From the Outside: Inside/Outside Strategy and Professional Advocacy

Seth_KahnBy Seth Kahn

This happens at every annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, the professional organization for teachers of college-level writing).

A conversation breaks out during the Q&A at a panel, or in a workshop, or at the yearly Business Meeting (or why not say all three?) that eventually gets snagged on this question:

Why can’t we get the public to understand and support what we do?

It troubles me to hear so many people who study persuasion for a living underthink the public (Hint: “The public” isn’t an actual group of actual people that anyone can address, y’all!) so much, especially given the quantity/quality of scholarship theorizing the concept. And I’m concerned that people who are otherwise very grounded and realistic about the possibilities for institutional and political change put so much faith in finding the magic words that will cure public misunderstanding of our profession.

Not to put too fine a point on it–we’ve said the magic words, thousands of times, to millions of people, in print and in person and on social media. Our best representatives, two of whom (Howard Tinberg and Linda Adler-Kassner) have already published here, have been arguing from our professional knowledge about writing instruction for years. Just telling the truth isn’t working. Understandably that’s a source of much frustration.

As a longtime activist/organizer, I’d like to offer a somewhat different (but not incompatible) idea–that Linda Adler-Kassner points towards in her recent post here, when she argues “building alliances” as a necessary step in developing successful advocacy. She describes a five-point process that can help us change what we all agree is a frustrating–even threatening– professional situation: Identifying Principles; Building Alliances; Framing; Focusing on Issues; and Working with Facts, Evidence, and Data. The Venn Diagram of Adler-Kassner and Kahn overlaps quite a bit. We fully agree that we need to think carefully about how we frame and talk about issues. Bless her for understanding that we can’t convince everyone of anything, and need to reach who we can. We very much agree that reaching out to like-minded people is crucial to any kind of success.

As clearly as I can say it, I don’t see our approaches as mutually exclusive but instead as an example of Inside/Outside Strategy (IOS). For IOS to work, the insiders and outsiders have to coordinate and be willing to accept very different premises, but there’s no reason why that can’t be true here. If we take Adler-Kassner’s proposal as a pretty quintessential Inside project (exemplified by her willingness/ability to take on national leadership positions in professional organizations) and what I’ll describe below as Outside (based on my lack of interest in a formal leader in pretty much any context), it becomes clear how we might line our approaches up–or at least helps to clarify what we need to know so that we can. One clarification is the focus-point of our models: for Adler-Kassner, it’s principles and values–the kinds of concepts without which alliances don’t have grounding to build from.

From the Outside, organizing and mobilizing are the center of the project. At the risk of sounding like I’m just trading metaphors, the heart of what I’m advocating moves away from alliances and towards networks (a la Hardt and Negri’s Empire) as expressions of collective power. Networks are complex and decentered; there’s no identifiable central leadership for opponents to aim for, which makes them much more difficult to squelch. Whereas alliances are expressions of shared interests, at least in my experience those shared interests become boundaries beyond which concerted efforts won’t go. Networks, on the other hand, afford (if not require) negotiations among different/competing interests–not demanding consensus, but demanding responsiveness to and coordination among differences. And, more importantly, locating processes for responding to those demands at the heart of their existence.

A recent and recognizable example of this kind of network is Occupy, which worked so hard to maintain its decentralized and anti-hierarchical structure that its members refused to name leaders, or spokespeople (see “The Kairos of Authorship in Activist Rhetoric,” a chapter I co-authored with Kevin Mahoney in Amy Robillard and Ron Fortune’s Authorship Contested). The encampments governed themselves via daily (and sometimes more frequent) “general assemblies.” At meetings where sufficient amplification wasn’t available, members would “amplify” speakers via the “mic check” (or “Human Microphone”), creating a literally nameless/faceless poly-voice. There were encampments in cities all over the United States in addition to the first at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, with little effort among them to coordinate beyond sharing resources and information. To be sure, these tactics have their problems and their critics. All I want is to envision a network in terms that are simple enough to work with.

The approach I’m describing brings several specific strengths to our advocacy. Most important, it’s more responsive to local conditions and variations than even the most flexible centrally-determined positions. It has to be, since nobody is charged with (or authorized to) establish principles from which everything else flows. More positively, it enables members at specific locations to articulate their own principles and to articulate shared principles in very specific ways. It doesn’t demand unanimity or consensus that centralized efforts do. When it works well, this approach creates a level of trust that people are working in concert, or at least not working directly against the efforts of others.

Here, I need to highlight another concept that feels obvious to me, but isn’t. For networks to function well, everybody in them needs to have clarity of purpose (another term, like audience, that rhetoric scholars seem queasy talking about very precisely). We want to convince “the public” of…what, exactly? And more importantly, towards what end? “Making things better” is awfully vague. “Stopping un(der)informed people from making bad decisions” is better, but not yet precise enough; if it were, we’d have done it.

A concrete example:

If you’re on Facebook or the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l), you probably saw conversations in late April about John Maguire’s blog at the Washington Post (I won’t link to it because I don’t want to send him any more clicks) in which he castigates “writing instructors” for our failure to teach students to write tidily–an old song. Colleagues insisted that “we” have to “do something” about “this,” rehearsed arguments, plotted out strategies for approaching the WaPo editor who posted the blog entry to talk about how we might offer correctives–all worthwhile thinking by great people. But where it kept running aground, and the question I keep asking is about purpose. If professionals agree that his arguments are wrong, what purpose does it serve to demonstrate his incorrectness? More directly–if I concede everything about a post in which somebody proves him wrong, what happens as a result? What do they accomplish by winning?

In the answers to these kinds of questions, the differences between the Inside and Outside approaches come into focus. For Insiders, purposes and audiences wait (if not chronologically, at least conceptually) until we have clear principles and evidence to argue from–in other words, unless we have something to say, the rest of it is kind of a non-starter (for the record, I know I’m oversimplifying this a bit). For me, the message (in substance, that is) emerges from organizing networks; the process of reaching out and orchestrating relationships with others–students, other faculty, managers/administrators, staff and other workers on our campuses, workers and employers in our cities/towns/regions, and so on–determines what we can say.

For example, in October 2016, my faculty union APSCUF (Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) struck for the first time. In the three or four months of  run-up to the actual walk-out, faculty all across our state system seemed concerned that we were “losing the PR battle” in local/regional newspapers. And we were: the Reading Eagle, and the Allentown Morning Call, and the Erie Times-News weren’t very kind to the union’s positions or preparations. The segment of the membership that was so upset about this wanted our PR people to respond to articles much more aggressively, correcting factual errors, disputing talking points issued by our State System’s spokesperson, debating in comment sections on stories, and so on. We didn’t do that. Instead, our leadership realized that the audience we needed was much more specific: our students, their friends, and their families/support systems. We were able to reach that audience directly via social media (that the State System never really touched or understood); students could interact directly with union members and leadership; we were able to organize with the activists among the student bodies on all fourteen of our campuses using technology we all use all the time already anyway. And it worked.

This ethos underlies my approach to pretty much everything, which is why I find it so frustrating when smart and politically astute colleagues struggle to articulate responses to arguments we all know are misinformed. We can’t solve the problems created by misinformed arguments simply by making better arguments because the arguments our best thinkers and spokespeople already make should be good enough–if that were the litmus test. Of course we should develop better arguments, to articulate whatever we can in terms of agreement about what our research offers, to establish agreement about principles that underlie our commitments to writing, language, pedagogy, and labor, to do more and better research. That, as I see it, is what Insiders are always working towards.

What the Outsider cadre brings to the effort might best be explained by Lee Artz in his essay “Speaking Truth to Power: Observations from Experience,” in which he argues that the speak truth to power trope is limited because it assumes a rational world we simply don’t live in. Instead, Artz contends, we have to speak power, and we do that by engaging in acts of solidarity. If you’re wondering how I’d apply that idea to the problem of the Washington Post, you should be. As I asked why people thought responding to Maguire at the Post website was going to accomplish anything, I kept getting responses that didn’t really answer the question–because all the answers kept making the same assumption: if we argue the right things, the truth will win. Never was there any sense that we might speak power. And that we might do this in any number of ways, most of which aren’t at all the kinds of angry-activist-dirty-hippie kinds of solidarity many people associate with being activists. That is, I’m not suggesting we picket the Washington Post office building until Valerie Strauss resigns, or March for Composition (although the signage is fun to imagine).

I am suggesting (as one example) that we use pieces like Maguire’s with which we disagree to catalyze efforts locally to convince colleagues that the ideas are bad–and having access to so many cliche talking points in his text and the comments helps us prepare for those conversations. Or if your local culture is one where pushing his piece out would create a mob of agreement before you could say anything back, then get out in front of it by starting the conversation about style and correctness from another opening point. Or, hope that nobody notices it and keep talking about issues that matter more. Or:


  • Use it in class. Talk with students about it. Listen to what they tell you about how it resonates with (or violates) their expectations for what they’re supposed to be learning. In teacher-prep courses, talk about the expectations it represents, how those are sourced or taken for granted, how they cut against the research and knowledge we’ve done, … all kinds of directions such a conversation could go.
  • Let the piece open–or broaden–conversations about labor issues (you had to see it coming). Under what circumstances would somebody willingly teach a curriculum based on Maguire’s book? From my perspective: lacking knowledge of the field or training in Writing Studies or rhetoric; lacking the job security to contest it; needing to simplify the expectations and demands of a program to make it easier to manage and assess; another list that could go on and on, but all sharing in common that they have nothing to do with what we know about quality writing instruction. Or read Sara Webb-Sunderhaus’ essay on involving adjunct faculty in curriculum reform, and imagine how that narrative might incorporate this text into the work she did with her group.
  • Ask your internship coordinator (or somebody in your Placement Office) to send the piece out to their contacts for feedback/reactions, taking that opportunity to engage in dialogue with employers about their needs, how they articulate those needs, how responsive any curriculum/pedagogy can be to their demands…. Again, lots of places that conversation might go.

I could keep doing this all day (and by the time anybody else reads this probably will have). What I want to highlight about these ideas is that none of them depends on “proving Maguire wrong,” or convincing any individual publication or editor that they shouldn’t have given him the space to publish the piece (or owe us the space to respond). That’s not to say I think those responses are wrong or bad. I just don’t think they’re sufficient on their own.

Seth Kahn is a Professor of English at West Chester University, where he teaches courses in writing and activist rhetoric, and serves his faculty union, APSCUF, as Chair of the local Mobilization Committee. He recently co-edited the collection Contingency, Exploitation, and Solidarity and has also co-edited the collection Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement. He is also currently serving as Co-Chair of the CWPA Labor Committee.

My Dog Still Loves Me

By Galen LeonhardyGalen_Leonhardy

My dog still loves me. You might think that an odd way to start off an essay on the greater glories of being a teacher-scholar-activist. The fact is, there have been days, months, even years… when the only person who really looked forward to seeing me was my dog, Wendell Berry, a black and tan beagle with a big heart. Seriously, challenging status quo ideologies in and out of the classroom has caused students to feel uncomfortable, colleagues to stop talking to me, community members to send hate mail, and administrators to question my sanity while subjecting me to a Kafkaesque kangaroo court.

Where I work, there are folks who hate democracy, detest critical inquiry, demonstrate contempt for research-based teaching strategies. The stakes can get fairly high: in 2015, administrators found me guilty of being a perceived threat and of engaging in a harassing technique of rude and obnoxious behavior directed towards authority… for reasons that could not be revealed. I was then sentenced to reeducation in the form of psychotherapy for an undisclosed behavior pattern to achieve undefined outcomes. I had been questioning administrative violations of state dual credit laws and writing narratives about my Kafkaesque experiences. My union leadership refused to take on the administration. Wendell was the only buddy happy with me… my only source of solace.

Naaa (to use a Nez Perce tonal pattern), that’s not true. My former teachers talked me through the ordeal. Bill, Victor, Dana… they mentored me, consoled me, made me laugh, helped me look at myself, to critique my actions, to believe in myself as they believed in me. Those three pushed me back into the ring to take and give some more. And I did have a few supportive colleagues. And there was my mom who, oxygen tank and all, told me she and her partner, Jodean, would personally travel from Idaho to Illinois to visit those who had found me guilty without meeting the burden of proof and give them all an earful. And there was my online community, the members of the WPA list, who listened, critiqued, encouraged, and invited me to publish, to write, to describe the horrid experiences, to tell the truth. All of these people reminded me why I do the things I do—fairness, justice, equality, liberty, inclusion… Love.

The good news is that, if it were possible for my administrators, my colleagues, the students, and community members to have gotten me fired, they would have. I’m lucky. I’m a tenured, fulltime professor at a public community college. I am what authoritarians fear, a well-protected, albeit small-time or, to be less harsh on myself, community-based public intellectual. Labor laws and some aspects of Constitutional law protect me, allow me to write, to contribute to the civic discourse of my community, to organize, to engage in labor-related, workplace-focused communications. I am an activist.

I am grateful for the reality that I had plenty of support and that I am part of a history of people who have spoken, are speaking, and who will be speaking truth to power. People in human resources and those they represent cannot just fire me for how I teach and what I write because others before me sacrificed much to gain the protections I and other academics enjoy.

Ultimately, it’s worth it. Years, a couple of decades really, of doing my best and the gentle guidance of Serendipity (freak chance happenings) have allowed me to facilitate or take part in actions that brought about changes at the college where I work and in the community where I live, changes that ceased the effects of racism (linguistic prejudice) as perpetuated though the horrendous outcomes of a departmental exit examination, changes that made our administrators recognize the necessity of dual credit laws, changes that include the voters’ removal of a board president who disciplined a colleague for his role as student newspaper advisor, changes to the way minority and non-minority students perceive the benefits of striving intendedly for ethno-linguistic versatility and the subsequent inclusive possibilities such a perspective facilitates.

Striving to maintain scholarly awareness has left my house in a scattering of partially finished editions of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, and JAC. I wake up in the early morning to read The Chronical of Higher Education’s daily briefings.

Unfortunately, the majority of my departmental colleagues do not read and cannot or will not carry on conversations about composition theory, assessment theory, pedagogy, or rhetoric.  There are a number of them who are simply the epitome of academic anti-intellectualism.  The level of ostracization and scapegoating from those folks has been horrid—for example, the chair of the department banging on the walls of my classroom while students sang a traditional Nez Perce Song and then calling the singing “caterwauling.”

There are a few colleagues with whom I share mutual respect. With the help of those collegial collaborators, written research, and experts from the WPA list, I managed to construct classroom-based assessments that showed disparate consequences in our departmental exit examination and a four-year study that helped me figure out that simply making eight-week courses places where students read and write could increase enrollee retention and success for minority students in my basic writing courses to between 87.50 percent in the fall of 2013 to 92.86 percent in the fall of 2016 (last semester), which was up from 53% in the fall of 2012 (the year prior to initiating my study) and above overall developmental success rates at the school, which were 72.53% (fall 2012), 70.48 percent (fall 2013), 63.97 percent (fall 2014), and 64.94 percent (Fall 2015). No, I cannot prove that the students gain increased versatility, but I can prove that the students complete the assignments and complete various revision strategies as a part of every assignment.

That is, my classroom assessments show there is a correlation between increasing levels of student success in my eight-week courses, which were all placed in the first half of a sixteen-week semester, and the pedagogical strategy of using class time for the completion of course assignments. I can’t prove causation, but I can say that the more I keep my mouth shut and facilitate process-oriented, formative assessment strategies, the more likely it is that minority students, specifically, and all students, generally, will engage in process-oriented learning, complete coursework, and then pass my writing courses.

And that brings me to my concluding remarks and to the concept of working with administrators. Not all of my administrators have been fearful authoritarians mired in obfuscation, fabrication, and retaliation—hallmarks of authoritarianism. Goodness knows, there are administrators at my small college who facilitate what teachers are doing. It would be great to spend an entire essay writing about those few administrators. But I am worried about endangering them.

In my context, retaliation is part of the authoritarian paradigm. Because I noted in my brief biography where I teach, this essay will soon be within the authoritarian gaze of upper-level administrators. Our “marketing” department employs web-creeping software. Every time I write an essay, “marketing” soon locates the source.  Not long thereafter, a warning is sent to our administrators. “Marketing” never notifies me that the administration has been warned, nor does “marketing” ever call to congratulate me. Because “marketing” creeps my pages and my publications, the administrators at my college know I’m published before I know I’m published. In some cases, that’s a good thing. (Thank goodness for those administrators who express respect for what I do and work to facilitate my efforts.) In other cases… well… let’s just say, as teacher-scholar-activist, it’s good to know that, at the least, my dog will always love me.

Galen Leonhardy’s work as a critical theorist, composition teacher, and essayist focuses on educational experiences, abuses of academic administrative authority, writing assessment, and on issues of race and class. He has contributed to four co-authored book and two self-authored.  Among others, his work has been published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College Composition and Communication, Truthout, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is currently a professor of English at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois, where he endeavors to contribute as a public intellectual, support the Catholic Worker Movement, and make time to volunteer with the QC Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.  He most enjoys spending time with his daughters, Sarah and Hallie, and with his wife, Lea.



Taking What We Know To Make A Difference

by Linda Adler-Kassner Linda Adler-Kassner

Like many other readers of this blog, I’m a writing teacher. I’m also a writing researcher, a writing program administrator, and (right now) a dean of undergraduate education, a position I think of as “administrator beyond writing.” I’m also the current chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the world’s largest organization of postsecondary writing faculty. (If you’re not a CCCC member, consider joining!)

As the chair of CCCC, I have the privilege of hearing from and working with writing teachers from across the country and around the world. Most of the time, what I hear is remarkable. Incredible curricular innovations, spectacularly creative work by faculty and students, super-human efforts to engage writing and writers in all matter of ways. I’ve heard about writing within, beyond, and around classes; writing in communities; writers producing beautiful, moving, inspiring, insightful work in all matter of ways. Sometimes, too, I hear about the challenges that writing teachers, program directors, writing center folks, and writing students face. These can include (but aren’t limited to) large classes, huge teaching loads, appalling salaries, problematic assessment processes that produce detrimental consequences for students and faculty, inadequate facilities. They can include practices that reflect implicit (or explicit) bias against different kinds of people and/or language practices, pervasive senses of stereotype threat. Because we work with language – and language is closely tied to identity and culture – what we do and the folks with whom we do those things matter.

The question for me, then, is what we can do about all of this. I’ll phrase it differently: How can we take what we know about writers, writing, and writing instruction – and use that knowledge to make a difference? To me, this question is at the core of our work as teacher-scholar-activists. The Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), along with our ‘parent’ organization, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), have spent a lot of time thinking about this question of late, and I want to highlight some of what we’ve done recently for other teacher-scholar-activists. Much of what I’m outlining here is described more fully on a site called Everyday Advocacy, which I highly recommend (and which was developed by my friend and colleague Cathy Fleischer, along with Jenna Fournel, NCTE’s Communications Director).

We know that difference-making needs to proceed strategically. By this, I mean that it needs to happen through a process that involves 5 parts. These were highlighted as part of the Taking Action Workshops at the 2016 CCCC convention, and you can find materials from those workshops here.

Identifying principles

First, we need to identify our principles. This means figuring out what we believe, what are our foundations, and what we know extending from those foundations. I’ve found the work of Marshall Ganz really helpful for this stage of the work. He refers to this as telling our “story of self.”

From this story, we can identify our passions and commitments. My story of self, for instance, has to do with being labeled a “bad student” – low grades, poor test scores – and feeling like a bad student (without the scare quotes) because of those labels. Years later, these experiences were among the reasons I chose to study what I do: How is literacy defined in different places, by whom, and with what values and ideologies attached? How is literacy assessed? What are consequences for learners (people like me, whose literacy practices led us to be labeled “bad”)?

Building alliances

Once we’ve identified our passions and commitments, we need to find out who else is invested in these and build alliances with them. I want to be clear here that this doesn’t mean finding people we agree with instantly. Especially in these tricky and troublesome times, if we seek to build connections only with those who share our views, we’re going to be in trouble. Instead, we need to learn about the interests and values of those who are invested in the same things that we are and try to make connections where we can with those others – without sacrificing our core values and principles, but with a willingness to engage from those to encounter new possibilities we perhaps hadn’t thought about previously. In a talk I gave at the CCCC’s annual convention in March 2017, I referred to a few examples of this kind of alliance building. I also should note that this kind of connecting might not always be possible.

Sometimes, individuals and organizations do have principles and values diametrically opposed to our own. That’s a reality of our times. But sometimes, it’s possible to bridge what we believe to be initial gaps. I know that we’ve all encountered instances like this, but I want to point to one I read about recently: a profile of a (student) leader on my campus , Oscar Uriel Escobar. One of the portions of this profile I most appreciated was the description of how Escobar reached out to the leaders of the College Republicans to engage in reasoned discussion with them. That’s a fantastic illustration of learning about others’ principles and values. (I’ll point out, too, that this profile was written by another UCSB student, Andrew McMaster, as part of his work in the Writing Program’s Writing and Civic Engagement minor.)


When we engage in this kind of story-changing advocacy, we also need to consider the frames that surround the issues that we want to work on – whether they’re the ones at the core of our personal principles, or those that we’re going to approach with allies. The Everyday Advocacy site provides resources to help with this; the Frameworks Institute  (also referenced by Everyday Advocacy) does, as well. Learning to identify frames and how to present what we want, not what we don’t want, is critical for taking action.

Focusing on issues

Another important part of this work is to keep our efforts focused on issues we can address, at the level or location where we can address them. Sure, I would like to be able to change everyone’s perceptions of writing and writers, nationally (or even internationally). But unfortunately, I can’t do that. What I can do, though, is work on this issue on my campus: in the writing program where I work, and in my own classroom. And I can do it in the work that I do every day.

For instance:

  • We can do this in the classroom. When we work with students to study writing – to analyze expectations of “good writing” in different locations and contexts (home lives, community sites, disciplines on campus, and so on), to consider how those definitions are associated with different cultures and identities, and to consider the implications, we’re helping students become agents of their own literacies. This can change their own stances toward literacy practices (like writing and reading) – a change in perception. Note that this doesn’t imply a particular political position (i.e., “liberal” or “conservative,” party affiliation or otherwise). Instead, it just means working with students to become more powerful, articulate advocates for their own literacies through a more robust framework for understanding literacy practices.
  • We can do it in our writing programs. We might decide that we want to take a look at the structure of the writing curriculum – at assignments, placement mechanisms, or other features or our programs. Assessments, for instance, send messages about what writing is. Some multiple choice tests, for instance, are what I think of as exceptionally reductive, sending the message that writing is about using the right “grammar” (i.e., syntax and punctuation). Others, like 2-hour timed writing samples, suggest that writing is something that is to be achieved in a short time, and should take the form of a conventional school-based formula (“compare/contrast”, “argument”, and so on). The scoring guides used for assessments also send messages about what is valued and not. Studying these, possibly changing them, can make a powerful difference about a program’s belief in equitable writing instruction and assessment. (My colleague Asao Inoue has written about this in his book, Antiracist Writing Assessment, which is available as a free download from the WAC Clearinghouse.
  • We can do it in our institutions, too. For instance, Alex Arreguin and his colleagues at Mesa Community College are working with Guided Pathways for Success, a framework that could undermine much of what we believe about learning and literacy instructions, in terrific ways. They’re drawing on threshold concepts of writing studies and The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing to work with colleagues across their institution. (There’s also a new collection on how others have used the Framework as well.)

Working with facts, evidence, and data

Of course, this also requires evidence, data, and facts (and not “alternate facts,” as one representative of the current administration suggested as the basis for some of their actions). When it comes to issues related to writers, writing, writing instruction, and so on, there are a number available. TYCA , CCCC , and NCTE have a number of position statements that address issues associated with working conditions, hiring, effective pedagogy, online instruction, dual-credit dual enrollment and other issues of policy, and more. These statements also include useful recommendations on things like class size, language practices – for instance students’ right to their own language and Ebonics training and research, online writing instruction policies and pedagogies, and more.

The National Census on Writing can also provide comparative data that often is helpful in making arguments about issues related to writing instruction.

Through all of this, when we focus on what we want, not what we don’t want, we can make our voices heard.

Making a difference!

Most important to remember through all of this work, though, is that no matter who we are, no matter what our status or position, we can make a difference. The keys are to work systematically and strategically. When we:

  • Work from our principles
  • Build alliances
  • Frame messages
  • Keep our focus on achievable issues
  • Work from evidence
  • Identify what we want, not what we don’t want

We can make a difference… small steps, but really important ones!

Linda Adler-Kassner is Professor of Writing Studies and co-interim Dean of Undergraduate Education. Her research focuses broadly on how literacy is defined, taught, and assessed by different groups (i.e., faculty, students, community members, employers), and the implications of definitions and actions for learners and learning. Most recently, this focus has led her to investigations of relationships between writing (and other forms of composed knowledge) and knowledge-making in specific sites like classrooms and workplaces. These investigations, in turn, become part of efforts associated with faculty development and literacy policy and advocacy. Adler-Kassner is author, co-author, or co-editor of nine books. The most recent, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (with Elizabeth Wardle), was given the “Outstanding Contribution to the Discipline” award by the Council of Writing Program Administrators in 2016. Other books include Reframing Writing Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning (with Peggy O’Neill) and The Activist WPA, which was awarded the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Best Book Award in 2010. She also has written many articles and book chapters on writing program administration, pedagogy, assessment, and public policy and writing instruction. Adler-Kassner is a past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and currently Associate Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).


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.