Putting “The Public” Back into Public Education

by Howard Tinberghoward-tinberg

From the outset, let me say that I have no illusions as to the extent to which public support of education remains tenuous. Having taught for nearly three decades at a public community college in Massachusetts, I have seen first-hand the  effects of dwindling public support for higher education: exponential growth in the hiring of contingent faculty, escalating fees to make up for budget shortfalls, establishment of endowments and private moneys to pay for capital investment, creation of partnerships with the for-profit sector to build capacity, extension of dual-credit enrollment as enrollment outreach, and continued reliance on online courses to pad enrollments. All these developments are occurring against a backdrop of increasing calls for accountability—yet another reflection of strapped budgets, as every dollar needs to be carefully accounted for.

The recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos, a proponent of Charter schools and so-called “school choice,” spelled out clearly the challenge before us.  Indeed, DeVos is intent on extending her ideologically-driven critique to higher education:  witness her claim made that professors too often teach students “what to think.” In a trenchant reply,  Rosemary Feal, outgoing Executive Director has observed, faculty do not teach students “what to think” but rather “how to think.”  The distinction is critical.

Yet, amidst all this gloom, there is good news to report about public education. Take the confirmation of DeVos, for example. Yes: she was finally confirmed (bailed out by VP Mike Pence in a historic move to tip the balance) but I, for one, was heartened by Senators’ hard and thoughtful push back against her testimony. How often have we heard a discussion in the Senate or Congress that referenced the difference between the “growth” model of assessment and the “proficiency” model—the difference, that is between measuring how much a particular student has learned and the one-size-fits-all standard measuring student proficiency?  When Senator Al Franken (D Minnesota) pressed DeVos on her view of the matter, he brought into public discourse another critical distinction. Is it fair, he was asking, to measure all students, whose abilities and backgrounds vary, by a single, arbitrary standard alone? Or should we not see each student as an individual and tailor our assessments to that individual student? Should we not, he asserts, employ multiple measures of assessment? Shouldn’t assessment be used to improve student learning rather than provide, as Franken notes, an end-of-semester “autopsy”? How refreshing it was to hear a sitting Senator validate best classroom practice.

I’m heartened by other, recent events, too. In Massachusetts, voters rejected an initiative to lift the cap on charter schools, recognizing that charter schools siphon away funding from established public schools.  For those who claimed that charter schools are themselves “public” supporters of the “No on 2” question rightly pointed out that charter schools are under no obligation to accept all students. In what sense can they be considered “public” schools?

Despite competing against a growing number of charter schools, which drain community coffers and which are by no means obligated to accept all students,  Massachusetts schools continue to excel in the battle to provide equitable teaching opportunities across socio-economic lines,

I’m also cheered by a recent study conducted by Stanford University, Brown University, University of California and Berkeley, and the US Dept. of Treasure on the impact of higher education on students’ social mobility. Focusing on the earning power of students born in the 1980’s after their college experience, researchers were not surprised by this finding: that graduates of elite, private institutions earn more than three-quarters of American students—no surprise there, although students from lower-income households fare as well their more affluent counter-parts. But truly encouraging was the impact of institutions of public higher education on students’ social mobility.  James Kvaal, former White House Deputy Director of Domestic Policy, reports:

In fact, for every student who moves from the bottom to the top after attend an Ivy League or similar university more than 80 students achieve the same feat at community colleges or public universities.

I am not an advocate of judging colleges by a reductive and simplistic “Mobility Score Card,” a project which Kvaal supports, nor do I side with his call to reform developmental education without the funds to provide adequate academic support. I nonetheless support Kvaal’s call for continued public investment in Pell Grants and in maintaining college’s affordability for all students no matter the age or socio- economic bracket.

Other, positive developments would include the proposal by the governor of New York to make college “tuition free”  at state institutions for students whose family incomes are below $125,000 a year. I also note the recent call by the governor of Rhode Island to make two-years of college “free,” whether the community college or the state-sponsored four-year institutions.   Of course, college is never “free,” per se but requires public investment in institutions of higher learning so as to maintain access, fortify retention, and ensure that curricular offerings are academically sound.

Such gains will have little traction unless those of us who work in public education continue to be engaged in the project of producing good citizens.   I have written elsewhere of a trend among educators to disengage from the classroom—a decision driven by cynicism and a sense of powerlessness.   While those promoting privatization of public education have made significant inroads in the past decade, the “loss of the public” is by no means inevitable.   As a literacy educator, I will continue to promote in students a thoughtful and measured approach to the information afforded by old and new media. And I will continue to model for my students an earnest engagement with public issues.

Howard Tinberg is Professor of English at Bristol Community College, Fall River, Mass. He is former Chair of CCCC and the former editor of TETYC. He was the recipient of 2004 CASE/Carnegie US Community College Professor of the Year.


The Path of Most Resistance

By Danielle Helzer

Photo by Nate Helzer 


I started my career teaching high school English to freshmen in a rural Midwestern town. When I was hired, the curriculum consisted of a few essays and a handful of short stories and poems to be selected from the textbook. The “major” reading options were Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, A Christmas Carol, and The Pearl.

There was no honors or basic track in this school, so all 9th graders took English 9. This meant in one class, I had students reading at a post-high school level working alongside students reading at a first-grade level. Students whose families had farmed in this area for a hundred years sat next to students whose parents were undocumented immigrants. I had the most affluent students in the same class as homeless students. We were a diverse group, and our curriculum did not reflect this.

Luckily for my students, I caught the activism-bug during my first summer of graduate school. I was surrounded by teachers who gave their students permission to engage in the world around them and to question; they moved outside the canon and even worked within the canon to challenge their students. There was a contagious spirit of activism, and I wanted to take this into my own classroom.

I returned that fall armed with ideas and lessons that would go above and beyond the standards and encourage a kind of critical thinking and engagement which the current curriculum didn’t allow. My new, revised curriculum was starting to represent my students. The biggest change in the curriculum would be a quarter-long unit built around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I planned for my students to research issues that impacted their communities and then apply Dr. King’s four steps for non-violent direct action to do something about the issue they researched. Together, my students and I would plan a project night open to the community to inform the audience of their respective social issues.

This unit was a significant revision to the curriculum requiring students to participate in a project night outside school hours, so prior to the implementation, I showed my administrator the Dr. King text, explained my rationale, and reviewed my unit plan that aligned with every state Language Arts standard. I naively assumed he would be on board with the unit that was flanked with an historical text normally reserved for seniors.

“Sure. You can do the unit, but you’ll need to send a permission slip home.”

I blinked a few times and wondered if he was joking.

“A permission slip?” I questioned and blinked a few times, my mouth hanging open.

“You’ll need to send home a permission slip because you want to teach a piece written by a black man. I don’t have any problem with this, but people around here may not want their child to read it. And you’ll probably have to rethink the word ‘activism’–that word might freak some people out. You can try the project night, but you won’t get even half of your students to show up for it.”

More blinking. This black man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–a man who helped change history, a man who has a FEDERAL HOLIDAY named after him, a man who kids grow up learning about–even in our mostly white, rural, midwestern town.

Even though I found the request to be ridiculous, I sent a letter to parents/guardians explaining the unit and its final outcomes; I gave them the opportunity to opt their child out to complete an alternate unit. Not one parent/guardian opted his/her child out of the unit. This happened to be the only unit in the entire English 9 curriculum that had a 100% completion rate. The local newspaper came to interview my students and ran a story on their projects. The news station from a town 45-minutes away came to film my classes who were later featured on the evening news.

And their projects? They were damn good. There were the two girls who investigated a rare form of cancer and then put on a soup supper at their church to raise over $800 for a woman in their community who was diagnosed with this disease. One duo explored the link between fitness and overall health; for their project, they organized a 5k race (complete with police support, waivers, donated post-race snacks and prizes, and over 30 participants). The two donated all the funds to the town’s fitness center to help fund their planned expansion. Another pair of students learned that many teen drivers don’t understand basic car-care, which can cause safety issues. So, they partnered with a local dealership/body shop to provide a free car-care clinic where staff taught kids how to change a car’s oil, change a tire, etc. A senior repeating English 9 who was living on his own and raising a child, researched the impact of skate parks on small communities. He spent a few hours each week cleaning up our local skate park, documenting the before and after with pictures and interviews with local skaters. This was learning that mattered to students.

These 80 freshmen students who lamented that adults didn’t take them seriously, who feared failure during their projects, wanted to prove to their town that they were capable of good things, and their town rallied around them. People showed up to the students’ project night and genuinely showed interest in their projects. Townspeople encouraged my young activists to keep doing good work. They sent cards thanking my students and wrote letters to the editor commending their investment in our community.

Despite the results, there was resistance to the unit beyond even my administrator’s first hint of skepticism. A fellow English teacher took to social media to complain that the unit was not rigorous and wasn’t teaching kids English. During the unit, I led a training session for our staff on how to use Google Docs in the classroom. When I explained how my students and I were using it to complete our projects, a teacher interrupted me, rolled his eyes and yelled sarcastically from the back of the room, “We can’t all be over achievers like you…” While the unit was incredible for my students, it did nothing to enhance relationships with my colleagues.

I may have had permission from my administrators to do this unit, but I did not have their support–none of them showed up to the project night the first year.

Teachers who are embracing some form of activism or civic involvement will surely meet hesitation or even flat out resistance. But John Dewey wrote, “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.” I’d be lying if I said the resistance I faced from my administrators and colleagues didn’t bother me. As a young teacher, this criticism filled me with self-doubt and made me question every choice I made for the next three years I spent in that district. It would have been easier to maintain status quo. This criticism, though, made me a stronger teacher even beyond my tenure in that district. It encouraged me to avoid jumping on curricular bandwagons, to pursue a habit of inquiry, and to always have an answer for why I did what I did in my classroom.

This unit was so much more than a one and done project for my students. For some, this was the first time they had agency, and they carried this sense of empowerment into other areas of their lives. In a post-unit reflection paper, one student who failed English 9 the previous year, explained that he had never been taken seriously before this project. He mentioned feeling like he could now do so much more, starting with passing his classes. A small group of students from my class later advocated to start a slam poetry team in their school, and a few years later this team from a tiny school won our state’s Louder Than a Bomb competition. Another group of students went on to raise money for a new music room and auditorium renovation. They worked with stakeholders in our community to hold fundraisers, to budget for expenses, to speak about the benefits of music education, and within a few years, they accomplished what they set out to do. This project did more for my students than any essay analyzing theme in The Pearl could have done.

Teachers: the work we do in our classrooms that meets the most resistance is often the most worthwhile, most valuable, most necessary work. Let’s be rabble-rousers. Let’s be the kind of teachers who run headlong into hesitation and resistance, who ignore the sarcastic comments, who embrace the the label “over-achiever” because we know this work is good for our students.


Danielle Helzer is a writing coach at Central Community College in Grand Island and Hastings, Nebraska. Previously, she spent seven years teaching high school English, co-directed the Nebraska Writing Project, and served as an adjunct in a variety of English and Education departments. She enjoys cooking, listening to NPR, engaging in passionate conversations, and serving in her community alongside her husband and two kids.



Together, We Are More

by Darin Jensen

So, you’re reading Teacher-Scholar-Activist. I’m glad you’re here. Chances are that you know me or Patrick Sullivan or Christie Toth. And you know that we all shout about things relating to the community college—an institution in which we’re deeply invested. We think this is an important space to gather P-16 educators in building a community of teachers who pursue democratic values in education both in and outside of their classroom.

For me, I’ve voted in every election I could since I was 18 years old. I have given money to candidates, signed petitions, and walked in parades. I have also been a classroom teacher and administrator for what’s coming on 20 years now. It hasn’t been enough. It just hasn’t.  Part of Teacher-Scholar-Activist is meant to address that gap in my life. I need to work directly to influence democracy and education—two things I see tied together in affirming ways. This website is part of the response to that need.

For some time, I have tied my work to democratic activism. I have taught in community colleges—the institution type that serves the most vulnerable students—most of the first-generation students, most of the refugee and immigrant students—most of the students of color—most of the working class and working poor students. I have come to believe that working in an English classroom to develop students’ literacy skills gives them access not only to economic opportunity, but also to democratic opportunity. Arming students with critical literacy allows them to understand and resist the dominant discourses about them and their communities. And my students believe in education, too. Just last night, I was working with a Karen student whose parents have done backbreaking work in meat packing plants and restaurants to build the smallest window of opportunity for their daughter and other children to get an education. Now, we know it’s naïve to think that most of the students will get as far as they’d like—systemic racism and oppression and the destiny of one’s zip code are powerful. But there’s hope.  And hope is good.

But it isn’t enough. I look around at my state of Iowa which is considering vouchers, which has already destroyed collective bargaining rights, which is considering a bill that would mandate professors’ political parties, and which has struck a blow against women’s health, and I shudder.  I look at the national landscape with its spike in hate crimes, executive orders seemingly meant to create a police state and terror amongst immigrants, journalists left out of press conferences, waves of anti-Semitism, islamophobia, and racism, and I shudder.

I respond in small ways. I’m not a movement-leading person. I wish I was, really. So, I volunteer at the adult literacy center and with a homeless shelter to teach reading and writing to refugees. I volunteer at the local food pantry unloading trucks of donated food that remind me of all the Hamburger Helper and canned green beans I ate as a kid. And I work on this website.  For me, these are activist moments. And they are direct moments where I engage in the conversation of our culture to model the way I want people to be. It’s an expression of my values.

In my classroom, I have modified my first-year writing curriculum to talk about fake news.  We’re working on information literacy as well as the outcomes of composition I.  We’ve written an essay defining fake news. We’ve created a website multi-modal composition where the students had to “teach” an audience of 13-yr olds about fake news. Now we’re comparing and contrasting stories in the news sources. We’re discussing the importance of accuracy in sources, and rhetorical positioning, too. I don’t know what the students will take with them, but it feels like the attention to the conversations going on in our country is good for them.

I don’t write all of this to brag. Really. I was raised in a Midwestern Lutheran home where one just didn’t talk about oneself. One went to work. So instead, I say it to catalog what I’m doing, to outline my small moves toward activism. I help feed people and I help people to learn to read and write because that is a kind of power;  I help people to think critically about the torrent of information that washes over us every day because that, too, is a kind of power. These are small moves. I know that.

But I want Teacher-Scholar-Activist to be a place where we share our small moves—where we collect them and add them together. I want it to be a place where we bear witness to the work educators are doing in and out of the classroom to hold up our democratic and humane values. I want it to be a place where all the little local actions can come together to weave a larger tapestry. It sounds hokey. That’s ok. I think the student I worked with last night would have appreciated that. I think some of the students I teach appreciate that. I think my children appreciate that. And that’s what lets me sleep in a world filled with troubles and greed.

I hope that you’ll like Teacher-Scholar-Activist and follow it on our WordPress site, Facebook, and Twitter. I hope you’ll join us in writing about the local activism you are engaged in both in and out of the classroom. I hope that you’ll share the things you’re reading that make you sane and give you hope. I hope you’ll share the actions you are taking in your community.  After all, as Red Green said: “We’re all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice.”

Darin Jensen is an adjunct English instructor at Des Moines Area Community College. He is a co-founder of Teacher-Scholar-Activist. He teaches, writes, and works in his community. He’s also going to catch all the Pokémon one of these days while walking with his black lab.

Photo by Maxwell Jensen 



Choosing Belle Ryan

On February 17th, at 2 in the afternoon, I got to witness a “topping off” ceremony at my son’s school.  This involved the placement of the “final beam” that solidified the foundation of our new elementary school building.  On that beam are the signatures of all 300 plus students and staff of the school, tying my son to this building, where he began his school career, for the rest of its existence.

I loved the ceremony, but I am also aware of its meaning, as I look back at where I was slightly more than a year ago.

When I took Braxton to his potential new school for Kindergarten round-up, I was feeling fear and uncertainty.  I had found that as people around me had gone through the process of choosing a school for their child, all my previous beliefs seemed to be in question.

I am a high school English teacher in an urban public school.  This is a role I have proudly had for 14 years and any opportunity that I have to boast of my school, my students, my staff, I have always taken it.  And not just because I AM proud, but because we often seem to need it.  Because being a teacher or student in any school in my district means, in a lot of ways, always being on the defensive.

My school, Burke High School is one of 7 high schools in the Omaha Public School District.  The largest school district in the State of Nebraska. We serve an incredibly diverse group of 51,000 students hailing from every part of Omaha and almost every part of the world.  And with that size, with that diversity, come so many amazing things, but its fair share of challenges.

Our schools appear in headlines fairly regularly.  It is considered acceptable to make broad generalizations about us as though they are true, because sometimes, some of our kids and staff make poor individual choices.

We have lower test scores, which to some people means we have less educational quality.  We have high rates of poverty and there are all sorts of assumptions that come with that.

Which brings me back to where I was on that day with my son for Kindergarten round-up.   When I was in school, I lived in and attended school in the Millard district, which is a more affluent part of town.  Before I taught in the Omaha Public Schools, any district but my own wasn’t really even on my radar, let alone all the politics surrounding it.  However, as soon as I became a teacher in the OPS, I intended to place my children in district schools as well.

And that seemed to be a no-brainer, until the time came.  Then I found myself listening to the ways some people talked about us.  They always had raised eyebrows, sideways glances and whispered comments.  Or even overt comments vowing to “never send their children there”.  People I knew were moving just to get away from us.

And I started to wonder if I should do the same, to “make the best choice for MY child”, that everyone seemed to think couldn’t be a school in the Omaha Public Schools.

So I looked into other options.  I started to question our choice of a neighborhood school.

I wondered.  What did those whispered comments, raised eyebrows and sideways glances about my district contain?  Did they contain danger for my child?  A lesser education?  Did they contain bad teachers?  Bad kids?

So, I went to the Kindergarten round-up scared, with transfer paperwork in hand.  I feared what I would see when I walked in the door.  I watched the kids, the parents, the teachers with those same raised eyebrows and sideways glances.  And what did I see?

I saw excited kids and parents.  I saw warm, friendly adults inviting me to their building.

Then came the classroom tour, and surely in here, is where I would see “those” kids and “those” teachers, right?  But all I saw was engaged kids, having fun with their experienced, warm, friendly teachers.

And most importantly, I saw a neighborhood school, of which the attendees were proud.  There were enthusiastic smiles, decorations for the 100th day of school, students wearing their bulldog gear.

And I asked myself, what was I actually scared of?  And I couldn’t name a single thing.  And then I remembered that the high school where I teach is a school that gets the whispered comments, sideways glances and raised eyebrows.   And I remembered, that none of what was said about us, by those who didn’t know us, was actually true about us.  I remembered that if people only knew us from the headlines, then they didn’t actually know us.

The only thing that was scary was that Belle Ryan was the school I didn’t know.  And when it was the school I didn’t know, then it was lumped together with all those other schools I don’t know.  And it became synonymous with the headlines of those failing neighborhood public schools.  Those headlines that never tell the whole story, that never capture the full picture.

As I attended that ceremony on Friday, watching that beam be placed in the final skeleton of our new building, I know that it also signified our commitment to something bigger than myself and my child. I know that we are now a part of our school in our district.

When I started this journey, I was troubled and somewhat ashamed at the ways in which the overarching narrative about public schools could make me question something that I had believed in so strongly for over a decade.  I found myself lost and frightened and questioning my own judgement.  As a teacher and an advocate for public schools, I realize that the ultimate way to counter the narrative is to actively show our commitment.  I can see now how strong the forces are that wish us to believe something different than the truth about our schools.  Whether it be through negative news stories, arbitrary measurements of our students’ abilities, constant “crises” in education, comparing apples to oranges day after day after day, or legislation designed to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, the constant bombardment can become difficult to navigate.

However, as is true for anything that we don’t know or are uncertain about, the best way to find out is to experience it ourselves.  To walk in those doors and see what is really there, not what we are told is there.




Jenny Razor is a High School English teacher in the Omaha Public Schools and has been for the past 14 years.  She was formerly a regular contributor to the MOMaha blog in Omaha, Nebraska, has been published on Sammiches & Psych Meds, as well as The Good Mother Project.  She is a former Nebraska Writing Project board member and believes her best contributions to her teaching, her parenting and her world are on the page.  She is married and has two boys, ages 6 and 2.









This is What Educators Sound Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our students are going to need other tools.

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

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

We too are going to need other tools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little fish

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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