The end game of neoliberal logics and austerity…
By Carmen Kynard
Is it possible to align with the illegible oppressed/contemporary subaltern, the falling apart abject nonsubject, inside a university English class? ~Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Displacing Suede Patches and Stayin Fly…
In 2013, I moved to a new university with 20 years of teaching fully in tow. I added these words to my syllabus in that fateful fall:
In this class, you will always be expected to connect outside sources to the topics of your writing (these sources could be books, articles, videos, film, music, archives, surveys, lectures, interviews, websites, etc). Writing critically with and from multiple, informed sources is perhaps the single, most common trademark for the kind of writing and thinking that is expected of you in the academy. However, this does NOT mean: that you write about things you don’t care about, that you write as if you sound like an encyclopedia/wikipedia, that you omit your own voice and perspective, that you cannot be creative and energetic, that you must sound like the type of person who might wear wool/plaid jackets with suede patches on the elbows in order to be taken seriously, that you cannot be everything that makes up your multiple selves, that you cannot be Hip Hop/ Soul/ Bomba y Plena/ Soca/ Bachata/ Metal/ Reggae/ EDM/ or Rock-N-Roll, that you cannot have some FUN with it. As Hip Hop teaches us, when in doubt, always stay flyyyy! You do not give up who you are to be an academic writer; on the contrary, you take who you are even MORE seriously.
You woulda thought that I had slapped somebody’s momma with these words given the way that my department chair responded. Less than two months into the school year, I was called into my chair’s office and warned against including this statement on my syllabus. Of particular concern was my crack on the suede-patch-elbow professor because it was “just mean and unprofessional.” What if the professor coming into the room after you actually wears suede patches? How would he feel? I’m not sure what was more ludicrous: asking a black woman this kind of question out loud; expecting black faculty, in dire shortage at this college, to care and keep in the forefront of their minds how the predominantly white professoriate feels; or ignoring the predominantly black and Latinx students at the college to whom the words on the syllabus were directed. She went on to explain how uncomfortable she would feel in my class as a white person, further marking black and brown bodies as an illogical racial location of college students today.
Daily moments like this remind you of the white-policing function of language in the academy. It should come as no surprise that a white administration would respond so swiftly to my attempt at interrupting the reproduction of white language, affect, and power. The bodies of racialized students and faculty in these settings must be managed away from their proclivity to express themselves in alternative means and from alternative cultural and political legacies. Within such colonizing norms, I am expected to teach students to compose themselves by containing and restraining what Janine Young Kim calls racial emotions, namely grief, anger, fear, hatred, and disgust. In the particular instance that I am describing about my syllabus’s racial transgression, I was quite literally asked to ensure that some unnamed suede-patched-elbow white man who enters any classroom after me will not find an emotive student body of color who questions his sanctity and power.
White expectation, however, does not control black expression. So what did I do? I clapped back. My seemingly offensive words are now on every syllabus that I create in even bigger, bolder, brightly-colored letters. Every course website that I design now also bears the stamp of those words accompanied by a short word-video dropped onto a 50cent backbeat. This way, if folk aren’t sure that I mean what I am saying, there should be no confusion now. It’s yo birthday/ We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday… And you know we don’t give a damn it’s not yo birthday! Borrowing from Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her remix of Glissant’s scholarship, pedagogy can work as a counter-poetics where everyday, routine practices in the spaces designed for the purposes of colonization are resisted and challenged.
The Counter-Poetics of Black Stank
Counter-poetics must also speak directly to the local schooling’s specificity of the colonization of brown and black people. For me, this didn’t become clear until 2015, two years after I decided to retain my diss of suede patches on my syllabi, when I asked my first year college students a pointed question at the end of the semester: what was the best piece of writing that you did this school year (in any class) and why do you call that your best? The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.
Those students who I would call activist and conscious, mostly queer and/or students of color, talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even answered my question as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.
But then there were those other students in the “special,” mostly white “advanced” cohort. I was, at best, bored… but mostly disgusted. A large number of them talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they had selected, told them what arguments to make, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go. For these students, successful writing was when you got your drafts back from the teacher and there were no more markings on it. No one talked about ideas, content, or dispositions they had learned or developed. No one even talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising).
One student in particular, a young Mexican man, floored me. We had talked on numerous occasions about his desire to assimilate into the white space of his cohort— all that he might gain and all that he stood to lose. In this assignment, he admitted that he was once flattered when his previous white male professor congratulated him when, at the end of the semester, the student was finally able to produce “clean and crisp sentences.” Because he was ashamed that he once felt good about himself for this compliment, we talked at length about the racial undertones of a white man telling him that he was a good, “clean” and “crisp” Mexican. I assured the young man that all was not lost, that the first step in warding off internalized colonialism is to recognize it.
I would be hard-pressed in some corners to convince some folk that wanting students of color to produce “clean and crisp” writing is a racist artifact of historical neuroses around racism and white purity. Hard-pressed, yes, but Ima do it anyway. The explicit discourses of nineteenth-century ideals of white purity produced a white identity, status system, aesthetic disposition, and social dominance and though these discourses are out of fashion today, this history has produced a living heritage. Early U.S. discursive practices around cleanliness were associated solely with civility and whiteness and anything outside of that was considered polluted, impure, and immoral. Whiteness, purity, and cleanliness have an undeniable linguistic genealogy in the United States (as well as a material reality given the money that the producers of Ivory soap made) undergirding what Dana Berthold calls “the formation of a dominant subjectivity which…is coded white” (p. 13). If my analyses of a white male professor’s inclination to insist upon “clean sentences” in his writing classes seems a bit far-fetched, I remind you that ideas around whiteness, bodies of color, and cleanliness have always been illogical. One need only remember the psychoses of Jim Crow rules where separate silverware, bathrooms, and door entries were quite violently maintained for black domestics in white homes as a way to maintain white purity. This circulation of notions of white purity in racist systems veered long, long ago beyond the realm of the far and the fetched.
My students’ experiences with “clean and crisp” college writing politics compelled me to think more deeply about the ways in which blackness and black language can offer a counter-poetics that does not attempt to subdue, remove, and alienate physical embodiment, especially for brown and black bodies. In fact, one of the greatest compliments that you can receive in African American culture— especially for artists likes cooks and musicians— is to be someone who can put some stank on it! If we really listen and hear what this expression means, then we can arrive at some alternatives to the aesthetics of whiteness and racial purity that schools teach and promote.
When I tell students to put some stank on their writing, I am explicitly using a racialized code to counter teaching practices related to writing that are all about following the rules, delivering a nice, tidy, clean product to a teacher, and composing a white self that has rid itself of racial emotion. I have in mind here a very specific argument that Hortense Spillers makes about black culture. In Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan’s interview with Spillers in 2007, “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that in black culture a narrative of antagonism is inscribed in its memory. The epistemological antagonism of Black language in the utterance of “puttin some stank on it” offers a kind of risk-taking and ground-breaking where an audience can engage the fullness of a black/brown energy, body, and emotion in motion.
I do not just verbally repeat this mantra in my classes though. It is also now policy, loaded onto every course website. The instrumental of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” plays in the background; for those students who recognize the song, they will get that I am asking them to lay aside the baggage of what school has taught them.
This is not to say that everyone will like or respect my students’ writings or my own writing pedagogy. That is not the goal, especially if liking and respecting what we do means the kind of performance for white comfort that my chair was asking of my syllabus. I tell my students that when they write, they need not accept the request that they act like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben typa domestic servants who tidy up and cater to everyone’s comfort and house rules. The politics of why, what and how we write— and who we write for— are never racially neutralized of the history of white dominance.
Blackness As Pedagogical Transformation
In his essay describing Afro-pessimism as a critical frame for examining the structural condition of slavery and racism and their personal, subjective, and embodied realities, Jared Sexton argues that “in a global semantic field structured by anti-black solidarity, it stands to reason that the potential energy of a black, or blackened position holds out a singularly transformative possibility[…].” If we take Sexton’s arguments here seriously about a blackened position as a transformative possibility, then we can understand that black language also bears socially altering possibilities. In fact, I would argue that expressions such as “put some stank on it” and the ways in which it circulates across black communicative spheres offer just one concrete example of how black language transforms experience: in this case, one simple utterance ruptures an entire genealogy of white purity and aesthetics and articulates an entirely different effect and affect. If we situate black language as something beyond the general grist of research articles (for mostly white academic audiences) that explain divergences from (whitestream) dominant linguistic norms, then we see black language in terms of its own epistemological system. This is not merely an invitation for students to speak and write in their own languages in our classrooms, but a renewed and radicalized social possibility for why.
Below is a video that one of Professor Kynard’s classes articulating their polices of composing using the same method:
For more information about this video designed by Latinx undergraduate students during a class session, please click here.
Carmen Kynard is associate professor of English at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She has led numerous professional projects on race, language, and literacy and has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her first book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the 2015 James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions” Her personal website can be found at: http://carmenkynard.org).
Berthold, Dana. “Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 15, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-26.
Gumbs, Pauline Alexis. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity.” The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, University of Minnesota Press, 2014, pp. 237-259.
Kim, Janine Young. “Racial Emotions and the Feeling of Equality.” University of Colorado Law Review, vol 87, 2016, pp. 437-500.
Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/sexton.html [https://oi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02]
Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley and Jennifer L. Morgan. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 299-309.
By Adam Hubrig
*Sigh* DACA. Climate Change. Education Policy. Institutional Racism. Community Literacy. Labor Rights. Disability Advocacy. “School Choice.” The Vanishing Tallgrass Prairie and Dwindling Number of Pollinators. And *sigh* . . . And *sigh*. . . And *sigh*. . .
As much as I want to, I can’t tackle it all. None of us can tackle it all.
We only have so much labor we can contribute to the causes we believe in, and we have to be thoughtful and strategic about how we leverage those limited resources of physical and intellectual labor we can contribute as activists for our students and the causes we feel so strongly compelled to address.
To unpack this issue of labor as a limited resource, consider the article “What Kind of Citizen” by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. It is cited and circulated widely among practitioners of many disciplines, but I was introduced to it through my work in Community Literacy and Civic Engagement. In the article, Westheimer and Kahne provide a useful framework for thinking about the implications of citizenship. They define three visions of engaged citizenship, which are less distinct categories but rather broad philosophies that often blend together. These categories are:
- Personally-Responsible Citizenship
- Participatory Citizenship
- Justice-Oriented Citizenship
These categories speak to the question “What kind of citizen do we need to support an effective democratic society?” and Westheimer and Kahne use them to explore how these visions of citizenship might impact educators’ approaches to the noble goal of teaching for an engaged citizenry.
Expanding this framework to think about activism has been helpful for me as I reflect on my own activism and community involvement and how it often takes different shapes. I hope it might be useful for you, too, in thinking about the question what kind of activism best leverages our labor to affect change in our communities?
Westheimer and Kahne’s framework begins with the personally-responsible citizen, who personifies all of the basic etiquettes of engaged citizenship you were likely taught in grade school; follow the rules/laws, don’t litter, do recycle, and volunteer when the mood strikes you. Westheimer and Kahne’s primary example, threaded throughout their writing, is that of dealing with hunger: the personally-responsible citizen is the one who might donate some cans of soup and potted meat to the food drive.
The personally-responsible citizen is primarily concerned with tending to the most immediate perceivable threats and worries. This kind of citizenship is certainly important. I think, here, about the outpouring of support in these last weeks for Hurricane victims and how that immediate, tangible response is necessary for relief now. But it also has its limitations; the personally-responsive citizen is primarily reactionary and does not address the systems in place that cause or contribute to the problem(s).
In the category of Personally-Responsible Activist, we see activist work that deals with immediate needs. I think, here, about work I do alone or as a volunteer for community organizations; working with People’s City Mission in Lincoln to address homelessness, participating in marches and rallies, providing habitats in my backyard for solitary bees, and writing letters to my elected representatives all seem like work I do as an activist that fit in this category. I see my work advocating for my students, here, as one-on-one meetings where I address student concerns or vote for representatives-both within and outside of the institution where I teach-who will most justly and fairly represent my students.
Community literacy scholars try to encourage their students to work as thoughtful citizens, often engaging them in work as activists, too. There are certainly community literacy projects that fit this framework of engaging students on a level of personally-responsible activism. These projects are foremost concerned with students’ individual actions; projects designed, for instance, to get students to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours or attend a specific event and write a reflection essay. These are all geared toward personally-responsible activism.
I don’t mean to belittle anyone engaging in the work of personally-responsible activism, here. It’s important to address these immediate needs, and personally-responsible activist work such as participating in public demonstrations or providing literacy workshops are useful to our communities. But there are also other approaches available to those of us who aspire to be teacher-scholar-activists, and thinking strategically about these kinds of activism can help us better leverage the limited physical and intellectual labor we wish to contribute to these causes we’re investing our resources in.
Returning for a moment to the “citizenship” framework provided by Westheimer and Kahne, we’re presented with the “Participatory Citizen”. The participatory citizen engages in work closely tied to collective, community-based efforts. This view of citizenship recognizes the power of collectives; if, in Westheimer and Kahne’s example, the personally-responsible citizen is the one giving soup to the food bank, the participatory citizen is the one organizing the food bank and going door to door for donations.
This work, in terms of my own activism, is some of the work that I find most personally rewarding and satisfying; I serve as Co-Director for an organization called The Writing Lincoln Initiative, for example, where I help organize volunteers to work with different community partners to provide literacy workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska. I also work with groups of K-College writing teachers through my role as Co-Director of the Nebraska Writing Project to help teachers organize to respond to various concerns education faces (of which there are certainly many). This organizing with other teachers and with students to various ends is deeply rewarding work, and I’ve seen it have largely positive impacts on communities.
But it, too, is primarily reactionary in that it addresses, in a more systematic and less-short term way than personally-responsible activism, symptoms caused by larger problems. Again, this brand of participatory activism is important, necessary labor, but there are also other strategies that can be used to affect change across our communities; how else can our labor be leveraged?
The third vision of citizenship Westheimer and Kahne explore is the “justice-oriented” citizen, who “use rhetoric and analysis that calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice” (242). In their example of addressing hunger, the Justice-Oriented Citizen uses their rhetorical, analytical savvy to address what flaws in our current system are the causes of there being humans who need the food bank in the first place.
Westheimer and Kahne’s framework for the justice-oriented citizen is laden with abstractions, and extending this framework to activism creates a potential trap of inaction; it’s not enough, shifting this framework to reflect on activism, to identify the sources and causes of those concerns (though it is an important and necessary step), we must move to action, action which frequently involves the other two visions of activism.
This kind of activism strategically leverages our labor to address the root causes of systemic issues. Most of the labor I do is not this kind of work. I am trying to use my labor towards this kind of activism in my own classroom through a partnership with Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a group I’m collaborating with to help other teachers in the Nebraska Writing Project network make issues of civic engagement real and tangible in their classrooms, a proactive approach to strengthening democratic involvement.
Though my personal contributions to Nebraskans for Civic Reform are self-contained, the work the organization takes on is, by its nature, Justice-Oriented Activism. It’s labor focused on addressing and changing specific causes of inequality in our democratic system. This work aims to not only relieve symptoms of this inequality but to address root causes, mobilizing labor to change a system rather than deal with its end products.
The strategy of governance as activism, outlined in a previous post here by Holly Hassel, is a great example of leveraging our labor towards Justice-Oriented Activism. Hassel guides us as teacher-scholar-activists to work collaboratively in the governing bodies of our departments or schools to affect policy to the benefit of our students, writing that “A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.” Hassel points us to Justice-Oriented Activism through our labor, pinpointing a political arena where we as educators can best affect meaningful change for our students.
I wonder how I can reimagine more of my activist work in proactive, justice-oriented terms, how I can better leverage my labor inside and outside the classroom. While this framework has been helpful in prompting reflection on activist labor, it leaves me with so many questions; how can we do more as activists with students in our classrooms to facilitate the kinds of discussions necessary for change(s) to occur? How can we work with our peers and colleagues as activists to affect change in ways that are strategic and productive? How can we use our own research and scholarship, as activists, to best serve ourselves, our students, and our communities? How can we best leverage the labor we’re already engaged in to have the greatest impact both to relieve the symptoms and the causes of the difficulties our communities face?
I’m not sure, yet, but I’m excited to work with you to keep inventing, inquiring, and interrupting.
Adam Hubrig began teaching in the writing center and as an adjunct at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. His love for writing, education, and community engagement led him to be deeply involved with the Nebraska Writing Project and the Writing Lincoln Initiative, serving as Co-Director of both organizations. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches courses on and is fascinated by Community Literacy, Civic Engagement, and alternative forms of argumentation. He and his partner, Tiffany, enjoy volunteering in their community and tending to a meager garden, four snuggly cats, and solitary bees in Seward, Nebraska. Reach him at Adamhubrig88@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @AdamHubrig.
Westheimer, Joel and Joseph Kahne. “What Kind of Citizen? Political Choices and Educational Goals.” Encounters on Education, 2003.
By Holly Hassel
In his 2015 essay that led to the concept of this blog, the Teacher-Scholar-Activist, Pat Sullivan (building on the work of Jeff Andelora) argues that “community college students–often the most marginalized, least affluent, and least politically connected members of our communities–depend on our advocacy efforts. We must continue to speak for those who have no real voice and no real power” (329). In this blog post, I want to argue for the value of participating in representative governance as a structural avenue for activism. In many university and college systems, shared governance is the operational term. Steve Bahls defines it as an organizational practice that “align[s] the faculty, board, and administration in common directions for decision-making regarding institutional direction, supported by a system of checks and balances for non-directional decisions” (Bahls). I am in my third and final year as chair of the Faculty Council and Senate in my university and want to draw from that experience to argue for the value of participation in shared governance as a strategy for advocacy. In particular, governance work can produce policies, practices, and procedures that support equity, transparency and social justice. I would like to use this space to call upon faculty colleagues–and any institutional employee who is represented within the governance unit in their institution–to turn their activism to the internal landscape of the institution.
Faculty may find the idea of participating in governance as activism surprising, in part because–from conversations I overhear, observe, or have–there is often a sense of dispirited disappointment around the work of faculty/university senates. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull more Weight?” notes, “Professors have long complained about faculty-senate lethargy, and they have questioned how much the governing bodies are able to accomplish. But as tensions between administrators, faculty, and students have increased over the past few years — particularly over issues like free speech — more professors say they are seeing the consequences of weak faculty governance” (Chan). In what most would agree is an increasingly consumer-mentality, neoliberal university, it’s more important than ever that shared governance and faculty oversight of key elements of the work of the university–including curriculum, instruction, personnel evaluation, organization (or consolidation or dissolution) of departments and programs, and principles of due process, appeals, or grievances–are generally the province of academic senates. And yet, as the Chronicle article observes, “Leadership veterans describe something of a vicious cycle: If faculty members are not engaged in the senate and voicing their concerns, the senate itself is limited in what it can accomplish. Before long, the senate can acquire a reputation that it’s not powerful or effective. Once that reputation has taken root, faculty members may not view the senate as a meaningful place to spend their time, leaving a body of disengaged senators” (Chan).
At the same time, Inside Higher Ed recently published an advice column from mentoring scholar Kerry Ann Rockquemore calls faculty out by pressing them to consider the role of tenured faculty: “You have power, you cannot be fired, and — because you are one of a shrinking number of faculty with tenure — you are a leader on your campus.” Though certainly governance isn’t–and shouldn’t–just be the role or responsibility of tenured faculty, that increasingly shrinking employment class has a moral obligation, I would argue, to contribute to the organization in specific ways. It’s true that fewer and fewer of us have tenure protections–and those who do may find themselves under increasing legislative efforts to diminish those protections (see here and here). And it’s also true that even though these positions may feel less secure than they were historically, they are still the most secure positions in academia. As a result, and because of the centrality of governance work to the working conditions (and teaching and learning conditions) of students and teachers, there should be no more exigent place for tenured faculty to contribute their time and talents and yet, as the Chronicle article asserts, it’s fairly easy for governance work to spiral into disengagement. Why?
Governance is service work, and service work can feel like a bad investment no matter what kind of place you work. For folks at R1 institutions where the reward system values research and publication, service can feel like a poor commitment of time since the value attached to it in the evaluation process is largely checking a box to indicate whether someone has served on a committee–with little to no attention paid to quality of contribution or workload associated with the activity. In a two-year college, full-time faculty with 5/5 teaching loads may find governance (if it is even part of the college culture) takes back seat to service obligations that are more time-sensitive, or have immediate payoff (advising students, curriculum development work, personnel committees, mentoring of junior colleagues, and any other array of departmental types of work). At any rate, between service to one’s campus, perhaps to the profession in the form of organizational leadership or disciplinary committees, and in some places, community service, the prospect of governance work can seem just one more unrewarding committee responsibility to take on or yet more meetings to attend without the tangible outcomes that other types of service provide.
Further, policy work is not glamorous. It often involves wading deep into weeds that many faculty are not trained to fully understand or think through despite our advanced training and for folks in the humanities and social sciences, deep engagement with complex texts. Lastly, and most frustrating, can be the sense that a governance unit or bargaining unit has no real authority, doesn’t do any work, or just puppets the view and desires of the administration. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t true in many places or that I have not seen this myself. That being said, I want to argue for participation on senates or other governance groups.
First, representative governance is the way to have a voice. In some states, this function is handled by a union, or an AAUP chapter, but in many institutions, this is a faculty senate (or combined body of staff, students, and/or faculty). It serves a democratic function, representing the interests and needs of the people in the organization to a body who governs policies and practices–and who has a special kind of obligation to telegraph those in a formal way to the powers that be, typically the administration who has at the very least the power to approve or veto the work of the senate and at the most, carte blanche fiat to ignore the will of the governance bodies.
Second, many accrediting bodies vet institutions through standards that explicitly or implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy, authority, and jurisdiction of governance groups or policies. Institutions regularly use the existence and practices of senate as support for reaccreditation reports. In this way, governance groups hold a specific type of value for university administration and senates can and should leverage this value. For example, in my own institution’s most recent accreditation report letter from the site team, the responsibilities, oversight, and work of the faculty senate (or a senate-supervised committee) was used as evidence to demonstrate fulfillment of criteria and core components related to mission and integrity; ethical conduct; quality resources and support for teaching and learning; evaluation and improvement of teaching and learning; and resources, planning, and institutional effectiveness, with the specific core component “Administration, faculty, staff, and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy, and processes through effective structures for contribution and collaborative effort.” While certainly most documents give chancellors or provosts the ultimate right to overturn or veto almost any decision by a governance body, it is almost never in their interest to do so if it can be avoided, and governance groups can make it easier for administrators to support their activities through careful, thorough, and evidence-based policy recommendations that reflect institutional values and are tuned in to the expectations of accreditors.
Third, governance is the work of the university. In many institutions, senate policies or documents govern the process for approving curriculum, for admitting students, for appealing or filing a grievance in the case of unfair treatment; for evaluating instruction, for allocating resources. This work is core to what we do, and it is through governance that we have a voice when the values that are core to higher education are threatened, whether from internal or external forces. A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.
Last, let me also make a compelling argument for policy work. Since becoming involved in my institution’s governance body, I have mentally committed to the refrain “better living through policy.” This is because policies that are explicit, thorough, and clear have the capacity to substantially clarify and codify institutional expectations, particularly those that are unwritten or unstated but still used. Historically, academia has been an organizationally conservative and masculinist culture, driven by competition for resources, funds, or publication credit; with argument, reason, and logic privileged above collaboration, empathy, and multiple perspectives; senates are associated with the rigidly controlled structures of parliamentary procedure and a smartypants culture. However, as Kristi Cole, Eileen Schell and I have argued in “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism,” there is room for collaboration in governance if attention is paid toward achieving it, just as the work of policy making can be essential to creating clear, transparent expectations that apply to everyone. This reduces reliance on some of the unwritten rules that may govern departments or schools and spells out criteria that can then be transparently applied to decision-making, whether that is evaluating an instructor’s performance, reviewing a curriculum proposal, or making a recommendation on a tenure dossier.
In other words, don’t give up on your faculty senate, or on governance. Service work is institutional citizenship. It cultivates a deeper understanding of campus structures which subsequently makes it easier to get things done. It is a place in which university and college workers can have their voice heard. If yours is not working, fix it. We have work to do.
Holly Hassel is Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, one of 14 two-year campuses that make up the UW Colleges. She is in her third year of serving as chair of the UW Colleges Senate Steering Committee and Faculty Council. Most recently, she is the co-editor of Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership (Routledge, 2017) with Kirsti Cole. She currently serves as editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College.
Bahls, Steve. “What Is Shared Governance.” Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://www.agb.org/blog/2015/12/22/what-is-shared-governance
Chan, J, Clara. “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull More Weight?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 06 July 2017. http://www.chronicle.com.ezproxy.uwc.edu/article/A-Common-Plea-of-Professors-/240552
Cole, Kirsti, Holly Hassel, and Eileen Schell. “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism.” Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership. Routledge, 2017
Rockquemore, Kerry Ann. “Who Do You Think You Are?” Inside Higher Ed. 6 September 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/09/06/how-consider-leadership-paths-once-youve-gained-tenure-essay
Sullivan, Patrick. “The Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activist.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 42, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 327-350.
By Karen Uehling
A high school student visiting my campus last spring mentioned that she will be bringing in a large amount of college credits from high school, possibly entering with close to an associate’s degree. Her parents were obviously proud of their hard-working daughter who they believed had saved them a great deal of money in college costs by taking concurrent enrollment classes. The student talked about how she had gotten “her basics out of the way.” It seems Idaho students are encouraged to enter college with as many credits as possible. I was surprised to discover all this, and I wonder how such students will do in upper-division courses at a university.
What is the impetus for this credit stampede? For one thing, Idaho is searching for quick fixes for its underpaid workforce who cannot or do not go on to college. This has led to national advisory groups, state task force reports and recommendations, local advertising campaigns, and more. Like many states, Idaho embraced Complete College America (CCA), and, in 2012, the Idaho State Board of Education endorsed “Complete College Idaho.” CCA, an educational organization, calls itself a “national nonprofit,” but to me it feels corporate in some ways, with its slick, professional website and well-scripted presentations. Linda Adler-Kassner describes movements like CCA as “larger, more powerful, and better funded than any writing teachers, or even any group of writing teachers, will ever be” (136); that description resonates with me. A key element of the Complete College Idaho plan, one still strongly supported by our governor in 2017, is the “ambitious goal that 60% of Idahoans ages 25-34 will have a degree or certificate by 2020” (AKA “60X20”). One element of 60X20 is the “go on” rate in Idaho, which refers to the number of students who continue to college directly after high school. Darlene Dyer, of Wood River High School in Hailey, ID, notes that “for three consecutive years the go-on rate has been slipping”: 2013, 54%; 2014, 52%; 2015, 46%.
In 2016, the legislature passed a resolution of support for 60X20, describing it as “a stretch goal”; however, the resolution carried no additional funding, even though, as a state lawmaker noted, “Idaho is still spending less on higher education than it did in 2009” (Corbin). And in 2017, the governor convened a 36-member higher education task force to support 60X20. According to task force co-chair Bob Lokken, “There is no way we are going to get [to the 60% goal] by 2020. . . . If we could immediately increase by 50 percent the number of people who are getting degrees every year out of all of our two- and four-year institutions, we would have to run at that rate for almost a decade to get to the 60 percent goal” (Roberts).
The 60X20 goal affects first-year writing in that so-called “remedial” writing courses were reconceived as co-requisite courses rather than non-credit, pre-composition level classes, adapted from the acceleration model of the Community College of Baltimore County (ALP). In addition to college acceleration, 60X20 hinges on alternative ways to rack up college credits, including AP courses, CLEP, and other testing mechanisms, and concurrent enrollment with a vengeance. High school students are encouraged to graduate as quickly as possible through challenge exams of high school courses and financial incentives: beginning in fall 2016, all 7th -12th-graders began receiving $4,125 to spend on extra high school classes, exams that speed high school graduation, exams that may carry college credit, and concurrent enrollment college classes (“Advanced Opportunities” brochure). And, not only is there money for concurrent enrollment classes, the classes cost less than regular college attendance: for instance, a teacher at Renaissance High School in Meridian, Idaho, stated that students “can take a class for $195 versus $600 or $700 for the same class on campus” (Beach). Linda Clark, 60X20 task force co-chair, has stated that “Idaho has a unique opportunity. With a State Board that focuses both on K-12 and higher education, Idaho can capitalize on dual credit courses and other initiatives to encourage high school graduates to stay in school” (Richert). It seems extensive concurrent enrollment and related efforts are subverting the role of community colleges or the first two years of four-year colleges.
Secondary students can also qualify for a college scholarship for early high school graduation: $1500 per year skipped (brochure). And students can attempt many college credits: “The Dual Credit for Early Completers program allows students who have completed all their state-required high school graduation requirements early (with the exception of the senior project and the senior math requirement) to take up to 36 college or professional technical credits of dual credit courses, 12 Advanced Placement exams, or 12 College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams paid for by the state” (“Task Force for Improving Education”).
In their book, Composition in the Age of Austerity, Tony Scott and Nancy Welch point out that projects like Complete College America (and its state affiliates, like Complete College Idaho) use “metrics like speed to degree of completion, loan default rates, and post-graduate earnings” (4). These ideas favor “quantification while ignoring or denying the qualitative,” assessment based on “scalable curriculums,” and scholarship . . . that cedes composition teaching to the realm of market algorithms and efficiency imperatives . . . ” (8). This quantification of education is a form of speed up.
I have several concerns with speed up, especially concurrent enrollment. How can a high school teacher, no matter how skilled, take on the role of a college professor? Imagine a small, isolated mountain town where, as I learned a few years ago, there may be only one secondary English teacher who teaches all English, 7-12, oversees the school newspaper and yearbook, directs the plays, and serves as school librarian. She knows all the kids and the kids know her. She has lived in the community for some time, and she and her husband have bought a house, had children, and therefore she also knows the parents and other adults in the town. There is pressure on her to conform to community values and not rock the boat or challenge basic town mores. How can this person offer a college course for these students? Perhaps, in this case, prepared high school students could register for an online college course that at least would have a more diverse group of students in the class and would be taught by a college instructor—but how many high school students are ready for online courses? Many college students are not.
Another problem with speed up is the assumption that one time of life is primarily preparation for the next. If high school is preparation for college, then junior high is preparation for high school, and elementary for junior high; also college is preparation for grad school, and grad school, for a post doc perhaps, and a post doc for a career that probably has stages. So, philosophical question: when are we there? When do we live and enjoy the now? Obviously, I have exaggerated this, but taken to an extreme, education becomes just something to get through, not to be savored. I have met a high school teacher who believed that if even one student needed a review class in college then that meant the teacher had failed. Such teachers beg for a definition or a plan for what “college ready” means or requires them to do, implying that if only college instructors would tell them, they could make all students college ready. These teachers do not live in the present. I would ask secondary teachers, “What constitutes great secondary teaching?” Doing great teaching at the course level is the key, not rushing to prepare for the next level.
In short, high school is for high school and college is for college. I just don’t see how speeding life up helps. Potential students talk about getting all their “basics” done before they come to college, as though first-year writing and other first-year classes are mere impediments to real learning. What is “basic” in life? What are the educational “basics”? Security is basic. Trust is basic. Working toward goals is basic. Reading is challenging work, and engaging in conversation with a writer through the page is basic; that is, thinking is basic. These are basic qualities of an educated person, basic for a life.
Another concern I have is that minimum “adjunct” status is used as the norm for qualifying secondary teachers to teach concurrent enrollment classes. At Boise State University where I teach that means “a master’s degree in the subject area of the course” (Mongeau). There is also a professional organization for accrediting adjunct status for high school teachers in all subjects: the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). I wonder what accrediting bodies in each discipline would say about this accrediting body. In addition, there are recent incentives for secondary teachers to attain adjunct college status, including programs at Purdue and in Montana and Wyoming (Mobley). And high school teachers teaching dual enrollment are paid well below what even exploited contingent faculty earn: At my institution, high school concurrent enrollment teachers receive “an average stipend of about $800 a year for their extra time spent doing administrative tasks and attending the required professional development” (Mongeau). Contingent faculty are paid over $3,000 for a three-credit course (over $1,000 a credit hour), and beginning full-time lecturers earn $39,400 per year with benefits (Heil).
The problem of motivating students to attend college, is, in my view, intimately related to wages and the health of the economy; in 2016, Idaho was one of five states “with the highest percentages of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage” (“Minimum Wage Workers in Idaho”). Many students see little value in higher education, especially in a low wage state. In a 2016 survey study, University of Idaho researchers focused on graduating seniors with follow-up four months later. One key finding: “One-third of respondents were not fully convinced that more education would help them financially. Idaho’s average wage per job is among the lowest in the nation. Over time, the average wage gap between Idaho and the rest of the nation is increasing” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life After”). A respondent stated: “Life is hard. I am going right into work but without scholarships or any form of transportation I’m stuck in the rut of my life working to survive, saving lil’ by lil’ hoping to get an education and reach my dreams” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life Choices”). A couple years ago, reporter Daniel Walters, in a fascinating newspaper piece, offered comprehensive reporting on why Idaho students do not go to college, noting Idaho’s isolated geography, attitude of self-reliance, dwindling number of good paying jobs even with technical skills, and low national ratings of public schools.
In an interview with the 60X20 task force co-chairs Linda Clark and Lokken, three key points emerged: “Idaho needs to do a better job of matching degrees to workforce needs. Many Idahoans still don’t see the value in getting an education beyond high school. A statewide information campaign may be necessary to drive home the importance of post-secondary education” (Roberts).
All of this begs the question of what a quality education is—at any level. We need to focus on great secondary English teaching and great first-year college writing and how both buttress a serious education.
Adler-Kassner, Linda. “The Companies We Keep Or the Companies We Would Like to Try to Keep: Strategies and Tactics in Challenging Times.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 36, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 119-140.
Advanced Opportunities Brochure – Idaho State Department of Education. Accessed 25 July 2017.
ALP: Accelerated Learning Program. The Community College of Baltimore County. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Beach, Holly. “An AA Degree and Head Start on College.” Idaho-Press Tribune. 10 May 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Complete College America.“About.”. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Complete College Idaho Plan.. Accessed 25 July 2017.|
Dyer, Darlene. “Go-On Issues for Idaho.” NCTE Policy Report: Idaho, 30 Nov. 2016. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Heil, Mark. “FY ’18 Change in Employee Compensation.” Received by Karen Uehling, 8 June 2017.
—. “Life Choices of High School Seniors.” Idaho at a Glance, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2017. University of Idaho, McClure Center for Public Policy Research. Accessed 25 July 2017.
“Idaho Dual Credit Program – Idaho State Board of Education” [brochure, PDF]. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Mobley, Kimberly. “Overcoming the Shortage of Qualified Instructors to Teach Concurrent Enrollment Classes.” National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. 17 Dec. 2014. Accessed 25 July 2017.
National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). [website]. Accessed 25 July 2017.
Scott, Tony, and Nancy Welch. “Introduction.” Composition in the Age of Austerity, edited by Scott and Welch, Univ. Press of CO, 2016, pp. 3-17, DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c000.
Karen Uehling is Professor of English at Boise State University, where she has taught since 1981. A founding Chair of the Council on Basic Writing (CBW) and frequent CCCC presenter, she has published histories of CBW and basic writing at her institution and articles on adult learners, teaching, and writing. She serves as the NCTE Higher Education Policy Analyst for Idaho and posts reports for the Policy Analysis Initiative.
By Cathie English
I never considered myself an activist teacher. My past understanding of an activist teacher resembled something from the 1960s akin to the anti-war and civil rights movements. To me, an activist teacher was someone who protested at political rallies or government offices and encouraged her students to do so. However, once I became familiar with the concept of place-conscious education, I began enacting community literacy that asks students to consider the culture, environment or economic issues of their community. It was then that activism became as natural as breathing. I finally understood that being an activist teacher is about student activism, that is, how did I go about asking my students to engage in “real life” issues in their specific locale. What specific instructional choices did I make as an educator to raise awareness in my students?
Those choices were made because of deep convictions or concerns about my community and a shift to a standardized curriculum. It then became second nature for me, each academic year, to consider how I might engage my students with members of the community and leave the four walls of Room 104 where I taught for 21 years in Aurora, Nebraska. My first attempt at a place-conscious unit was simply to have my students create digital stories that asked them to tell their stories of who they were in their locale, small town Nebraska. It wasn’t activism, quite yet, but through the digital stories, I learned that many students hailed from even smaller towns subsumed by our rural consolidated district. These students weren’t from Aurora city proper; they were from Stockham, Phillips, and Marquette, all villages that once had schools.
It was this trend in rural Nebraska that initiated my inquiry into the issue of rural migration. All around me, small school districts were consolidating and small towns began to lose the schools at the center of their communities. In the fall of 2000, when I returned to my own hometown, Silver Creek, population 480, I drove the main street across Highway 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, past the Catholic Church, and as I turned to look at the high school building, I gasped. There, where the building had been for 90 years, was newly planted grass. The three-story brick building built in 1910 was gone forever.
In Aurora, like Silver Creek, agriculture was the dominant work of the community. However, with the onset of agribusiness and the loss of most small farms in the 1980s, the nature of work that employed citizens of Aurora and surrounding areas had been changing for several decades and my students could expect more changes on the horizon. Prior to the farm crisis of the 1980s, the Jeffersonian ideal of the 80 acres of land to sustain a family was in a consistent decline. Many families left the farm, migrating to city centers. In the 1980s, farm prices were so low, that most of the remaining family farms disappeared, replaced by millionaire farmers establishing agribusinesses through purchases of thousands of acres and the use of advanced mechanization. Often, these were non-resident land owners with no connection to the locale and its culture, history or ecology.
With that in mind, my students and I focused upon an inquiry into the nature of work and how it had changed through creating work ethnographies. I asked them to write their own work histories and interview their grandparents and parents to record their work histories. Once we collected the work histories, we studied how work had changed in the community over a span of approximately fifty years. I had asked them an everyday problem, asking how the community was transforming because the nature of work had changed and would continue to evolve, affecting their future careers.
My students achieved a goal of producing citizen narratives contextualized within the community. We preserved the past through collecting stories about our work, but in the process of interviewing, listening, writing and examining data, we learned a great deal about citizenship. Even though some of my students would not remain in their small town, I wanted to instill in them that wherever they might go and live, they should learn about their locale and become engaged citizens of their communities.
The final community literacy project I conducted as a secondary teacher was an inquiry into poverty and hunger in Hamilton County, Nebraska. This project was inspired by a colleague who taught history, when she asked me, “What can we do to help the Food Pantry because they are low on food donations?” I posed this question to my English IV students and they took it up by first defining poverty and hunger and explored data for Hamilton County, Nebraska, and several major cities in the USA. Students formulated their own questions to ask before field trips to the Food Pantry and the hospital auxiliary thrift store. They asked questions of representatives of the ministerial association, the backpack program, and Habitat for Humanity. The result of their inquiry produced informational flyers and videos advocating for support of the non-profit organizations that assist citizens who are experiencing hunger or poverty.
In 2013, I left the secondary classroom and began my career at Missouri State University; one of the main reasons I chose this university is its public affairs mission. The public affairs mission has three pillars: ethical leadership, cultural competence, and community engagement. The goals of community engagement are for students to recognize the importance of contributing their knowledge and experiences to their own community and the broader society as well as the importance of scientific principles in the generation of sound public policy. Faculty are encouraged at every turn to include service learning into their courses’ curriculum. For me, this meant nurturing and guiding future and current teachers of language arts into awareness of place-conscious education principles and their focus upon community literacy through student activism.
In courses focused upon place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership, students in English education have heard community leaders speak about teacher agency and advocacy, (including a former state senator/teacher), community literacy projects, and issues of social justice. Over the past four years, teachers in surrounding communities have learned about resources available to them in Springfield by attending field trips to the Springfield Art Museum, the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, the History Museum on the Square and Rare Breed Youth Outreach Center, that offers an array of services starting with the Street Outreach Program with the goal of getting at-risk and homeless youth into their Outreach Center to build a positive relationship and provide basic needs. As a teacher of teacher, my most important goal is transfer—helping these teachers conceptualize and then enact place conscious education in their own classrooms and communities. Often, future and current teachers are focused upon English/language arts content, that is, the business of teaching the literature canon and limited genres of writing to meet the mandated statewide standards and subsequent assessments. The act of enacting a place conscious curriculum is activist. If we care about issues of equity and diversity and justice in our classrooms, place consciousness is a means to differentiate instruction in powerful ways beyond a standard curriculum. One key of this pedagogy of place is that it can and does meet many of the national and statewide standards and contextualizes them in experiential ways as students work with citizens in their communities.
Southwest Missouri teachers have developed their own community literacy projects emerging from their study in these courses. Through the Springfield Art Museum, teachers have learned about the Place Works grant program and have applied and received funding to bring their students to the museum to view the art and write in response to it. A middle school teacher secured funds for a field trip to an outdoor space where students wrote poetry and later performed it in public. A high school ELA teacher worked with her class to create a community online literary magazine. She gave over the reins of her classroom to her students who became responsible for all the important decisions for their magazine. Students made decisions about whose work was published, how the web page was designed, how they marketed the magazine, who they consulted with, how they communicated with rejected authors, and how they publically launched the magazine. Another high school teacher won a Rural School and Community Trust Global Fellowship to explore Holocaust sites in Europe and brought back into her classroom the artifacts and photography collected, integrating a new Holocaust curriculum into her classroom. This past year another ELA middle school teacher’s students conducted oral history interviews with their parents or grandparents’ about their experience with school and how school culture had changed over the years. Another teacher explored the possibility of teaching a novel centered on a local murder case. Finally, a recent graduate of our English education program has his students writing about the literacy of work, e.g. “What kinds of literacy does a waiter need to know? A sales clerk? A cook?” The work or projects these teachers produced are the outcome of a required inquiry into place conscious and community literacy theory and practice. Through research, these teachers looked to their own communities’ and students’ needs to fully conceptualize what it meant to be a place-conscious professional.
As I prepare future teachers and work with practicing teachers, I emphasize this importance of community literacy and engaged citizenship. Toni Hass and Paul Nachtigal of the Rural School and Community Trust continue to influence my work with their concept of the “five senses” we must instill in people to live well: a sense of place, or living well ecologically; a sense of civic involvement, or living well politically; a sense of worth, or living well economically; a sense of connection, or living well spiritually; and a sense of belonging, or living well in community. They write, “Community is how we together create a story about our place.” Christian Wessier and Sidney Dobrin write that as educators “we have a responsibility to invent a locally based, pedagogical ethic informed and inspired by an awareness of the need to think and act sustainably.” It’s essential for me to continue to consider the public good and ask myself, “What am I doing to contribute to the general welfare of people in my community? What is our wealth in common in Springfield, Missouri and surrounding communities? Is it not our most impressionable citizens, our young people?” For my students, future and current teachers of English/language arts, to enact their own student activism within their communities, they must be conscious of their place. Without inquiry into their place, how will they know this “res publica” or public thing? Before they lead their own students to make meaning about a place, they must first construct their own framework of the public good and what it means to be an engaged citizen. In a place conscious context, this framework might look different in each community where my students teach (or where pre-service teachers may teach in the future). Each community will require a specific kind of activism. As activist teachers and scholars, we need to provide rhetorical spaces for our students so they can speak with community members and believe their voices matter. We must offer our students authentic inquiry, authentic writing, and authentic audiences. We must offer them a chance to join with other “real” voices to tell the stories of our community.
Cathie English began her teaching career in Iowa after graduating from Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska with a Bachelor of Arts in Language Arts. She taught secondary English in Aurora, Nebraska for 21 years where she also directed plays and coached speech. She holds an MA in English and a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently an assistant professor of English at Missouri State University and co-director of the Ozarks Writing Project in Springfield, Missouri where she teaches English education methods courses and graduate courses emphasizing place conscious reading and writing and teacher leadership. She is the recent recipient of the Missouri State University Board of Governors Faculty Excellence in Public Affairs Award. She is married to Jerry and has two children, John (and daughter-in-law, Amanda) and Anna, and four grandchildren, Joey, Rory, Benji and Lucy.
By Eli Goldblatt
For many years I have been concerned about how humans live with ambient violence. In some neighborhoods, violence regularly flares up on the streets or in classrooms or homes while in others violence is largely invisible or the artifact of TV, film, or YouTube viewing. My early childhood was spent on US Army posts, where violence was distilled and represented by the commonplace presence of government guns and vehicles, what I call the “military sinew” of American culture.
Last year, Tom Fox asked me to do a workshop we titled “Teaching Writing in a Time of Mass Violence” for the National Writing Project conference. We were concerned that teachers in many types of schools were dealing with students who had encountered images of war and terror and needed to sift through what they were seeing through writing. I have since presented some version of this workshop in other settings. After an appropriate warning about “triggering,” I start with a series of slides that suggest or indicate that violence or oppression, intimidation or senseless cruelty has been done or is about to happen in a public place. I don’t show graphic details or gruesome scenes that may simply shock or provoke viewers. I ask people to free associate with each picture as it is briefly shown. Once I show about 13-14 slides, I ask participants to go back through their words and choose, in each response to individual slides, 4-5 words that they think are memorable or particularly resonant for both sound and sense. “Making sense” is less a priority than “making manifest”: the images are present for us, but their meaning may not emerge for a long time. Then I ask people to assemble a poem of at least 8-10 lines, using the packets of words they generated, trying to keep the slide responses each as a unit but shuffling or shifting the units as they see fit. The addition of articles or prepositions is allowed, but generally I discourage adding substantive new words. I ask small groups of 5-8 participants to share poems, and then they choose 1-2 to share with the whole group. This activity generates excellent discussion about teaching in an inclusive and supportive way that also allows for the range of possible responses—keeping in mind the possibility of “triggering” that can certainly be an issue for some students.
I include in this post 2 poems that reflect my own response to ambient violence. Both were written independent of any workshop, but my ideas for the workshop in part come from my practice as a poet.
Salt in the Wound
Armored cars beyond the closed airport roll over
cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &
cracked dry pavement, the radio reporter says, &
outside my kitchen a hidden bird hazards two quick
notes in dance beat & a twirl. Hummingbird drinks at the
feeder & next door the mom sets off with her kids to school
too late, too late. Time falls like this rain, & I remember
no opinion holds sway among wet lobed leaves of angel’s
trumpet. Comfort to think there’s no plan; a mother can’t
intercede for her son painted above a church nave, within
a fiery lake or God’s bright triangle. In truth, neither frog
nor hawk stands a chance against a thresher, & no riot could
stop machines from gathering the harvest. Sometimes
everyone’s a real estate broker. Don’t talk such nonsense,
little creeper with your cruel verbs, cramped handwriting,
preference for lists: beets & cherries, grilled pineapple,
smoked mozzarella, tomato slices topped with fresh basil
& kosher salt. Soldiers love their MRAP transport,
high carriage & hardened steel underbelly
protecting riders from IEDs buried in the road.
Even before you wept
Even before you wept, you ate a meal
& sipped a blue-green solution that needed
neither heat nor light to turn rasping & impious,
elemental priorities sorted into enemy camps.
Foot soldiers sat by bonfires, cavalry bivouacked
beside their armored carriers. Birds sang in
the pre-dawn calm & anybody lucky enough to
remain asleep dreamed earthquakes splintered
pressure-treated lumber, rain filling streams
already clogged with anodyne silt, the weathered
statue at the top of a forested hill began to topple
& then fall headfirst into the ravine that had
been no more than a slender crevice between
two boulders just the night before. I can smell
an acrid stew, hear protesters coming along
the ridge. Each holds a sign representing
the ache & candor you swallow in the
morning while the cats cry to be fed.
By Daniel Boster
Like most of the English teachers I’ve talked to in my career, I went into the profession because I believed in the power of the written word, the ways literature and writing could inspire me. I loved reading from a young age, grew to like writing as I realized how powerful it could be, and eventually found my way as a literature and writing teacher. Over the past twenty years, I’ve experienced a great deal of joy and a real sense of accomplishment from teaching, and I hope that my students have had the same sense while working with me. I’ve learned a lot and have had a really good time on many, many days of my career. I’ve received compliments from students, former students, parents, colleagues, and administrators. I love teaching and many, many things that go with it.
But, of course, there has also been frustration and stress, emotional turmoil, and many late nights. As almost any English teacher would tell you, it is exhausting; the workload—planning, reading and grading papers, responsibilities to the school and to family, the feelings of never being “caught up”—can be overwhelming. With a certain brand of dark humor reserved for empty hallways on Friday afternoons, English teachers speak of dreading the weekend and then start loading up sets of student papers into their bags to simply give them a ride around town knowing that there will not be enough time to get to them, that they may very well go neglected. I often think of Frank McCourt’s description of “the life of the high school English teacher” in Teacher Man and, especially, his experience carrying home student papers in a “fake brown leather bag” that “sat in a corner by the kitchen, never far from sight or mind, an animal, a dog waiting for attention” (187-188). Every English teacher I know has this bag sitting in the corner of their cars, their kitchens, their home offices, their minds.
Now, having stayed at one school for more than fifteen years—unusual for teachers today—I find myself in a leadership position. As department chair, I have worked with my colleagues on all kinds of projects. In recent years, due to relatively poor performance on state assessments, we, as a department, have spent a lot of time and energy on preparing teaching ideas to help students improve their performance, especially on the state writing assessment. On one hand, I’m proud of the improvement in our students’ scores but I am also somewhat concerned, even ashamed, by some of the teaching we’ve done to lead to this improvement. I wonder sometimes if we’ve fallen into the trap of teaching “formulas” and of privileging this type of writing over the types of writing that we know and feel are actually more important and relevant to students after high school. I was often responsible for promoting the implementation of ideas in classrooms that I wasn’t always quite sure about, that I didn’t have time to consider fully. My fellow English teachers and I would be asked to write standardized test preparation materials at the last minute or be forced to teach to the test in our classes. In retrospect, some of what we prepared, while sometimes even effective in raising scores, didn’t seem all that all authentic or very likely to be all that rewarding for our students. In short, I often felt, and feel, conflicted and guilty about some of the things that are a part of my job.
During all of this time working with the teachers in my department and school, I have worked closely with colleagues outside of my school and my district. Much of this work has been done with the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) and the National Writing Project (NWP), and the teachers who make up these networks of dedicated professionals have inspired me to think about and rethink how I do my work as a literacy teacher. One of the core values of both NeWP and NWP is the idea that teachers should be active in their professional development through working with and conversing with other teachers. This principle appeals to me a great deal and has inspired me to be in continuing conversation with teachers in my district, in my community, and throughout the country.
In these conversations, I learned that many writing teachers struggle with what to teach students and how to teach students. The teaching of writing has always been incredibly complicated, and I don’t even think it’s possible for one teacher to fully grasp all of the complexities. It has been further complicated by the the accountability agenda that demands student “proficiency” on certain writing skills during their time in K-12 educational settings, and these skills are often different from what they need in college and in the workplace. But, as I’ve talked to writing teachers all over the country, I learned a great deal from my colleagues, and, even, developed some methods for coping with these demands. However, I continued to hear the frustrations about the time-consuming, emotionally demanding, even draining, nature of the work. Added to this was another recurring strain that ran through a lot of these conversations. Despite all this work, students “still can’t write.” We are working ourselves to exhaustion, and many teachers will say things like, “It doesn’t even seem to make any difference.” While I don’t necessarily agree with all of these sentiments—I’ve seen students grow dramatically as writers–there was no denying that business leaders complain to the colleges that students can’t write. Colleges complain about high school teachers not preparing students for writing in college. High school teachers blame middle school teachers. And so on. I also work with a lot of high school and college students who, indeed, struggle with their writing a great deal. All of this, inevitably, can lead to a supreme sense of frustration, burnout. I feared the desire to quit would be next. It was this context that led me to focus on mindfulness practice in my own teaching life and eventually to writing a grant to bring local English and writing teachers together to explore ways to come to grips with the lived reality of our profession and try to restore some humanity and authenticity to what we do in our classrooms.
During my research, eight Omaha area teachers–full-time college instructors, high school teachers, and a middle school teacher–met regularly with a meditation teacher from Omaha’s Mindfulness Outreach Initiative. We explored many connections between mindfulness and teaching, and, at the end of our time together, I wrote a dissertation exploring how mindfulness practice and our conversations affected teachers’ perceptions of their work and how they taught writing in their classrooms. We worked to develop a set of pedagogical practices that embodied mindfulness and which, we believed, would be better for students.
However, things got even better after I finished up the Ph.D. Rather than searching for a tenure track position and fleeing high school teaching for the halls of academia, I decided to stay in the K-12 setting and in Omaha. I wanted to use what I had learned during this process and actually bring it to my own classroom. Furthermore, after the necessary post-graduation break, I wanted to work with Johnathan Woodside of the Mindfulness Outreach Initiative to make a permanent intellectual home for teachers interested in meditation and mindfulness and how these ideas intersect with teaching in general and teaching writing specifically. As I had discovered earlier, many teachers long for ways to think and talk about teaching that simply aren’t provided by the professional development structures of their institutions. Our group would be free-flowing, collaboratively directed, and, rather than aim for specific “data” or “goals,” we’d be reading, writing, and having conversations that seemed, to us, more likely to help us in working with our students.
Beginning in February of 2017, we started meeting one time each month for about two hours. Meeting at MOI’s retreat house in Omaha, after brewing some tea, and following a pre-determined agenda, often subject to wandering conversations, we explore our thoughts about mindfulness and teaching. We’ve read poems from the UC San Diego Health Center for Mindfulness, essays about mindfulness and meditation from sources such as Daily Zen and Lion’s Roar and articles about mindfulness in the classroom like this one from The Atlantic. One especially fruitful conversation arose from reading an excerpt from Mary Rose O’Reilly’s Radical Presence about “listening like a cow.” Starting with our June meeting, we plan to begin sharing writing that we are doing and developing mindful ways to responding to one another’s work. The hope is that what we learn in this process can be applied to our work with students.
Our work in this group is a simple and subtle way to be teachers, scholars, and activists in our field. We are not proclaiming that our work will have immediate or dramatic effects on public education in our country. We are not looking to commodify or codify any certain approach to writing, teaching, or teaching writing. We are looking for ways to be more mindful about ourselves and our work. While there is a lot to worry about in our day-to-day teaching lives (large class sizes, frazzled colleagues and administrators, students with troubling emotional needs) and the larger education profession (dwindling funding, a public sometimes hostile to teachers, Betsy DeVos), we are attempting to cultivate mindfulness as Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” We know that our students need us to stay in the moment, to see them rather than a conglomeration of memories of students past. Despite the storm around us in our communities and the country, we need to find spaces to pay attention, to listen, to explore ideas authentically and with open minds.
We hope our group evolves into a “sangha” as Thich Nhat Hanh describes one: “a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness. The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.” Our practice of the “dharma” here may not necessarily be strictly focused on the Buddhist teachings, but rather connected to the idea of getting to the essential, the elemental parts about teaching while surrounded by an awful lot of noise. We come to see our monthly meeting as a true community where we can discuss ideas about teaching that will make a difference to our students, that allow us to feel connected to our work as teachers even when it’s really tough. For us, it’s this type of active pursuit of understanding that will keep us getting up and going to school each day.
Daniel Boster currently serves as instructional coach and English teacher at Ralston High School in Omaha, Nebraska. He has his B.A. in English from the University of Texas, his M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska, where his doctoral work focused on mindfulness and writing pedagogy. In addition, he is the editor of the Rogue Faculty Press 2012 publication What Teaching Means, a collection of creative nonfiction written by educators from all over the country.
By Emily Suh
Let me begin with a confession: I have not taken an “English” class since my junior year of high school. It was a literature class; we read Cold Mountain and The Things They Carried. I think that I qualified for my current position on a technicality: I have a Master’s in English—as a Second Language. Perhaps the Higher Learning Commission overlooked the full name of my degree. I have been teaching developmental English for five years (first in three-course sequences of stand-alone reading and writing, later as a two-course accelerated, integrated model), but I wonder sometimes if my lack of an English degree makes me something of an outsider in my department and in my field.
I transitioned into my position as a developmental English faculty from my previous role as an adult ESL instructor because I thought it would allow me to better serve my students: adult immigrant, emergent multilingual students in beginning and intermediate levels of ESL with college aspirations. Some had previous college experiences and degrees in countries no longer safe for my students or their families. Others had limited formal educational experiences in the U.S. and abroad. All of them recognized the lengthy and at times arduous academic task ahead of them. Our multilingual, multi-level English as a Second Language class was grant funded through the Toyota Family Literacy Program, which emphasizes parents’ English language acquisition as an important factor in facilitating their children’s academic success. As a result, the program focused on basic English language instruction, and parents who progressed beyond the partnering community college’s ESL level 4 were encouraged to enroll in non-grant funded classes at the college.
In the community college, my students joined the masses of adult immigrants throughout the U.S. who enroll in adult ESL classes. Unlike the K-12 ELL support (if such programming can be generalized) a child receives through public schooling, adults who want to learn English and pursue their education almost universally must do so at their own expense through lengthy course sequences which have also been criticized for their sometimes equally lengthy waitlists, lack of academic focus, and disengagement from the rest of the community college (Crandall & Sheppard, 2004; Harklau, 2000; Tucker, 2006). While frustrating, the adult ESL sequence is often lengthy out of necessity. An adult learner who has native language literacy but no prior English instruction may require 500-1,000 hours of quality English instruction to reach a basic level of satisfying needs, surviving on the job and participating in limited English language interactions (Mainstream English Language Teaching Project, 1985), yet such a learner is still considered functionally illiterate (Tucker, 2006). Furthermore, students presumably need much more than 1,000 hours to reach the proficiency necessary to enroll in college.
In spite these well-documented obstacles, some students do manage to successfully transition into college-level coursework, often times at the community college. Community colleges attract a larger number of immigrant students than four-year institutions (Teranishi, Suarez-Orozco, & Suarez-Orozco, 2011), and first generation immigrants are more likely than Generation 1.5 or second generation immigrants to attend the community college (Hagy & Staniec, 2002). My current college is seeing a growing number of these immigrant students who came to the U.S. as adults and are now entering the developmental English sequence.
In the world of adult ESL teaching and research, this population is simply referred to as the students. But that label does not suffice when they enter developmental education. The few researchers who have studied this group lack consensus on how to distinguish them from other multilingual students. This group of adult immigrant multilingual learners has been referred to as “late-entry” and “less-skilled nontraditional” immigrant students (Casner-Lotto, 2011, p. 224), “foreign high schooled immigrant students” (Conway, 2010), “Adult Basic Education English learners” (Csepelyi, 2012), “adult ESL students” (ibid), and “mature English Language Learner (ELL) Student[s]” (Almon, 2015). The lack of common terminology for this student group suggests their peripheral place within both the literature and institutions of higher learning, and I find these labels ranging from lacking to offensive.
These learners are no longer in language acquisition courses (whether an institution labels said courses English as a Second Language, English Language Learner or English Language Acquisition is beside the point). Neither are they international students (a label which calls to mind highly educated and otherwise highly privileged individuals who have come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of receiving an education and with the intention to return to their country of origin). The fields of TESOL and Comp/Rhet have become highly familiar with Generation 1.5 students (Rumbaut & Ima, 1988), but this group of students to which I refer is not Generation 1.5: they are Generation 1. Further, they are not just students but “learners,” as in Knowles’ (1968) theory of andragogy describing adult learners who draw from a variety of previous experiences in learning which extends beyond the academic institution. I, therefore, refer to this subset of the developmental population as “Generation 1 learners” (Suh, 2016), and I argue that their experiences as adult learners (i.e., non-traditional students) and multilinguals (i.e., English language learners with previous language learning experience) shape their preparation for and experiences in college classes in ways unique from Generation 1.5 students who were educated at least partially in the U.S. K-12 system and who subsequently have access to academic, cultural and social capital which is not necessarily available to their Generation 1 learner counterparts.
At the same time that Generation 1 learners may require additional instruction in the expectations for a U.S. (college) classroom or the cultural context knowledge which is often assumed in the readings, videos and discussions of the developmental English classroom, Generation 1 learners often bring valuable metalanguage for discussing learning—particularly language learning—processes, and because of their previous life and educational experiences, these learners also often can contribute greatly to student-led discussions of perseverance and other affective skills necessary for college success.
For the past five years, I have pushed for a co-requisite model pairing an adult ESL course and developmental English course. Based loosely off of the CCBC’s Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), I envisioned the paired ESL course as providing structured support in the areas of reading, writing and U.S. academic expectations (i.e., citation conventions, participation norms, computer literacy, etc.) for the multilingual students enrolled in a section of the developmental English course with native English speaking peers. For the past five years, my administration has told me that I need “data” to prove the college’s multiple current support programs are insufficient.
But deciding who and what counts as data is not a clear-cut task, and it is made more difficult by the fact that the college, like many other institutions, does not track students’ first language background. Instructors’ anecdotal evidence of struggling multilingual students who are underprepared for the language demands of the developmental English classroom abound, but these can be (and have been) dismissed, often in ways which make the instructor hesitant to voice similar concerns for fear of being labelled “lazy” or “unwilling to work with diverse students.” Through my practicum with the Kellogg Institute, I tracked the number of students who self-identified as “Non-First Language English” on the Compass test for the 2014 calendar year. It was a labor-intensive task which involved individually searching for each student’s record to note whether the student had registered and passed/failed/withdrew from the classes. But my findings were not specific to Generation 1 learners since the Compass data did not include age or high school information. Certainly, I could have cross-checked the age of each of these students with their files to determine their age, but even this would not have told me whether the students were truly Generation 1 learners—they might have been U.S. high school graduates who took a break before coming to college. Moreover, the task seemed pointless: an exercise in futile “data collection” by which the administration actually meant quantitative data of unspecified quality and quantity.
How many struggling students does it take to merit institutional change?
Recognizing the shortcomings of my meager quantitative efforts, I supplemented my numbers with interviews of 14 students preparing to enroll in developmental English classes and who had increased their test scores through our college’s Transitions Lab (an advising/testing/welcome center of sorts for students who wish to improve their test scores before beginning course work). I had hoped that the qualitative data of my mixed methods study, delivered to the administration in March of 2015) would speak in ways my own voice could not. As I have not yet heard back from anyone about my Kellogg Practicum (a brief summary of which was later published in the Journal of Developmental Education), I suspect that neither it nor the 340+ pages of my dissertation on the transition experience of six of these learners were the type of data that counts.
How then to serve a group of students whose existence the administration refuses to acknowledge because they will not collect their own data nor accept available data?
Our college’s move to a Chabot-inspired accelerated and Integrated Reading/Writing model leaves even less time for language acquisition, as we, like Chabot, have embraced the notion that “an active reading style is … more effective in helping students grasp ideas and meaning than ‘word by word reading’” (Chabot College). While I do not doubt the veracity of this statement in principle, I do question its underlying assumption that all of our students are at a level in which “word by word reading” is no longer necessary for processing the basic meaning of the text. For emergent multilingual students whose previous academic English reading experiences consisted largely of short passages (often accompanied by reading comprehension questions), reading an entire book-length text which assumes the reader possesses the vocabulary to understand the words and shares enough of the writer’s cultural background to understand the meaning is a daunting task.
It is not my position that such students should return to adult ESL. However, I believe that it is negligent for developmental educators to not provide linguistically and culturally accessible material, or at the very least, the necessary scaffolding to assist learners as they transition to college and such reading and writing experiences through developmental education.
One of my students, a young Iraqi woman who has been in the U.S. less than six months asked me a few weeks ago why we do not have vocabulary tests and more grammar quizzes in class. I began giving her the party line, listing the Student Learning Outcomes and Course Outcomes, and then I stopped. The class is a minority majority class. The class’ sole monolingual student has her own challenges with processing language and received an Individualized Education Plan throughout her K-12 experience. That day, the students and I decided that additional work on vocabulary and intensive practice on verb tense agreement within our own writing fit the course objectives of “Improv[ing] reading skills” and “Practice developing effective sentences.”
Hear me out; I am not advocating that we turn beginning level developmental English courses into drill-and-kill remediation, but I am suggesting that attention to issues of language acquisition (and cultural academic expectations) have a rightful place in the developmental English classroom, and that developmental English teaching methods could be improved for many, if not all students, by attention to language acquisition theory and methods for teaching multilingual students. For example, teaching grammar within the context of students’ own writing is the standard practice in many ESL programs today (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011), and it is a concept similarly embraced by Chabot and other developmental English programs.
Perhaps resulting from my own questionable English pedigree, I often feel a sense of pressure to forego conversations about grammar or verb conjugations in order to focus on the critical thinking, reading and writing skills which I believe are emphasized above work focused on form, yet in spite of my reservations, I keep returning to the basics of reading and writing. While I am not certain that our attention to what many would consider to be lower order concerns will prepare my students for the daily activities in their next English class, I believe that our work will prepare them for success there.
Behind my closed classroom door, we talk about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Behind my closed classroom door, we spend entire class periods unpacking an academic abstract’s new vocabulary words. Behind my closed classroom door, we decode and attend to the lower order concerns that my students claim the greatest interest in. I hope that my work and my students’ comments in course evaluations will eventually allow us to open the door and bridge the well-documented silos of adult ESL and developmental education at institutions beyond my own (Baynham & Simpson, 2010; Crandall & Sheppard, 2004). Today I received the first sign that the administration is beginning to agree with my students’ decisions about who and what counts. I was told that I will be allowed to teach a pilot of the co-requisite class I have proposed. I am hopeful for the collaborations and open doors of the future.
Emily Suh is the co-chair of the Cultural Diversity Committee and Special Interest Networks Coordinator for the National Association of Developmental Education (NADE). When not engaged in thinking, writing and working towards social justice, Emily raises her children and chickens; she used to have four of each.
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