the students and the faculty. Writing needs to be public, collaborative and political. It can’t simply imitate the politics of the past, it has to forge a new reality. The students should write their local politicians. They should write platforms and policy and encourage their classmates to run for office. They should write letters to the Board and demand reforms at the college. They can research and write about their own histories and the history of their area. In order to do any of this well or effectively, they will learn how to research and revise and edit, only this time it will be for their purposes. I know this sounds heretical, but these are desperate times.
I have often said to people that the most dedicated and resourceful people I ever met were comp instructors. They will stay up all night fretting over making just the right feedback to a student who is more likely than not to ignore it. Sadly, I think all that diligence and creativity has been in service to a narrative that has collapsed. We don’t live where we thought we lived all these years. The political and economic storm we are living through will not leave our classrooms, our students, or our practices untouched. It’s time to tell a new story. MLA optional.
Barry Alford grew up in a working-class community outside of Flint, Michigan. He taught in community colleges for over forty years.
Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed by Michael Holquist, Translated by Holquist and Carol Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.
Bloom, Lynn Z. “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.” College English 58.6 (1996): pp. 654-675.
Brint S. & Karabel J. The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunities in America, 1900-1985. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed and Translated by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973.
Ranciere, Jaques. The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France. Translated by John Drury. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.
Shor, Ira. Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Stiegler, Bernard. States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century. Translated by Daniel Ross. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015.
Watkins, Evan. Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Zwerling, L. Steven. Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,1976.
By Helena Worthen
I am about to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, where my husband Joe Berry and I will be teaching in a Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University, a university sponsored by the national labor union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). We will be teaching classes in leadership, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and globalization. This sounds a lot like what we taught in the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois. However, the context is different in Viet Nam.
In the U.S. there is a system of institutions, agencies, courts, and unions that work together, for better or worse, to regulate and moderate the fundamental conflicts between labor and management under capitalism. The foundations of this system have been in place since the 1930s. In Viet Nam, the system is still evolving. There are courts of law; a lengthy, prescriptive Labor Code; People’s Committees; provincial offices of something comparable to our Department of Labor, but there is only one union, the VGCL, which represents the whole working class. There is very little of what we would call collective bargaining, which settles a whole range of problems for a definite period, and very few actual collective bargaining agreements. Instead, there is the process of “dispute resolution” that takes up problems on a case by case basis. There are no “independent” unions.
Furthermore, Viet Nam is not fully “under capitalism.” It is a Socialist country with a Communist government, although since the 1980s there has been a move (called “doi moi”) toward opening the economy first to foreign investment and then to other forms of capital accumulation, entrepreneurial activity, and investment. An example of “open” is that Viet Nam was interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If it had gone through, Viet Nam would have become a more significant trading partner with the U.S. As a condition of joining the TPP, Viet Nam would have had to sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association (allowing independent unions), the right to organize, and collective bargaining. The people who negotiated the TPP saw these as necessary because the new economic relationships of TPP would require a much tougher, strategically flexible labor union response than was exercised under the one-union socialist system. Indirectly, this would have been good for American workers. When workers overseas can bargain higher wages, workers in the US have less competition because the labor costs overseas go up, making manufacturers think twice about shipping jobs out of the US. Even without TPP, many in Viet Nam today think that stronger unions that include real shop floor worker representation are necessary.
Internal and external pressures are pushing labor in Viet Nam to give conflict the respect that it is due and build grassroots local unions that can advocate effectively to protect workers from the race-to-the-bottom that is part of global trade. The weight of history and the accomplishments of socialism, which brought Viet Nam up from destruction after the American War, press against reform, but the reality is that the kind of union envisioned under socialism, in which workers and employers were theoretically all cooperating for the good of society, has no rational basis under capitalism. The hundreds of wildcat strikes that take place every year are evidence of this.
Billy Henderson’s constitutions and by-laws project
Joe and I are being given the opportunity to teach labor relations at a point in the history of another country when their institutions are still being developed. When I ask myself whether what we are doing has any value, I remember something I learned back in the 1980s when, as an adjunct teaching in a California community college, I got swept up in a period of activism in the California Federation of Teachers (CFT/AFT) and was handed a small job at my local union, organizing other adjuncts. It is a story about doing something that may not pay off until far in the future. It also reveals something about me – namely, my age; I’m in my mid-seventies. At a time when many of my friends are dead, others are suffering illnesses that will kill them, Joe and I both still intact and have lucked into what appears to be the start a whole new professional life.
In the late 1980s, the recently retired past president of my union (CFT/AFT Local 1603, Peralta) was a sweet fellow named Billy Henderson, who was unusually patient and willing to teach me things. Adjunct organizing was a threat to some of the other old-time leaders of the union, but I got help from Billy setting up meetings, creating and distributing a newsletter for adjuncts, speaking at events and other activities that are a normal part of organizing. His other project seemed like an exercise in boredom: he was studying the constitutions and by-laws of different locals and drawing up comparisons. I was puzzled by anyone’s willingness to work on something as dull and procedural as constitutions and by-laws. What motivated him to do that?
An unexpected gift
The explanation was that he was dying. A few months into my job, I got a phone call from the current president saying that Billy needed someone to drive him home from the hospital. Hospital? I was not even aware that he was ill. It was about 8 pm on a weeknight; I told my teenage kids I would be back soon, got in my car and went to pick him up.
He was just getting dressed when I walked into his room. I gave him a hand, during which he told me he had AIDS. This was early enough in the AIDS crisis that people treated it as a death sentence. The conversation in the car going back became quite personal and intense. When we got to his house he invited me in for a cup of tea. While in the back of my mind I worried if the kids had turned off their lights and gone to bed, I felt that this was a conversation I could not afford to skip.
He said, when we sat down in his redwood paneled living room with a view of the Bay, “I am going to tell you something maybe you can use. It is this: You can make anyone do anything using positive reinforcement.”
Anyone do anything? I doubted it. My experience as the rep for my fellow adjuncts did not fit with that. Positive reinforcement when dealing with an obtuse, narcissistic administrator whose idea of an adjunct instructor was a unit of flexible labor? Who could lay off a woman in her 50s who had been teaching for twenty years at one of our colleges – twenty years without a “permanent’ assignment – and explain it saying, “We need fresh blood”? A human resources manager who refused to negotiate access to healthcare for adjuncts even when it would have cost the District nothing – at a time when one of our leading activists (someone else – that was a period when people were dying all the time) had just died on the floor of his apartment of untreated hepatitis?
Did he really mean that situations like these could be managed with positive reinforcement?
Building the foundation and the framework
Over the years, his claim stuck in my mind. Maybe that was his purpose: to make me keep thinking about him. The puzzle was like glue and it had the by-product of making me think about his other project. Most of the time, constitutions and by-laws are shadow structures. Out in the sunlight, day to day, one can organize a sit-in, a pressure campaign, or run a reform slate for the executive board, but back in the office someone should be going over the small print in the dusty pamphlet that says who can join, who can speak at meetings or raise concerns from the floor, who can run for office, or how often elections should be held. These constitute the structure of the organization into which people can invest energy, trusting that they are not being taken on a fool’s errand.
The good thing about the structure is that when it is right it is hard – hard in the sense of tough. If the structure works – if people are free to organize and take action, if judges are fair, if enforcement is strong – then the structure can be used to push back against the hungriest exploiters.
Billy was combing the small print on behalf of all the California local unions that were part of the CFT. He chose to do this at a time when he already knew he was dying. He was taking care of the big stuff in a way that he would never live to see implemented.
Acts of Adulthood
I am now older than Billy was when he died. Since that time, I have read about Eric Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and understood, in fact, experienced, the way with age one shifts one’s attention from immediate challenges to the structures that lie behind them. Erikson calls this maturity, adulthood, and wisdom. Designing Social Security back in the 1930s or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example – those are acts of adulthood. Yes, passing them required the hot energies of many younger people, but getting the language right took desk work, research, and extensive discussion, institutional memory, and experience.
So now, in my seventies, although I do a certain share of the activities typical of people like me, writing letters and signing petitions to express opposition to our appalling governing clique, most of my thinking and writing energy is spent figuring out how to stimulate college students in Viet Nam to imagine a system of industrial relations that would harness the capacity of capitalism to create wealth in such a way that saves Viet Nam from the crisis of inequality that we face here in the US..
Sometimes I wonder whether what we are doing in Viet Nam can make any difference. Do our students really understand the urgency of needing strong unions? Do they recognize that employers who come to Viet Nam because of the low wages are not joking around and that organizing to improve wages and working conditions is not a simple matter of justice, but a fight? Do they understand that fighting requires organizing, and organizing requires planning and structure? There is such a contrast between the safety and modern design of the Ton Duc Thang campus and the monster factories in the Export Processing Zones; do they really understand that what they are learning in comfort is to be applied in situations where workers faint from exhaustion in the heat? That learning the full range and calendar of practices that go into building a strong fighting union is not something you do overnight? You may be able to call a wildcat strike and put thousands of workers in the street, as a way of dealing with a crisis, but that only produces quick fix to a specific problem. Building a fighting union that can raise labor standards over the long term takes years and deep organizing.
Standing in front of a class of young students in Viet Nam, students who are going to become union staffers or HR managers, I say a silent thank you to Billy Henderson, for demonstrating by dedicating his last months to a boring project, the value of what does not appear to be exciting.
Photo credit: Matt Wong
By Susan Naomi Bernstein
Photo description: Birds circle under a gray sky at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. 12-24-2012
Pushing through the market square
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying
Today, a friend gave me a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay “Preaching to the Choir.” Far into the essay, Solnit shares a story about two New Yorkers of very different backgrounds in a time long gone by. These two New Yorkers find a moment of connection one day on the ferry, sharing their experiences of the raw winter weather.
I read the essay in class while my students worked on their writing. And suddenly, without warning, I began to cry. The story of the ferry reached through the recesses of my defenses and hit the nerve of Thanksgiving 2012, five years ago, a year after Occupy Wall Street and a month after Hurricane Sandy.
Yet that Thanksgiving five years ago holds powerful memories.
We were only a month beyond the superstorm and signs of its impact were everywhere, from the plastic grocery bags catching the wind in leafless trees, to circling hungry birds, to the piles of rubble along the coastline. The late autumn damp chilled the bones more than usual, and I had the sinking feeling that my partner and I would be leaving New York soon.
I tried not to give the feeling any attention, but economics demanded it. I had gone three years without full-time work and my partner had just applied for disability. We had no money. I had seen an ad for a job out west that looked like it might be a “good fit,” except for the fact that it was 2500 miles away from the place we called home. I knew that people would do anything to stay in New York City, including living in their cars on adjunct teaching wages. We did not have a car, and my partner was recovering from a serious illness. As much as we hoped to stay in NYC, we could not compromise my partner’s health, and we had already discussed many times the possibility of leaving.
The melancholy of that autumn is difficult to describe. Wrapped up in Autumn 2012 is that peculiar feeling of learning to treasure every moment because tomorrow was not promised, a cliche, of course, but our time in NYC was beginning to feel fragile and finite.
And then my partner and I learned about Thanksgiving at St. Mark’s on the Bowery. In the spirit of Occupy, everyone was invited to bring something so that everyone would have enough to eat, especially those who had survived the worst of the storm’s devastation.
Many of us who attended that Thanksgiving were homeless or living from paycheck to paycheck, or were still unemployed or underemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the US. We were four years into the fallout of the 2008 mortgage collapse, and the impact of the recession that followed can still be felt in all too many communities across the country. In New York City after the storm after the collapse, the suffering was palpable.
At St. Mark’s, we were able to offer food and also clothes and blankets. At the doorway to the church, we would let visitors know what we had available, and work with them to fill out a list of what they needed. Then one of us would run back to the room where the clothing was kept to retrieve the items for which visitors had asked. Our work together reminded me of the DIY spirit of Occupy Wall Street the year before. In order to create the promise of a better future, we would work in coalition in the present to alleviate suffering exacerbated by the recession. These circumstances helped us stay mindful as ever of the intersectional nature of suffering.
Afterward, as we walked to the subway in late afternoon, my partner said, “So many of us who volunteered couldn’t have afforded such a good meal on our own. But together we all had a feast.” This moment remains among the strongest of my memories of New York City. The air felt cold and heavy clouds covered the sun. The wind gusts were sharp against our faces. When that sense memory surfaces, as it did today, the weeping is immediate. I am back in that moment, in the deepest sense of community I have ever known.
As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, I find myself living in the desert, where my partner and I have made our home since the summer of 2013. My partner is recovering from heatstroke and cannot go outside in the extreme heat. Even in late October the afternoons remain warm, and in the last full week of the month, the temperature hits a record high of 99 degrees.
The university where I teach is located in this parched and starkly beautiful landscape. Our students come from all over the country and all over the world. Some have been impacted by recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Gnawing in my gut is the memory of the hurricane five years before, and the climate disasters since. I am thinking of food insecurity before and after climate disasters, and I am thinking of the heat which feels as if it will never end. I am also thinking about Halloween.
Last spring in our Stretch course (for students in need of extra preparation, Stretch offers English 101 stretched over two semesters for six full credits that count toward graduation and transfer), students had a culminating project that invited them to write a proposal for a project that would make the world a better place. More than a few students asked for help for students with hunger and loneliness, two ongoing frustrations of the college transition. The students were ahead of the curve. Hunger and first-year loneliness are two issues that have since received the national spotlight.
One does not usually think of my current institutional home as a place of hunger, or even of loneliness, perhaps. As the institution has grown in numbers in the last half decade, it has also grown more selective. That selectivity of students with higher test scores and grade-point averages does not fit the stereotype of hunger, nor does the notion of the high school success of “better” students conjure up images of loneliness.
Yet students may find themselves unexpectedly lonely, whether they commute from home or live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families. Transitioning from communities of origin to the very large community of our university can be daunting, if not intimidating or even downright depressing. For this reason, the stereotype is unfortunate. The struggles of hunger and loneliness often remain invisible to faculty and staff, no matter how well-intentioned we are.
Building on students’ suggestions from their projects to make the world a better place, we created a team of undergraduate and graduate students and adjunct faculty with the purpose of creating a community writing group for new students. Our graduate students participating in the Stretch teaching practicum came up with the idea of a large write-in on Halloween morning, a day when several of us taught at the same time. We found a room, obtained money for food, and invited other teachers in our program and their students to attend.
October 29, 2017, marked five years since the hurricane, five years since the last Halloween I spent in NYC. It was an uncanny Halloween. Because our neighborhood was on high ground, we had no flooding, though the damage from high winds added to the number of lost trees our neighborhood had sustained from a tornado the year before. Even as children along the Atlantic Coast faced Halloween with food shortages and without electricity children from our neighborhood dressed in costume and did trick-or-treating at local businesses, as they had every year before.
But the annual Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan was cancelled, and along the water, there were greater troubles. People were trapped on the upper floors of public housing high rises because the electricity was off, the stairwells were dark, and the elevators were down. A wealthy neighborhood where our congressional representative lived burned to the ground. The subways and most other public transportation had stopped running. As a result, during that first week after the storm, we had an inadvertent break from school.
Palimpsest, I remembered thinking then, the traces of a more distressing material reality breaking through a bright shiny surface. That is how this sixth Halloween celebrated after Sandy feels as well.
But Halloween is a trickster holiday. Our event planning team plans to dress up for the festivities. We will offer breakfast food, and I will continue thinking through the lessons of Halloween in 2017 and that long ago autumn of 2012. When survival is the most significant goal, we all have the potential to learn to help each other, and to help ourselves find the road back to our hearts. When the hierarchies are gone, coalition becomes possible.
Nothing in this struggle is easy, especially since universities do not work this way, and life itself does not work this way.
Yet the palimpsest and its traces remain. And it is still our job to pay attention to and to work in coalition. Coalition, in this sense, means working collectively and horizontally, through the challenges of consensus decision making. Neither top down nor hierarchical, coalitions allow us to make sense of working in the midst of differences, without either celebrating or ignoring those differences. This is harder work, but work that offers, perhaps, deeper and more lasting growth and transformation. In coalition and through consensus, more of us can contribute to strengthening our own communities.
In other words, my greatest hope is that we can offer mutual support in the midst of challenging times. Sara Ahmed suggests that “To share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility.” Addressing such challenges does not preclude “joy, wonder, hope, and love,” which “are ways of living with rather than living without unhappiness” (196).
Even more, in working for mutual aid, I am more interested in alleviating suffering than in reinvesting in hierarchies. Hierarchies, I have come to believe, try to keep a sense of normalcy, even as the traces burst through the page. Those traces cry out for attention in a world that would prefer to ignore them, as often happens when institutions perceive that applicants are in need of “remediation,” and therefore viewed as a liability. Despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, the institution can classify the need for “remediation” as a reason for exclusion.
Raising admissions standards to leave out students with lower test scores, for instance, marks such students as forever trapped by an empirical measurement of a single performance. This exclusion has become common practice and negates the need to foster potential among people whose life circumstances stand to improve with equal access to educational resources. Until we make this hierarchy of educational access visible and open to interrogation and transformation, we, as educators, will continue to exacerbate the problems of unequal access to institutional resources, and cannot claim ourselves as true agents of change.
When we do pay attention, we can uncover hidden glimpses of our own humanity. We can affirm our “contingent collaborations” (Tuck and Wang) with students, against all hope and against all immediately visible evidence of the possibility of collaboration. With such affirmation, we may also find traces of a more compassionate future that we can all take responsibility for creating. Contrary as it seems, I have never felt such comfort in the cold as on that first Thanksgiving Day after Sandy in 2012. Walking to the subway, I sensed the moment of a future not yet visible, if only I could find the courage to discover the unimagined light.
Photo description: The Stretch Halloween Write-In Planning Team: Bill Martin as a hippie, Meghan Kelsey as a dog, Susan Naomi Bernstein as a glam rocker, Ian James as Perfume Genius.
Susan Naomi Bernstein has a longstanding commitment to Basic Writing pedagogy as a means of enacting educational equity. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing (MacMillan), a professional development resource now in its fourth edition, and she blogs on Basic Writing pedagogy for MacMillan’s Bedford Bits. Her recent work includes “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” published in Welch and Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Her work also has appeared in Journal of Basic Writing, Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy, and elsewhere. She has taught in rural and urban settings from Northern Appalachia and a Native American Community in the Southwest to Philadelphia and the Bronx. Currently, she lives and works in Arizona where she co-coordinates the Stretch First-Year Writing Program at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.
By Don Unger and Liz Lane
We first began the work of what would become the 4C4Equality initiative in fall 2013. As rhetoric and composition graduate students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, we watched as the debate surrounding the location of the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs) unfolded on the WPA LISTSERV (WPA-L). 4Cs was set to take place in Indianapolis, just 70 miles down 1-65 from us. Indiana politicians and their legislation had been growing increasingly, openly hostile toward LGBTQ people, and 4Cs members were talking about what kind of response the conference organizers would take to House Joint Resolution 3 (HJR-3).
Living and working in Indiana, we watched how the battle around HJR-3 took shape and felt the fear it created in our personal and professional lives. The proposed legislation sought to write discrimination against same-sex marriage into the state constitution. In response, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) worked through their statewide front group Freedom Indiana to oppose the proposed legislation. The HRC sent organizers from around the country to different Indiana cities in order to set up phone-banking and letter-writing campaigns. They also organized a coalition of national and regional corporations, and local businesses to oppose HJR-3. These companies signed a letter of opposition. Others boycotted the state. We were simultaneously appalled that such a law had been proposed and eager to do something to oppose it. Yet, as graduate students, we felt there wasn’t much space for us to do that. The HRC’s well-oiled machine limited what action local people could take as local LGBTQ organizations in Lafayette and West Lafayette simply deferred to the HRC. Still, the debate about 4Cs continued on the WPA-L.
Folks involved in the WPA-L discussion made a lot of suggestions about what to do, but it seemed like no one was going to put them into action. We began to talk about what it would mean to take an activist approach and turn the 4Cs conference into an organizing space against HJR-3. We were eager to explore how our own activist experiences, pedagogical training, and scholarly expertise might inform such organizing. So, we decided to strike out on our own and use a grassroots approach to support action in Indianapolis. In a theoretical sense, it meant establishing or tapping into connections among a number of stakeholders with myriad concerns and political leanings, including conference organizers and attendees; representatives of social benefit and social justice organizations; and local LGBTQ people and allies who weren’t affiliated with any of these institutions. We began to ask how to approach the issue as a network useful for all these stakeholders, and we began the work it would take to start to create such a network. In a practical sense, it meant putting into action those skills we taught students in professional writing courses.
Emergence of 4C4Equality
We dubbed this work 4C4Equality (4C4E) as a nod to the professional organization that we sought to work within and a nod to the fight for equality that we had taken up. We gathered a group of graduate students and created a plan of action, taking a few ideas from the online conversations mentioned previously and developing some of our own. We spent countless hours emailing and calling people, holding meetings, and attending other groups’ meetings, as well as designing a website and materials to give out at the conference. Eventually, we reached out to faculty to support our plan to engage 4Cs attendees and draw them into actions that supported LGBTQ Hoosiers and allies. For example, we offered materials to allow attendees to take part in a Freedom Indiana letter-writing campaign opposing HJR-3 and provided small cards for conference attendees to share with local business owners while they are or shopped in Indianapolis, asking them to oppose HJR-3. When it came time to implement the plan, we reached out folks on the WPA-L again. Writing instructors from all over the country volunteered to sit at our conference table and speak with other attendees about the fight against HJR-3. New and veteran conference goers donated funds to reimburse us for the cost of the materials and to allow us to make more. We were encouraged by the support that folks showed for our grassroots, graduate-student led, and donation-funded initiative.
You can read more about our history and approaches to local activism and organizing at our website, 4C4Equality.wordpress.com. Additionally, we detail our ongoing work with the initiative in “Considering Global Communication and Usability as Networked Engagement: Lessons from 4C4Equality,” set to appear in Thinking Globally, Composing Locally Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet in the January 2018 from Utah State University Press.
From a Grassroots Action to a Writing Network
Since our earliest days, we have worked to develop 4C4E as a network that connects writing, rhetoric, and literacy scholars to local activists in the cities that host 4Cs. Through yearly interventions centered around the annual conference, we have employed different tactics to expand this network and to make it sustainable, from serving as local organizers at 4C14 in Indianapolis, to supporting the work of local teachers and activists at 4C15 Tampa, to designing and circulating an online map that locates activist-scholars around North America at 4C16 in Houston. As the next step in developing this network, we decided to create a zine through which teacher-scholars could address their activist work for themselves. In the context of our ongoing work, providing a platform for others and putting these folks into conversation with one another reflects our approach toward local organizing. In our interventions at 4Cs, we have always asked how our work affords greater participation rather than asking how these interventions refine an infallible political critique. Through the zine, we set out to present a vibrant and multifaceted understanding of activism that supports many approaches. Given the current political climate in the US, our emphasis on participation rather than perfection feels more important than ever.
The 2017 Zine
Following the 2016 US presidential election, American politicians—led by Donald Trump—and their sympathizers have stepped up legal and extralegal attacks on poor and working-class people–particularly immigrants, Muslims, and all people of color, transgender people and queers, women, people with disabilities, and even children. To oppose these attacks, activist groups have organized national, regional, and local resistance. Teacher-scholar-activists have played a role in such resistance, from participating in high profile national actions–such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and A Day Without Immigrants–to carrying out day-to-day organizing in their communities, fields, and classrooms.
To shed light on such work, our zine bridges conventions in academic and underground publishing to build a network. Through our call, we hoped to highlight activist work in a more immediate and accessible manner than is found in most traditional academic publications. This DIY-approach has been integral to 4C4E from its beginning. Broadly speaking, each piece included in the zine addresses one overarching question:
In the current political climate where students and faculty are becoming increasingly involved in direct action and local organizing, where do writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and adjacent areas of inquiry fit in this work?
To focus this question, we asked contributors to describe the activist and organizing work with which they are involved; how they feel writing, research, teaching, and service play into this work; how they discuss activist work among academic and organizing audiences; and how they collaborate with others through activism or local organizing.
The point is not to erase differences among these methods so that we might gather under one banner, but to write a(nother) network for social justice within, across, or through writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. This zine provides a platform for activist-scholars to consider various methods for resisting and organizing resistance, and to consider how others relate to and employ these methods. It is a step toward building a network where we learn from, support, and respectfully/productively challenge one another to organize or further develop our local work.
In the zine, you’ll find a mixture of interviews, scene reports, and columns that reflect the spirit of underground publishing culture while allowing contributors creative license to articulate their activist work in unique ways. The zine is organized loosely around a number of themes: from perspectives on how grassroots organizing and activism fit into writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; to pedagogical approaches to activism; to discussions of cultural rhetorics and how race informs praxis; and personal accounts of bringing activism into the classroom and community.
A majority of the interviews were conducted by the editors, as we invited scholars from writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies who influence our work with 4C4E to share their perspectives about the current state of the field and activism through it. The scene reports and columns offer first-hand perspectives on contributors’ extant, local work. It is our hope that the work described in the zine inspires others to engage, organize, fight back, and to listen to one another.
If you are interested in getting a print copy of the zine, check out the information on our website about ordering one. We will also be redesigning the zine to publish it as a webtext in constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space in time for 4C18. Additionally, we are always open to chatting about ongoing activist work and hearing about the ongoing activist and social justice work underway in the field of writing studies.
Don Unger is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University. He also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Community-Engaged Teaching & Learning with St. Edward’s Center for Teaching Excellence. His research explores the impact that network technologies have on how we conceive of public rhetoric and what role service plays in shaping networks. You can contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @donunger.
Liz Lane is an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on feminist activism in digital spaces, new media, and technical communication, and designing for community engagement. You can contact Liz at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @fancyscholar.