Educator-Activism: The Linchpin of a Rewarding Career

By Sarah Thomas

When asked to meet an “Ides of March” deadline, I scarcely could have imagined the foreboding tone–this reference to Julius Caesar’s murder– would be more apt than humorous.

Just a few days before my March 15th deadline, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shut down.  For the semester.

It’s common knowledge Midwestern universities are proud of their resistance to external interference. Blizzards or edification? The experienced bet on the latter.

But close indefinitely, schools did.

And within just a few weeks, our lives radically altered through coronavirus impacts.
While we all are getting our bearings, taking care of individual needs, and finding our way during this wildly disorienting time, there is a kind of symmetry in writing about educator-activism.


Because educator-activists are attuned to disruptions and external interferences—Sarah Thomas 1observe them as a call to reflection and responsible professional action. While Covid-19 is an unprecedented disruption and interference, preparing to resist and overcome antagonistic forces is well-practiced for the educator-activist.

Tracing through nearly thirty years of practice, it’s clear I’ve always been an educator-activist. I’ve learned that to protect democratic education and sustain meaningful learning, we need fighters in our field, and I’m proud to be one.

I’ve served as a professor of practice in Secondary English Education and Foundations for over ten years, and before that, taught for nearly twenty—mostly as a high school English teacher with a short early career stint of middle school teaching. My partner landed his dream job, so we lived a few years in Austin, Texas when George W. Bush was governor and NCLB was piloted.

Through my tenure at Lake Travis Middle School, I now understand that period as catalyst for shaping my educator-activist identity.  Though nearly twenty-five years ago, I still recall my time there in two vivid parts: pre-NCLB and post-NCLB.

Pre-NCLB, my school was known for its creative and experimental ethos, its multi-disciplinary approach to learning, its valuing of student-centered and teacher-designed pedagogy, and its resistance to bureaucratic methods slicing learning into slivers. Students were taught the scientific method, then experimented in constructivist projects now described as “maker-spaces,” learned from visiting artists, created portfolios to exhibit learning process and achievements, and weren’t distracted with the trifles of lifeless worksheets and invasive bells. Austin’s temperate climate allowed us to flow naturally into the center courtyard–the hub for all of our classrooms–for recess or what we now hyperbolize as “nature bathing.” The science teacher brought favorite critters out—the tarantula was king—and my Language Arts colleague often played her acoustic guitar, as she played weekend gigs on 6th Street, the site of nationally-renowned South by Southwest music festival.

So, that was the nostalgic part.

The post-NCLB part, where all Texas schools piloted State Standards, is less vivid than the previous scene.  Pervasive tension instead of dynamic imagery remains most memorable. The atmosphere changed—felt heavier and unfamiliar. Invasive, even dehumanizing. I remember an incremental shift in organizational structures—more meetings, more discussion about “getting on the same page,” more observed relief from less talented teachers desiring control in curriculum clarity and classroom life; more outrage from teachers well-known for their relational, intellectual, and creative gifts.  My much-beloved guitar-playing colleague started looking into graduate school in the fine arts; the magical science teacher retired early; my first mentor, our 8th grade team leader who remains among the most inventive and relationally elegant teachers I’ve witnessed, resigned.

They just couldn’t see promise in our field’s future with such massive, decontextualized intrusions from the state, then federal government, from policy makers unqualified to make sweeping  professional demands.  These well-meaning structures and dictates aiming to leave no child behind felt ironic from the beginning.  Who, indeed—first through disenfranchising excellent teachers–would stand to get ahead, the exiting gifted and relationally talented teachers wondered. What legitimate scholarship or even anecdotal experiences would support standardization as an inspirational and motivating framework for teaching and learning?

And they were right.  Still are right.

I was only in my fourth year of teaching at that point.  I was too young to lose hope.  And like my FDR-revering grandfathers, I could close down a tavern arguing for a more humane world. So, I started preparing for a career of resistance and professional activism.

I went to grad school. For ten years.  I thought I could educate my way toward resolving the problem of our increasingly mandate-loving field which pressures teachers to lead through fear of non-compliance and students to lose investment and heart.

The longer I taught and felt too hemmed in, the more I felt compelled to lead through field-loving resistance.  This orientation led me to critical and relational pedagogy, aesthetic philosophy and constructivism.  I devoured Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and Ernest Morell; couldn’t get enough of Antonia Darder, Parker Palmer, and Nel Noddings; then became saturated with Maxine Greene, John Dewey, and Elliot Eisner.

Conversations with scholars like these turned into a lifestyle.  And a refuge. When national mandates kept slicing teaching and learning into small and fractured slivers, these wise perspectives kept pushing for teaching the whole human, for placing relational and life-enhancing work above test preparation, for honoring my developing expertise and innovative capacities in service of radiant and rewarding education.

What I’ve learned through the sustained tensions defining my career is that educators must fight against playing themselves small in service of bureaucracy above education.

I’ve learned that self-identifying as an educator-activist is supremely important for enjoying the work long term.

And with that satisfaction, I’ve learned that life-touching is made possible when teachers—who have the expertise– stand up and take field-loving risk for the integrity of their profession.

Since a vibrant education led by highly qualified, innovative teachers, not bureaucrats, is the bedrock of a healthy democracy, I remain proud to have committed my life to a field that needs me to be a fighter.  That needs me not to shrink from self-identifying as an educator-activist.

Has the process been easy?  Absolutely not. Like many white mid-to-upper middle-class women raised to be a people pleasers and conflict avoiders, I’ve had my share of sleepless nights, major disappointments, and conflicts. As a recovering people pleaser and conflict avoider, I also now realize those hardships were not as hard or risky as they seemed at the time.  Still, identifying as an educator-activist can feel “maverick” and lonely to the point where I’ve considered changing careers.

But as Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Anything that’s worth having is worth fighting for.”

While fighting for the integrity of educational excellence and against the de-professionalizing of teachers represents the lion’s share of my educator-activism, another fight needs laser-beam and unrelenting attention.

As educator-activists, we lead most honorably and effectively when students, their families, and our communities observe us fighting for wellness and justice in multi-marginalized communities.  While classroom life is enveloping, I’m now acutely aware educators must be value-adding and advocating community agents. All those years of advocating for teacher agency and curricular integrity was well worth it; and yet, if I had it to do over again, I would more fierce-lovingly advocate for students’ well-being and thriving beyond the classroom.

My shift in educator-activism now addresses community-impacting issues, our families, and ultimately, our classrooms.  My professional context has widened.  And like the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tide, I am seeing the more I reach out in support of my larger community, the more healthy reverberation spills into the classroom.

A watershed moment amplified this growing part of my educator-activist identity in February of 2019. Alarmed by dehumanizing rhetoric and threatening policy targeting immigrant students and families across the nation—which reached an unthinkable fever pitch through “Zero Tolerance” policy producing thousands of family separations–I felt gutted.  I couldn’t look away from this human rights atrocity and remain only or even primarily focused on my campus responsibilities. So much more was demanded from us. Our students, their loved ones, were being traumatized across the nation. I felt immense shame and ethical conflict when focusing on unrelated aspects of my work.  Given how normalized dehumanizing rhetoric and practices from our President had become and how unchecked, I knew his abuses of power would continue with impunity.

I felt nauseous.  I couldn’t sleep. I felt guilty as a bystander.

Previously, a Lincoln High School Social Studies educator and I were working in close collaboration through the Husker Writing Project featuring university professors working alongside secondary educators.  The experience was reminiscent of my Lake Travis days. Over the course of two years, these university—high school partnerships yielded innovative curriculum positioning students as writers for authentic community audiences.  When opportunity arose to join a national Teach-In coordinated by Teachers Against Child Detention, the experience felt like a natural outgrowth of that civic-engaged work.

The event was orchestrated by the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, and involved Teachers of the Year across all fifty states. The Teach-In ended in a march to the Juarez/El Paso border alongside Mexican educators, where we formed a circle of solidarity at the border I will never forget.

It was at that point I made a commitment to return and amplify my community engagement and activism in Lincoln, Nebraska.

On the plane, I wrote an editorial about the Teachers Against Child Detention Stand In for our local paper. That publication inspired a TEDx Talk eventually shared at the Lied Center for Performing Arts with a handful of speakers from wide-ranging fields addressing disruptions.

While writing my TED Talk, famous cellist, Yo Yo Ma’s, image surfaced and brought with it a reminder of my commitment as community educator-activist.  Cello against concrete with no accompanying orchestra, he played his instrument at the southern border.  In fact, he rearranged his concert series to take place at southern border spaces that year—to hold space in the music of hard questions and moral courage.

Yo Yo Ma offering his passionate instrumental voice at the border became an apt metaphor for the community educator-activist.

After TEDx, I inquired through social media if others were interested in building coalition with area churches for weekly “Stand Ins” supporting immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.  The idea was to remind our community on Sunday mornings that injustices persisted against those fleeing desperate circumstances in Central America and Mexico, and affirm community values of love, inclusion, diversity, and compassion.  Signage would be positive, attempting to counter the race-baiting and fear-mongering stoked at our highest levels of government. Offering responsive positive messaging felt urgent, as upticks in documented bullying, racism, and hate crimes in schools and communities pervaded nation-wide.

Nearly one year and over sixty weekly Stand-Ins later, the initial vision featuring immigration advocacy and justice grew into more formalized structures: three mutually reinforcing grassroots human rights organizations under the Stand in for Nebraska canopy:  Stand in for Lincoln, Stand in for Omaha, and the Nebraska Poor People’s Campaign.  Leadership across these organizations reflects horizontal structures—Community Organizing Circles (COCs)–comprised of diverse, multi-generational members leading different organizational facets.

The binding tie centralizes advocacy for Nebraskans on the margins. Challenging oppressive realities (systemic oppressions) impacting Nebraskans through persistent advocacy, education, voter registration and turn-out support, and policy demands to empower the most vulnerable are central modes across the three organizations.

Fierce and unyielding love is our driving force advancing demands for justice, for wellness, for Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of the “beloved community.” Fierce love, we believe, is the most hearty, sustainable and transformational human force.

Fierce love also drives realization of Bryan Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world by:

1, Challenging and changing toxic narratives: Stand in for Nebraska members repeatedly ask, ‘What stories are being told about groups of people that diminish and disempower—that warrant refutation, a community counter-narrative?’ For educators, ‘How will we use our positions as educator-activists in and out of school to help advance a healthy counter-narrative and robustly advocate for impacted students? Stand in for Nebraska uses these questions as a compass for planning value-adding community actions. In effect, educators may become more trusted change agents working in coalition-building roles. These are the role models our students desire to see—ones who will stand up and stand in for all students’ well-being and thriving.

2. Getting inconvenienced: To change toxic narratives and develop empowering infrastructures naturally requires presence: showing up over….and over….and over.  Getting inconvenienced. It’s important to interrogate how we spend time in and beyond our school communities. Does our lifestyle reflect multicultural community engagements and meaningful relationships? Pushing beyond inclinations to gravitate to and enclose ourselves in familiarities is essential to build educator-activist self-identification.

As we interrogate our lifestyles and priorities, the next inconveniencing question is how much time are spent actively working to disrupt systems of oppression?  Reading Ibram Kendi’s book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, is implicative in this way. Becoming an educator-activist requires identifying systems and cultural norms favoring one group and hindering others through community engagement and activism.  The educator-activist is one who notices and names patterns in school and community contexts reinforcing inequities. Such professionals don’t merely identify them but then actively work to change them.  For instance, he/she may notice more black and brown males are taking on-level or remedial reading courses. Why is that true? And rather than blaming the student or observing the pattern as inevitable, the educator-activist gets curious, creative, and collaborative—sees the inequity as opportunity for disruption and innovation.  A project is born…

While that disruptive work may feel daunting within layered professional commitments, such an emphasis need not become a second job.

In a developing educator-activist’s personal life, re-routing a family routine to involve an evening at the Yazidi Community Center, when invited can feel inconveniencing and uncomfortable; and yet, the growth likely will be significant. Participating in a fundraiser for RAICES, an organization offering legal representation for immigrants seeking asylum instead of going to the movies may inspire more hope and community connection.  Supporting a First Friday community art exhibit featuring diverse up-and-coming artists will inspire new ways of looking at the world and potentially more expansive curriculum ideas for the classroom.  Participating in a State Capitol demonstration supporting the MMIW Movement (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) and defending indigenous rights offering an education and perspective that may change your life. Such experiences certainly changed mine. Instead of grading papers one Saturday afternoon, my partner and I decided to attend an MMIW demonstration at the State Capitol to learn and show or solidarity. Months later, I now am working on a partially funded project in which leaders of this movement are developing curriculum for community education to empower Native women and girls. My role now is to use my writing and networking skills to secure more funding for a five-year vision. The vision involves building a community center for Native women fleeing domestic violence and starting a new protected and empowered life. The center also will offer employment opportunities securing socioeconomic mobility for Native women.

So, the above are examples of small lifestyle shifts an educator-activist seeks to make.  One never knows, then, how such small shifts can afford substantial solidarity-building and innovations serving multi-marginalized communities.  By extension, then, students observe classroom role models who “walk the talk”—who are fighting for a better world in and out of the classroom.

Branching out from our routines and “getting inconvenienced” is never easy but most always rewarding if we aspire to be strong advocates for all of our students and their families.

3. Getting proximate: By disrupting our routines and extending the scope of our community experiences and connections, we get close—proximate—to issues and people with whom we may partner to build connection, understanding, effect change, and disrupt systemic oppressions. Getting proximate in multi-marginalized communities requires much humble persistence involving listening, inquiry, and learning above all. Such efforts often feel uncomfortable for awhile, as one’s otherness is evident and blind spots are exposed.  Embracing the discomforts and working on genuine trust-building gifts us with invaluable perspectives, stories, insights, and relationships.  Diversification of experience enriches our scope of understanding and worldviews and affords priceless competencies—especially empathy– through our development as respected and trusted instructional leaders.  Getting proximate builds community networking and infrastructures that, over time, yields possibility and hope in and beyond our school communities.  Healthy leaders have, among other things, the capacity to empathize. Getting proximate is an indispensable move in an educator-activist’s development.

4. Staying hopeful. Reaching in—doing the necessary introspection and personal work to understand one’s culture and others—while reaching out–prioritizing community networking with others over time–are rejuvenating and hope-affirming lifestyle patterns.  Primarily identifying as academic leaders, over time, is draining, isolating, and imbalancing.  Extending our scope of connection and value-adding influence feeds educator-activists in ways that nurture heart and mind leadership and impact.  As my father would say, such energies expended “fill our buckets” as we work to create a better world and, in doing so,  carve 0ut a fulfilling long-term career.

Through my career arc, I’m convinced embracing Stevenson’s four pillars to change the world—in and beyond our classrooms—helps educators develop self-identification as activists, as morally courageous fighters who can better leverage their advocacy resources and influences.  I implore more celebration of the good fighter in all of us, as student, community, and democratic education’s integrity depends upon it.  Lisa Delpit’s  recently published anthology, Teaching When the World is on Fire, opens with this poignant observation—an urgent call for educator-activists to rise. “Too many schools, day in and day out, are organized to smash creativity and courage, initiative and ingenuity.  This is the brutal masquerade called school offered to the descendants of formerly enslaved human beings, First Nation peoples, and immigrants from colonized communities.” (4) For it is when we fiercely love the whole child in and beyond our classrooms and fierce-lovingly resolve to build coalition in support of all students and their families, that American culture will better realize a more complete advocacy and national impact.

Sarah Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Practice in Secondary English Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she teaches pre and in-service teachers. As a teacher educator, Dr. Thomas’s passions feature innovative curriculum design, mentoring new teachers in the field, and examining how democratic and international contexts inform 21st-century education.  Exploring new cultures with family, students, and solo is a great passion.  Most recently she enjoyed co-leading study abroad experiences in comparative education with UNL students in Costa Rica and South Africa and enjoyed a professional writing workshop in Prague, Czech Republic. During this sheltering in place period, she misses her adult children, Samantha and Jack, spends a lot of time hugging on her golden doodles, taking long walks with her partner, Jay, and finding ways to creatively advance Stand in for Nebraska activism. Protecting incarcerated populations is our major focus during the pandemic.



The Unprecedented: Teaching in an Age of Crisis and Mutation

by Brett Griffiths

I am impressed by you. Yes, you, all of you, all of us. In the middle of March, 2020, schools and colleges around the country began to close down as the Coronavirus s200_brett.griffithspandemic swept across the nation and emphatically nudged teachers and students online. Within hours—maybe a day?—a Pandemic Pedagogy group opened on Facebook. There, I watched as teachers-scholar-activists invited suggestions and shared resources, tested out philosophies for learning transfer in digital spaces, and emphatically encouraged one another to seek balance: balance their students’ learning outcomes with their emotional needs during a once-in-a-century global crisis, balance their own needs as humans with their responsibilities as teachers, balance the needs to shore up the appearance of safety through routine with the need to acknowledge catastrophe across our social, political, and wellness spheres.

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff writes, “The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented” (p. 12). Presenting examples from early industrialism (“the horseless carriage”), colonialism (the greeting of the first colonists as gods from across the water), and the domestic (collecting photographs as a fire rages through the structures of the home), Zuboff makes the case that our responses to the unprecedented are nearly always responses to a more familiar echo of the current situation rather than the situation as it is. “This is how,” she continues, “the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past.”

The current disruption in our education system differs in kind—and end, I hope—from the disruptions identified by Zuboff. However, her use of “the unprecedented” as a lens for observing our responses in the midst of the unknown and unknowable may be generative for thinking about how we—two-year college instructors, student support specialists, writing centers and tutors—respond to our current crisis. It may be a particularly productive lens for analyzing the teaching we do in two-year colleges because unprecedented affords an opportunity to slow our movement and observe our thinking—at least after the first chaotic sweep it made of business as usual. Having been required to “reform” on demand and “scale up quickly,” such a slowing down may be overdue. This moment invites us to observe the assumptions we made just prior to the unprecedented and to appreciate—and direct—the mutations in structure that follow. Indeed, we are creating them even now.

It is my argument that we have been pitching ourselves into the unprecedented for decades, that the current pandemic only makes the many failures of our adaptations to successive, exponential expansion and access in higher education visible. My argument calls us to name the short-term adaptations teachers, institutions, and administrators have made to “keep up” with the unprecedented, always through a lens of crisis and short-term outcomes. My call is to rethink the praxis and theories of our teaching and to identify the internal changes necessary in higher education successfully reach and enable all learners to succeed.Guardian Image


Mutations vs. Adaptations

Zuboff draws on Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of the “mutation”—“enduring, sustainable, qualitative shifts in the logic, understanding, and practice of capitalist accumulation” from “random, temporary, or opportunistic reactions to circumstances.” Schupeter’s original use of the term “industrial mutation” referred to the ways many industries had “revolutionized [their] economic structure[s] from within” (83, Kindle Loc 1712). There, Schupeter described revolutionizing industrial practices during the eras of early and post-industrialism through 1950, paying specific attention paid to U. S. Steel.[1] Schupeter’s critical frame is useful precisely because it highlights the behavioral responses of workers within a system restructuring the industry from within to shift the logic, understanding, and practices of their work. That restructuring intended to create more sustainable, resilient outcomes aligned with and in keeping with professional practices and excellence.

For educators, the framework of mutation may prove useful for identifying and establishing practices that shift our logic, understanding, and practices in response to the unprecedented expansion of higher education in the last half century. To reflect on our practices through this framework, we must distinguish between “adaptations” and “mutations”[2]. Adaptations in this framework are short-term, unsustainable responses. We might think of adaptations as bandages and tourniquets applied during crisis and mutations the medical interventions and preventative care necessary to sustain quality and longevity of life. In the end, chronic and severe medical complications will emerge, no matter how many emergent and first-aid interventions we implement for short-term management of their complications.

We can find no shortage of adaptations in higher education during the proliferation of college-for-all, including automatic registration systems, learning management systems, expansive adjunct hiring, expanded teaching overloads, deprofessionalization of faculty, placement testing, developmental course work, etc. We have lagged, nevertheless, in our development of mutations—sustained structural changes in our logic, understanding, and practices around higher education. In other words, we have developed many bandages aimed at sustaining the internal, physical, and intellectual lives of our students, of perpetuating a wounded and fundamentally obsolete system, and they cannot hold. Gaps exist, however, between these measures and the changes needed to sustainably and ethically support college-for-all in this country. There are myriad examples of such gaps.

One is highlighted in our current crisis: As colleges shifted to all-online learning with the frenzy that characterizes a crisis response, we ran into multiple barriers that made that herculean task even greater. Not only did many of our students lack access to computers and internet in their homes, so too did many of our faculty. More, we recognized that our educational institutions served expansive community missions beyond learning, including as distribution services for food through K-12 lunch programs and college food pantries and as public sites for information for the many citizens who access their newspapers, internet, and community news through our libraries, computer labs, and coffee shops. Access to the Internet and the knowledge and means to use it is a prerequisite for participation in nearly all civic and intellectual activities in this country. Our culture distributes the knowledge necessary to participate in society predominantly through digital means, including internet and HD-integrated cable news. Yet many of our college students, adjunct faculty, and teachers lack access to these very resources we have identified as “core” and “foundational” to civic life. The economic infrastructure of this country have left them digitally disenfranchised from all civic life.

In our current situation, teachers are again scrambling to attend to the most urgent of student needs while providing the best sense of normalcy they can for their students and for themselves. We see this playing in the synchronous/asynchronous online teaching wars right now. Whereas many instructors argue that synchronous, video-streaming is the best way to keep students feeling connected and to reinforce a sort of normal routine—arguments that certainly speak to the needs of many students—others caution that the lives of our most vulnerable students have changed in ways that are qualitatively different. They are caregivers at home. They may be working overtime as grocery delivery drivers, cashiers, healthcare aids, and other “essential” positions, especially as other family members may have lost their jobs in the crisis. These immediate concerns fail to even begin to register the additional risks to students who may face additional risks when required to attend their courses via video.

As we watched the city of New York make decisions about closure of their schools, we were neither surprised nor appalled by the knowledge that the districts were weighing the cost-benefit analysis of food access to virus spread.  It was a lives to lives cost benefit analysis they were conduction.  When the decision to close a school to save lives puts an entire district of families into a “trolley dilemma,” the structures that uphold that educational system can only be described as insufficient and obsolete. They are made so by the insufficient and obsolete structures of the society that shapes them. Of course, while New York City took center stage in the media as it made its decision, its dilemma was not singular. The same evaluation played out in the offices and conference calls of superintendents, principals, and teachers, of college provosts, faculty, and college presidents in rural, suburban, and urban settings. We have developed a school system that has scaffolded upon it the nutritional, moral, and civic responsibilities of a 21st century Frankenstein. Charged with a spectrum of missions and outcomes and perishing structural supports and resources, education—and educators—are doomed to chase our tails into eternity. That teachers every day in K-16 seek to fulfill these missions is inspiring; that such heroic machinations are necessary is a source of shame for our country. Shelley’s monster, we remember, had a creator.

A third example of the way higher education has sought to reify the familiar in the face of the unprecedented can be seen through analysis of the genesis of our Unprecedented—the expansion of access to higher education in the throes of uneven opportunity and racial constriction following incomplete and inequitable racial integration in the schools. The hangovers of racial mistrust and class privilege in higher education has resulted in a multi-tier hierarchical system of higher education. The elite and middle-class tiers remain steeped in the “familiar” structures of the early modern university. They adhere to academic structures that ritualize privilege and rely on the availability of one or more members of a family unit to devote four years of his or her (historically his) time to learning. It assumes the family can absorb or defer those costs. The lower tiers provide access to instruction, first through land-grant institutions and then through public, open-access two-year colleges. The successive waves of access have responded to industrialism and integration, with each social epoch of progress resulting in an additional tier of “access.” Institutions that offer “access” remain most prolifically defined by what they are “not”—they are “not” like the elite, residential colleges that perpetuate “the familiar.” Within these tiers, the access missions of two-year colleges remain unprecedented—impossible to understand and sustain except through the lens of the familiar—the traditional college, a framework that perpetually casts the historically unprecedented expansion of instruction in terms of its distinction from the familiar, and a failure to develop sustained mutations to make such instruction equitable, sustainable, and—yes, understandable through its’ own lens.

During this time of disruption, the unprecedented requires that we observe ourselves through a Schroedinger lens—to see ourselves as both adapting and failing to adapt to the circumstances. The full contexts and experiences of our students are fundamentally out of view, because it has been designed this way, because Americans have wanted it this way, because it is easier to declare hard-working winners and lazy losers when we do not have to see our students and workers scraping by.  We have to be willing to name the behaviors we identify.  Instructors who aim to recapture “class time” they view as “time lost” through a cascade of additional, supplemental work, those who require synchronous class meetings despite the known technological and personal barriers experienced by their students can ONLY be seen as clenching tightly to the reigns of this new “horseless carriage,” doing their best to keep at bay the unprecedented through the framework of the familiar. But everything has changed. Everything has been changing for decades. We must stop restructuring the shape of our wake to resemble a path we are no longer traveling. In the words of Chris Riddell, editorial cartoonist at the Guardian: “What must change after all this is over? Everything.”

Everything Must Change

A sustainable restructuring of higher education requires a restructuring of American life, K-12 education, our food distribution system and our assessment of winning and losing within the capitalist paradigm. Expanded access to college—and the subsequent implicit expectation for college-for-all—should have resulted in an equitable distribution of students across socio-economic backgrounds and geographies, but that is not the case, and our academic journals are replete with reasons why. Yet,  college educators, administrators, and education policy-makers have layered additional adaptations within the system, expanding and then contracting developmental course work, revising placement procedures, accelerating and stretching curriculum content over time—all the while recognizing that all of these reformations fail to change the one thing that must change: how we structure our K-16 education system to prepare and support all learners to participate capably in a college-for-all culture. We keep adding tools, options, bridges, and scaffolds to make a fundamentally unsustainable system hobble further forward. We have failed, nevertheless, to examine what needs to fundamentally change—what educators need from one another and how they can work with one another to redesign system in which we work to make “enduring, sustained, qualitative” shifts in our systems. Such an examination would put kindergarten teachers and college instructors in the same room to discuss learning trajectories for all students. Such an examination would examine the potentials and protocols for randomly assigning school enrollment and sustainably funding school districts—yes, revised bussing and equitable distributions of tax funds. Such an examination would begin and end with individual learning and cultural contexts and would have the luxury of asking first what concepts are essential to 21st century living and now, how can we keep our students alive, fed, and “on track” for another day.

If we have been living within the unprecedented for decades, then how do we make the invisible visible to ourselves? Once visible, how do restructure from within against a dominant, deprofessionalizing narrative that seeks to undermine those very efforts (e.g., the educational industrial complex). Even as I am writing this, I am mindful that I cannot *see* the very changes I want us to consider. But certainly, we can agree that any educational system must be found insufficient and obsolete when both students AND faculty lack the basic technology and tools necessary to participate in the dominant definitions of civic life. We can agree that we cannot first assess schools on their students’ learning outcomes when they must prioritize keeping students alive, fed, and attending above the elite and esoteric goals of gaining and critiquing knowledge, of applying knowledge to new situations, of synthesizing what they’ve learned into their expanding goals of what it means to be human, capable, and contributing. And a country and culture endorses such insufficient structures—or worse, denies or reduces funds from schools who must divert their energies to provide the essentials of human living prior to intellectual engagement—is not merely naïve but criminally negligent in its assessments. A country that creates an expansive system of open-access colleges and promotes them as an avenue of democracy and social advancement while shackling the possibilities of its teachers and administrators with insufficient funds, too, stands similarly accused.

To rethink the unprecedented is to ask, if had understood what was happening in that moment as I understand it now, what would I now know was necessary? We can easily look back on the invention of the automobile and identify it as something different from a stagecoach. We have accepted its horselessness into our schema of vehicles. In fact, for most of us, the sight of a horse and carriage is a novelty. Like creating reigns for a horseless carriage, our adaptations have responded to the familiar—added modifications that in essence strain to reaffirm the familiar—to remake and reify the elite university model by offering layered adaptations that, rational and well-intended, establish all other modes of higher education as “other” and fail to address the one crucial truth: higher education for all is unprecedented. It is now, and it was in the 1960s when the open college movement began. In the decades that followed, we have expanded and contracted in our commitment to its promise. We have lauded its goals and criticized its outcomes. In all of these moves, however, we have overlooked the one quintessential quality necessary to acknowledging and advancing its promise: it is unprecedented. It cannot be known until it exists, and all efforts to structure its form in the shape of the familiar will, nearly by definition, fail.

If we imagine a future in which education is perfected—one in which we are not identifying the limitations of what we have nor attaching bandages to what ails the current system, what keeps two-year colleges from looking and operating like universities, we can perhaps open new ways of thinking. What do we need for a college-for-all culture to succeed? What does that look like? What would need to change in our culture and in our colleges to make learning neither “other” nor “familiar” but to offer it precedence, the beginning of the new normal? What must we see to unsee our own famiilars and to radically reinvent our teaching and learning to accommodate those ideals? We need to revolutionize from the inside. The concept of the unprecedented and the lens of mutations offers a heuristic for articulating those structural changes, and it is quite possible that in our conversations in Facebook groups and in our Zoom classrooms, those shapes of those changes are beginning to emerge. I, for one, hope so.

[1]  I acknowledge that deleterious effects have nearly always resulted when applying economic theory to educational outcomes. Those deleterious effects stem from applying a supply and demand notion of capitalist gains, wherein “learning outcomes” stand in for “goods and services,” and teachers are substituted for the machines that make such products possible.

[2] Apologies to scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, who I believe would transpose these definitions.

Brett Griffiths directs the Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, where she serves as a teacher-scholar-activist for trauma-informed, anti-racist writing pedagogy. She also teaches workshops on scientific writing for the Big Data Summer Institute at the University of Michigan. Her work primarily examines how faculty identities are developed and sustained in two-year colleges, as well as through interinstitutional collaborations. Her academic work appears in PedagogyTeaching English in the Two-Year College, and College Composition and Communication, and in several anthologies on writing instruction. Her Creative work has appeared in Ohio State’s The JournalPoemMemoirStory, and elsewhere.

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 3

This month’s post, the third in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Michael Trice  (MIT). In his post, Michael implores us to move away from online targeting as a form of activism related to the elections, and he discusses the relationships among identity, online presence, social media activism, and local activism. In doing so, Michael argues for activism to focus on outcomes.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Online Targeting for Activism

Michael Trice

By Michael Trice

Social media is always also personal media.

We make an account. Assign it an identity or pseudo-identity. Generate content. Yet, the content is never far from the identity. When my content is retweeted, I’m retweeted. When I receive a like on Facebook, my picture is right by the post. Personal identity (real or anonymous) exists in the structural foundation of social media. This personal foundation is what makes online targeting so effective. Retweeting a bad take is tied to the person expressing that take. That person’s account becomes the focus of the replies and attention, not the content of the post. Moreover, nothing spreads a message on social media like engaging a popular account—or being called out by a popular account. The importance of celebrity in spreading messages online is why so many accounts rush to be the first critical or supportive reply to every tweet from President Trump. Successfully targeting the President is rich with reward for both successful praise and successful attacks.

But the President isn’t just a target on social media; he excels in political targeting himself. In fact, the ability of the politically powerful to effectively use social media targeting as means of oppression has replaced a lot of optimism around social media activism (Tufekci, 2017).

Online targeting by politicians and their supporters has become a central theme in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The President’s regular targeting of political foes has already ratcheted up to include not only members of Congress and Democratic primary candidates, but even going so far as to openly accuse the foreperson in a trial against of one his oldest political allies of bias. And while the Democratic candidates have not descended to the President’s level, we have seen the supporters of multiple Democratic contenders rely on online targeting. By way of example, supporters of both Yang and Sanders managed to trend #FireChuckTodd over completely different episodes of Meet the Press in the past three months. While neither activity was openly sanctioned by either candidate, existing networks of supporters on Twitter and in subreddits spread and championed both hashtags, including support for media personalities sympathetic to the candidates. And these are far from the only examples of online targeting that supporters of various candidates have used online. Surrogates and supporters of candidates have learned that what DeVoss and Ridolfo (2009) call rhetorical velocity (or the fastest way the re appropriate content to new a space) means targeting individuals and identities in order to spread support online.

Part of what separates the GOP and Democratic candidates for president is that no Democratic campaign has made the President’s direct-style targeting and aggression a hallmark of their official campaigns—a wall continues to exist between the campaigns and the online supporters and friendly pundits (such as Chapo Trap House) who engage in online targeting. That said, supporters of the Democratic candidates have engaged in significant targeting online to serve indirectly the needs of the campaign. For example, the online targeting of Chuck Todd by Yang supporters served as a means to raise donations and protest exclusion from news coverage. Sanders supporters targeted Todd for an on-air quote of pundit Jonathan V. Last, who had referred to a segment of Sanders supporters as Brown Shirts in an article for The Bulwark. What is notable here is that online targeting of a person, Chuck Todd, stood in for either fundraising or protesting the quote of another, far less well-known, author. In the realm of social media, #FireChuckTodd is a complicated signifier for outcomes that rely on the attention drawn by a specific celebrity target.

Yet, the use of targeting for simple in-group versus out-group dynamics with no other strategic outcome is social media activism at its most dangerous—and it’s a method that easily fits the technical design of social media. The application of targeting in social media is inseparable from its form and function at a technical and social level. You like an account’s post or retweet an account—never just a piece of content. You reply to an account. Social media networks center around celebrity and microcelebrity. Thus, out-grouping Chuck Todd easily becomes a fundraiser for Yang supporters or serves as a way to protest the Brown Shirt label of a far less famous conservative writer for Sanders supporters.

The question then becomes not whether we target, but how we target, when we target, and why we target. Civility isn’t what matters so much as accountability. Activism calls for incivility at times, but incivility with purpose, ideally higher purpose. Yet social media, personal media, requires targeting but asks little of us in understanding how or why we target.

Further, it rarely asks us to be held accountable as we can act anonymously, as part of a much larger network, and as we opt not to make the vital move to public, physical protest. In many ways, we remain as uncritical about our targeting as the first social media mob in 2008.

At the South by Southwest (SXSW) tech conference in 2008, journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Mark Zuckerberg. The interview had all the characteristics one might expect from a SXSW keynote interview: casual, non-threatening, bordering on interesting but well short of insightful. What was insightful was a rare opportunity to see the infamously private Zuckerberg handled live questions in public. It also provided our first good look at what social media activism would become due to a fledgling app barely in its second year of availability: Twitter.

Personal from the Start

Back in 2007, Twitter made its name at SXSW. By 2008, it was already a backchannel darling of the conference. Attendees could discuss panels live without disrupting the presenters. It would be a user experience Twitter would build upon to make it a go-to app for conferences, live events on television, and key cultural moments. But even in year one of Twitter, something far less benign lurked within the backchannel. And, it proved from the start that what happens on Twitter manifests offline as well.

Something during the interview between Lacy and Zuckerberg went wrong for the crowd. Emboldened by a chorus of tweets about how Lacy was talking too much, flirting too much, and asking the wrong questions, the crowd grew restless—and noisy. People heckled and tried to interrupt the session. The heckling drew cheers and applause from a crowd that had formed a firmed consensus on Twitter that Lacy was the problem, much to the confusion and frustration of those on stage who had never experienced anything like this type of audience revolt before.

It went personal. A crowd had formed a strong anti-establishment view and targeted the female journalist as the source of their consternation. This personal targeting, and the targeting of the media and women in particular, would come to define Twitter. In that first major moment for the app—before hashtags, RTs, faves, and moments were even functions—Twitter had defined its purpose and key genre: not the conversational backchannel, but personal targeting as means of organized dissent and activism.

Again, this post isn’t about civility. Civility as a rhetorical device has a time and place, as does incivility. No, the point I wish to make is that the social application of networked activism goes hand in hand with technical constraints and functionality. Constraints and functionality that activism must more critically engage with and understand. We need more precision in how we enact civility and incivility online, and we need to question to what extent social media is enacting us. Are we simply that SXSW crowd experiencing something new while lashing out uncritically at the more vulnerable target in front of us? Or, do we look at the technology and social systems in front of us before we choose a target and a course of action?

To this day, Twitter runs on personal celebrity. When Zeynup Tufekci (2013) initially articulated the power of Twitter as a form of activism in The Arab Spring, she noted the role of microcelebrity. For Tufekci, social media activism required attention that was reliant upon interconnected pathways to share organizational and operational knowledge. However, those pathways needed semi-centralized shared hubs to maximize organizational knowledge flow. Tufekci called the larger intersections that would emerge microcelebrities. Like bullhorns in a crowded protest, these microcelebrities could help communicate the key points and keep the protest network focused, energized, and directed. Since Tufekci, others have noted how microcelebrity and targeting works across social media, including YouTube (Lewis, 2020) and GitHub (Trice, 2015). But back in 2013, microcelebrity would shape the application of martyrdom and accountability with the birth of Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter movement serves perhaps as the most notable American incarnation of the social media driven protest movements that began with Occupy Wall Street and included various versions of The Arab Spring. Formed after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin that would precede the controversial killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter became a global movement that is perhaps remembered more for its power to occupy the real, physical public squares of major cities where direct political action was needed rather than its ability to trend on Twitter. In fact, the formation of chapters across the United States and Canada as well as a clear articulation of values and mission makes BLM less resemble a modern social media collective and more a traditional 20th century model of an organization of local communities that utilizes social media as one of many communication channels. Its social media beginnings notwithstanding, BLM’s public demonstrations, municipal organization, and clearly stated values are a clear lesson for what responsible and accountable social media activism can be. It serves as a strong counterpoint to some of the movements that would follow in 2014 and beyond.

2014 and the Ascendance of Organized Targeting

While I often start discussions of organized online targeting with GamerGate in 2014, that year also offers an intriguing counterexample of targeting: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As a quick reminder, in July 2014 the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral sensation that would raise more than $115,000,000 for Lou Gehrig’s disease research/awareness between July and August of that year. Started by Pete Frates, the challenge rose to popularity on the Today Show, but its impact would arise from 17 million people who participated online. Those participants would drive 2.5 million donations in the United States. The scale of impact and its mechanism matter. The Ice Bucket Challenge had clear rules: a person videos themselves being dunked over the head with a bucket of icy water. After the dunking, the person calls out additional people to perform the challenge next.

The challenge was social media gold for a variety of reasons. First, it employed a dual targeting mechanism. The person dunked on became central target, offering a bit of comedy and suffering in the video for viewers. Secondly, the callouts offered another round of targeting. Who would rise to the challenge or face (good-natured) public shame? The celebrity angle also played a huge role—and taught a vital lesson about online virality. While Tufecki had noted that activist networks created microcelebrities as a means to circulate information across larger networks, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proved that traditional celebrity presence on social media could exponentially amplify messaging and activism beyond that of microcelebrities. The $115m in donations speaks for itself in many ways, and had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge been the social media story of 2014, our view of targeting and activism would be quite different than it has become.

Yet, in August 2014 as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was winding down, GamerGate was ramping up, emerging quickly and using the same core mechanics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in drastically different ways and to far more perverse ends. The story of GamerGate has been told many times. For quick reference, a group of 4chan users propagated salacious rumors about an independent game developer across Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter as a means to attack feminism, the media, and cultural criticism. They did so by targeting very specific women with tactics that promoted anonymous harassment from online networks formed into mobs. The importance of celebrity and targeting to the success of GamerGate cannot be understated. GamerGate was simply another minor online tussle until actor Adam Baldwin tweeted about a YouTube video he had watched, dubbing the “controversy” discussed as GamerGate. Breitbart and other fringe media would soon pick up the story, launching investigations into the targets of GamerGate. Extremists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich would make names for themselves via the investigations of GamerGate’s victims, generating sufficient infamy and following to become key online players during the 2016 election due to their effective use of targeting to build online networks. Yiannopoulos rose to fame in GamerGate by investigating and calling out victims of abuse. His early articles challenging whether police and FBI reports even existed for those who had been threatened. They did, of course. But, Yiannopoulos would quickly build a career of creating controversy by intimidating the vulnerable and attacking the marginalized, primarily by social media until he was banned.

2016 can be seen as an evolution of the GamerGate playbook. In fact, many of the microcelebrities of GamerGate, like Yianoppolis and Cernovich, were central to the troll and meme campaigns of the 2016 election. But, most importantly, 2016 saw the social media effectiveness of future president, Donald J. Trump. Then-candidate Trump’s online presence fit the era perfectly. Prone to personal attacks and with an array of celebrity alliances and feuds, the persona and temperament that Trump had cultivated since the 1980s fit perfectly into the mechanisms of online activism in 2016. What Trump added to this mix were his rallies, which incorporated the cruel online targeting of digital aggression but played out live to a community and often covered by cable news. These rallies offered a public, physical manifestation of the digitally aggressive targeting that previous forms of online activism had lacked. Even more importantly, it made online targeting TV-ready, generating a much, much larger audience.

Finding Accountability

My goal in reviewing the history of targeting on social media is three-fold. First, we must recognize that the social and technical systems behind targeting are not so new, and the case studies for evaluating these issues now date back decades with many commonalities. Second, it’s important to understand that targeting comes with real harm. Whitney Phillips (2015) offered a masterful deconstruction of for the lulz culture in “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” by connecting it directly to not only irony but to classical rhetorical practices that enact power while also serving to persuade. Understanding what power is enacted and what the unspoken goals of persuasion might be in online targeting is key. Finally, I want to demonstrate that while targeting is as old as social media, we are seeing an escalation in its application and its role in politics. Millions of dollars can be raised via online targeting whether those millions are raised for ALS research, political campaigns, or the career podcasters.

The number one question I always get after a talk is, “this is useful analysis and depressing, but what can we do?” I want to end on where we can start.

First, we need more self-targeting. As I said earlier, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge offered us a different path forward. We could have built activism around targeting ourselves, exposing our humanity and humility first and foremost. Certainly, some of this activism still exists, but we need more. Again, Black Lives Matter offers the ideal example of being accountable through stated values, physical protest, and geographic community-based chapters. They’ve built local chapters that organize the community directly and address specific local problems created by global challenges. All activism needs more of this structure that allows local-global justice to emerge. And this idea isn’t new nor mine. Haas and Eble (2018) presented us with this challenge in all areas of technical communication justice when they stated—buildings off of Rude’s reminder that the work of technical communication can also serve the oppressor—that  “As public intellectuals, knowledge workers, and advocates for users, technical communicators have a responsibility to advocate for equity in local and global networks of scientific, technical, and professional communication”.

We need to apply the same concern for balancing local and global justice to making social media activism into local activism. In enacting just activism and politics, we must actively, vocally, and wholeheartedly resist becoming the oppressor.

Second, we need more of a focus on content. Perhaps it is time for fewer retweets of other accounts and more quoting of comments. Powerful ideas need to be shared and challenged. Conspiracy and hate need to be ostracized. But, fame and infamy too often become the primary consequence of online communication. Social media incentivizes the ridiculous because the ridiculous is novel, and few things make identity more valuable online than novelty, especially novel cruelty.

Third, we need responsible celebrities. Yeah, I’m being exceptionally pie-in-the-sky here. Yet, celebrity accounts need to understand the role they play in both spreading rumor and targeting individuals. They must understand that the bullhorns they use drive activism, harassment, and outcomes.

Finally, activism matters in its outcomes. Fundraising and occupying the public square remain the primary points of impact, especially for online activism. Without the accountability and power of occupying the public square, online activism is too easily dismissed (often rightly so) as harassment or slacktivism. Without a physical presence and visible identity, it’s too easy for online targeting to exist solely as trolling—or something worse.

Michael Trice is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at MIT. His research has covered a variety of community media, including LocalWiki, Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre, and various forms of online activism. His volunteer work has included working with survivors of domestic abuse, counseling of parolees, and Photo Voice projects for foster kids.


Haas, A. M., & Eble, M. F. (Eds.). (2018). Key theoretical frameworks: Teaching technical communication in the twenty-first century. UP of Colorado.

Freelon, D., McIlwain, C., & Clark, M. (2016). Beyond the hashtags:# Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice. Center for Media & Social Impact.

Lewis, R. (2020). “This is what the news won’t show you”: YouTube creators and the reactionary politics of micro-celebrity. Television & New Media21(2), 201-217.

Massanari, A. (2017). #Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media & Society19(3), 329-346.

Phillips, W. (2015). This is why we can’t have nice things: Mapping the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. MIT Press.

Ridolfo, J., & DeVoss, D. N. (2009). Composing for recomposition: Rhetorical velocity and delivery. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy13(2), n2.

Trice, M. (2015, July). Putting GamerGate in context: How group documentation informs social media activity. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual International Conference on the Design of Communication (pp. 1-5).

Trice, M., & Potts, L. (2018). Building dark patterns into platforms: How GamerGate perturbed Twitter’s user experiencePresent Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society6(3).

Tufekci, Z. (2013). “Not this one” social movements, the attention economy, and microcelebrity networked activism. American Behavioral Scientist57(7), 848-870.

Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. Yale UP.

The Job of Teaching in Uncertain Times

by Michael Hill

In 2014, back before we had a president who would explicitly admit that he didn’t trust Muslims, I had a Muslim student who was convinced he being followed by Immigration, the FBI, and local police. He told stories of black SUVs, of white dudes where there should be no white dudes, of squealing tires and corners. Now, to be clear, it would not be such an unusual situation to have immigration or the FBI tailing someone in our city. My college is a community college in Dearborn, MI, the Middle-East of the Mid-West. White dudes have been watching people in this town since the Iranian hostage situation and the situation of watching has only grown more intense, more oppressive in the past twenty years. Still, this student’s claims were a bit laden with conspiracy theory, a bit performative, a bit boastful, a bit tinged by the “what if?” It was as if he was testing out the possibilities of a reality and scaring himself (and his classmates) with the hint of that reality.

As we progress through a semester that has been made tense by factors external to the classroom–rumors of war, trials about presidential misdeeds, campaigns rife with political conflict, and daily news stories on racist and violent crimes–I’m thinking about that student and the pains that have been inflicted upon his community and his extended family. I’m thinking about how, even if his being followed was partial fantasy, he has still experienced the cultural trauma of constant suspicion from his internet, TV, and world. How he was four when Muslims became evil; how he was ten when the citizenship of an American President was questioned because of his Arabic-sounding name; how he was just learning to drive as black men were being shot for walking the streets; how we have neglected to create for him world where he can feel welcome no matter his religion, his name, his skin. And I’m thinking about how my classroom provided him a bit of a haven where he could test out his fears; express his anxiety–and for a moment feel a little welcome to just be.

As a nation, we are once again, perhaps inevitably so, being drawn into ever more propaganda and rhetoric encouraging us to disparage and deny the humanity of our Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern citizens, neighbors and world-sharers. We all have our 9/11 stories, of course, and many of them involve fear and sadness. Part of my 9/11 story happened in the classroom. I was teaching a Comp I course at 11:00 am, thirty-two minutes after the second tower fell. I was a new Lecturer teaching a class full of first-year students in the second week of classes, so I did what I was supposed to do, I went to class even though I was blind with shock and fear. During that class, a class where we forgot about everything except questions and feelings, I had two distinct moments of clarity: 1) My male students of military age were about to face unyielding pressure to give up their education and 2) My Muslim students were going to have to wake up the next morning in a nation with a rekindled hate for their identities. During that class, we listened and cried and talked about whether we would have class on Thursday and I ended the class by asking students to love and support each other, to think through the jingoism and hate they were going to hear over the next few days, and to reach out in friendship to Muslim students in their midst.

I tell you these stories as a precursor to asking you to think about your classroom as a haven for students who may well be feeling uncertain in the world this semester. College students are in a particularly precarious emotional position—they are, by their very nature, people who have not yet attained, or are in the process of changing, their authority in the world. The college classroom is the one space that allows them the freedom to experience authority, to practice it, to find out what it means to use their voice to declare their truths in the world. This semester we are certain to have students whose entire understanding of the world around them is being challenged by the events and the voices talking about those events. If our classrooms are already spaces that invite students into paradigm change, imagine how students might be experiencing those classrooms in a tense, war-torn, politically volatile, hate-filled world as the one they are going to experience this semester.

We should–we must–consider the well-being of our students in this setting. Student well-being is at the center of our jobs.

The consideration of how our students are doing as developing people, as citizens, as individuals with emotional lives is fraught, of course. Feelings are icky and student-care can be sloppy. I can just hear how some of my own undergraduate professors from the 1980s might have responded to this: “I’m a writing teacher,” one might say, “Not a social worker.” Another might say, “Look, the world might blow up or not, but I just teach Geology.” As instructors though, we open ourselves up to the responsibility to look out for those students who enter our classroom. Certainly, we are responsible for curriculum, but we are also responsible for the lives experience within that curriculum. Indeed, how can we possibly expect students to engage in our classrooms if we never consider how the world outside our classrooms might be affecting their capacities for engagement?

During my time teaching, I have had students experience emotional breakdowns and physical seizures; I have watched students cower in fear during an active shooter event; I have hidden students from violent partners; I have seen students pass out from hunger; I have had students come to class the day after their child had died. My experiences are not all that unique, particularly for a community college instructor. In each case, I had to both deal with the humanity that was presenting itself while also considering how these moments of humanity might affect student learning. As an English instructor, I have, perhaps, slightly more access to the interior lives of my students simply because they write about those lives, but I know my Math, my Electrical Engineering, and my Culinary Arts colleagues all have similar experiences. One cannot have such experiences without building capacity for care and a sense of responsibility for one’s students. Or, at least, one cannot have such experiences without this capacity unless one is a very bad teacher indeed.

This semester, we are going to have students who are afraid of war. We are going to have students who are angry at people who do not look like them. We are going to have students who are stressed out by the rhetorical leaps that our politicians will take as they campaign. Our students are going to experience prejudice, violence, and hate because of their names, their beliefs, the colors of their skin, and the fact that their families originated in a country different from that in which they go to school. We are going to have students who experience death and destruction.

We should be aware of this impending pain. And we must be aware of our jobs. The lives of students are at the center of our jobs.

The classroom, of course, is the space where we, as instructors, might best and most appropriately put support for student well-being into action. This doesn’t mean that our classrooms need become spaces of sharing and processing, though we should be open to that possibility if a day comes when traumas in the news are so overwhelming that there could be no other curriculum than each other. We don’t have to hug, bring cookies, or even put on a veneer of sweetness. But we should be aware that our students have a possibility of safety, self-awareness and empowerment in our classrooms and we can enhance that possibility by building supportive and caring spaces.

So, how can we build such spaces? I will humbly suggest a few guidelines for building a haven for students within our classrooms. There are probably better techniques out there; indeed I would argue that every teacher within every individual classroom with every specific set of students builds their own techniques. These suggestions are largely meant as reminders or as markers to assess how our classrooms become spaces where our students experience support:

  • Welcome students to class, even in April when you are tired. Welcome them daily and let them know that you are there with them.
  • Invite students into the process of your class. Help them be engaged. Make them feel like they are a part of what’s going on. Try creating a more active classroom, a more communal classroom, a more discursive classroom.
  • Create a democratic space wherein students’ voices have authority, power, and validity. Allow them to showcase their abilities in a space where those abilities are appreciated and valued at whatever level they are displayed. Show them how to read with intention and to create with power. Avoid hectoring judgement.
  • Protect your students. Protect them from each others’ biases; from thoughtless and harmful language in the hallway; from oppressive institutional forces; from commentators in the news; from your own fatigue, snarkiness, and cynicism about student efforts.
  • Let students know you are a person. Be open with them and let them experience your ability to listen. Share your thoughts and feelings and experiences so far as they are relevant and helpful to building your classroom.
  • Tender your own political opinions with discretion. Reduce your own hate and fear about what is happening in the world around you to make your students feel more secure in the classroom around them. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask students if they are OK. Be particularly aware of students who might be experiencing stress because of their identities. Don’t push, but reach out and let those students know they are loved by showing them you know they are in your classroom and that their presence matters.

Taking these steps, or others that you will discover with your own students in your own classrooms will help students build the capabilities they will need to walk out of your classroom door to engage the world around them. Our job, ultimately, is to help students move from one intellectual space, one type of authority, into another by taking them throughout the work of our courses in a semester. That’s important work, but we must also be cognizant of the humanity involved in our work. For this semester, for all semesters, really, this job requires a great deal of care for the people in our classrooms in order to attenuate teaching to the vulnerabilities of our students. Let your students in and provide for them a space to experience the awesome power of being safe as students who are sustained within your class. That is your job.


Michael Hill is an English instructor at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, MI. He is a Michael Hillformer chair of the Council on Basic Writing; a former Writing Center director; a former teaching center director; and a current searcher of his next project. And he’s a proud union thug.

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 2

This month’s post, the second in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from James Chase Sanchez (Middlebury College). In his post, James addresses the need for anti-racist strategies to come to the fore in the upcoming presidential election.

In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

White Supremacy, Anti-Racism, and the U.S. Presidency

By James Chase SanchezJCS Headshot

“It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates

White supremacy has always been embedded within the White House.

From the “founding fathers” disregarding people of color as citizens, to the original Birth of a Nation screening at the White House in 1915 (the first film ever broadcast there), to Trump-era politics inciting racial violence, white supremacy—or the feelings and actions that promote white superiority and racial hierarchies—has persisted.

Yet, Trump’s rhetoric and his White House feel different.

Trump’s white supremacy feels more overt, and, of course, more immediate.

Much has been made about the Trump presidency’s explicit white supremacy. Trump has defended white supremacists who held a rally in Charlottesville. He employs well-known white supremacists, such as Stephen Miller and formerly Steve Bannon. He enacts white supremacist policies that separate Brown families on the border and enforces what many call a “white supremacist immigration policy.” Many cultural critics, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Charles Blow, have referred to Trump as the first openly white supremacist president. The list goes on and on. Even well-known racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, claim that their organization has been revitalized thanks to Trump and his racist rhetoric. For many people around the country, there is no doubt what Trump represents, and this is why his presidency causes us so much pain.

What can we do? Many of us deal with this inner turmoil on a daily basis: we see a terrible world in front of us, something we want to help change, but we have no idea where to begin. Though there aren’t many concrete solutions, there are answers we should consider. It’s the same thing I tell students at Middlebury College anytime they want to fight for change but are caught in despair: we need to promulgate. In their textbook, The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, Bowers et al. state, “Promulgation is a strategy where agitators publicly proclaim their goals, and it includes tactics designed to win public support for the agitators’ position….Promulgation is the stage when agitators attempt to recruit the members necessary to mount a successful movement” (23). In a seemingly endless fight against white supremacy, we need to promulgate anti-racism as an answer to our problems.

In the face of overt white supremacy, white supremacy that is endangering our democracy even as it has always shaped our character as a nation, we have to make anti-racism be seen, heard, and felt. So often, it is easy to stay on the sidelines and say nothing. We can let others decide our direction. Different people can command the ship. Yet, that’s what gets us into this problem in the first place. So many of us have been quiet in the face of racism. We have seen our friends, our loved ones, our family do and say racist things, and we have stayed out of it. Maybe we thought this was a way of maintaining peace. Maybe we thought that by saying something we would add more heartache. Maybe…a lot of things. But, that’s not how we should react. We are complicit in keeping racism intact when we are quiet; by saying nothing, we allow racist ideologies to control the people dear to us, to diminish their experience of the world and of others. But preventing the small heartache might prepare us for a greater loss. We need to risk those small heartaches if we want to avoid a greater loss in November.

2020 needs to be the year of proactive anti-racism.

We need to openly identify as anti-racist. This means consistently telling friends, family, and others that we actively practice anti-racism, and it means pushing against normative, racist structures. In his book How to be an Antiracist, Ibrham Kendi writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism” (9). We need people to see that anti-racism is a position, and it is resolute; it is something every single being should strive for. And this begins with publicly acknowledging what we stand for and why.

Yet, for many, race and racism are nonstarters. People want to be polite by not mentioning race or even when they hear something racist. Why start a fight with loved ones if it won’t lead anywhere? But by publicly promoting anti-racism in our own communities, we let people know that we will confront them when they say something racist. We won’t let anything slide. And we must handle these conversations with love and care, not anger and spite. Though there is no guarantee that our communities will treat us well when we challenge them, we must illustrate that anti-racism is about caring for each other.

And this helps get conversations about anti-racism—conversations that often only exist in rarified spaces within the academy or online—into the mainstream: into our social spaces and even into our homes.

Most people, I hope and truly believe, want to be anti-racist. Yet contemporary discourse in this country makes many conservatives feel that most of the time they are the ones being called racist. Conservatives often say that the label “racist” is used as an ad hominem attack and often completely shut down or troll when said descriptions are applied to their arguments.

We have to try to move past this.

This begins with some acknowledgment of our own: we all have racist tendencies. I was raised in one of the most notoriously racist towns in Texas and have been writing about white supremacy, racism, and anti-racism for years now, and I still have racist tendencies. Anti-black racism is systemic and institutionalized, and the tendencies we develop from engaging in this system and these institutions don’t disappear overnight. We have to persistently fight them, and acknowledging this process to other people is a step in combating the “not all conservatives” or “not all white people” platitudes that often follow conversations about race and politics. We have to show the ways that racism affects us all.

In considering this strategy, it is also important to frame the upcoming elections as a referendum on racism in the United States. We want to tell society that a vote for the Democratic candidate is a vote for anti-racism, while a vote for Trump is a vote for racism. This isn’t about policies as much as it is about the perception of Trump as a person. I debate people about Trump and racism ad nauseam on social media (because I am a masochist, I guess) and am constantly surprised by how much they gloss over his racism and other acts of bigotry. But if we can change this conversation from being about political affiliation to being about what is right and what is wrong on an everyday basis, then we have a chance.

Of course, this is all great in theory and seems very impractical. I wholeheartedly agree.

But, this is what at stake in this election—a President who will keep openly fanning the flames of racism in the United States versus a Democratic candidate who we might bend against those flames (of course, some are more anti-racist than others, but that’s an entirely different blog). This approach won’t change everything, but it can change some people.

Recently, students in my “Race, Rhetoric, and Protest” course wanted to put together a protest of solidarity in support of increasing staff wages. We talked about how important it was to get the message out to students, faculty, and administration that staff wages were an issue that needed to be addressed, and the protest they organized drew in over 200 students, staff, and faculty and focused intently on why this is a problem and what administration could do to fix the problem.

After the protest, one student asked me, “Will this change anything?”

I honestly didn’t know, but I told him it might. And if it didn’t, we would escalate past the promulgating stage.

While writing this blog post I received good news: Middlebury’s Human Resource Office sent an email telling all Middlebury community members that staff wages had been increased (with some caveats). It may not be the full solution that students and staff want, but it’s a start.

Returning to my argument about Trump’s white supremacy and our need to promulgate anti-racism in this election cycle: we might think it seems pointless; we might not want to organize; we might not want to put in the effort if it leads nowhere. But, we never know how our actions might affect others.

Every protest and act for change looks like a failure until it succeeds. We have to dare to seek change even when the odds are stacked against us.

James Chase Sanchez is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Middlebury College in Vermont. He teaches courses on cultural rhetorics, public memory, and race and protest and has published in College Composition and Communication, Pedagogy, Present Tense, and Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. He recently produced a documentary, Man on Fire, which won an International Documentary Association Award in 2017 and premiered on PBS as a part of Independent Lens in 2018.

Works Cited

Blow, Charles M. “The Rot you Smell is a Racist Potus.” The New York Times, 28 Jul. 2019.

Bowers, John W. et al. The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control 3rd ed. Waveland P, 2009.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Donald Trump is the First White President.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2017.

Eaton, Joshua. “Exclusive: Steve Bannon Candidly Talks about Race and Gender in Deleted Documentary Scene.” Think Progress, 4 Jun. 2019.

Gore, D’Angelo. “More Family Separation Spin.”, 10 Apr. 2019.

Hayden, Michael Edison. “Stephen Miller’s Affinity for White Nationalism Revealed in Leaked Emails.” SPLC, 12 Nov. 2019.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.

@MiddCampus. “The college’s Human Resource Office announced in an all-school email this morning it will grant pay increases to “certain employees who hold benefits-eligible entry-level positions,” many of whom work in Facilities and Dining Services. (1/3).” Twitter, 7 Jan. 2019.

Politico Staff. “Full Text: Trump’s Comments on White Supremacists, ‘Alt-Left’ in Charlottesville.” Politico, 15 Aug. 2017.

Shugerman, Emily. “KKK Leader Claims Hate Group has Grown at Record Pace since Trump became President.” Independent, 23 Aug. 2017.

Srikantiah, Jayashir, and Shirin Sinnar. “White Nationalism as Immigration Policy.” Stanford Law Review, March 2019.

A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 1

Today, 18 December 2019, Donald Trump may be impeached. Last night, thousands of people across the United Statesfrom Times Square to Doral, FL and beyondheld rallies supporting a House of Representatives vote for impeachment. These activists took to the streets to demand impeachment and, in some cases, removal from office. Twitter blew up with the hashtags #ImpeachmentMarch and #MerryImpeachmas. “No one is above the law” served as a constant refrain on protestors’ signs and in social-media posts. While this mantra may be emotionally satisfying for some people, it covers over the ways in which the Trump administration has simultaneously violated laws and rewritten them in order to push a white supremacist agenda and to dismantle hundreds of years of progress made by various social movements in the US and abroad. It also covers over the ways in which social movements fought to change laws in order to win rights.

This moment is so heavily weighted down with the machinations of impeachment, and with kleptocratic plutocracy and festering racismall amid a climate of austerity, anti-intellectualism, and rising authoritarianism that it is hard to imagine moving forward. How do we respond? How do we survive? How do we fight back?

To extend these conversations beyond impeachment, Spark and TSA, are joining together in the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. elections. Each month, from December 2019 to November 2020, we will feature a blog post written by a different scholar. We have asked scholars from various disciplines, institutions, and ranks to discuss their work and contextualize it within the high stakes of our current moment. Blog posts might address:

  • How these elections reflect a particular political, cultural, or social context and history
  • Where particular politicians who are running in these elections stand and the implications of their proposed policies
  • Background on issues in national, state, or local elections that need more attention
  • Problems that the 2020 elections will and won’t resolve
  • What academics can or are doing beyond voting

Each month, a different scholar will share their perspectives and describe how to pursue activist interventions.

The perspectives serve to inspire discussion and action; some provide hopeful examples of the local, regional, and national activism in which we can engage. Even though this moment is heavy and ugly, and likely to be uglier and more painful, we want these posts to show the possibilities for courageous work that resists and reframes this moment.

The series begins with a post from Holly Hassel, professor at North Dakota State University. She has a long history working toward shared governance during the assault on two-year colleges and higher education perpetuated by the Walker administration in Wisconsin. In her post, Hassel provides a framework for activism within academic institutions. This framework connects social change to struggles over everyday issues. In the coming months, the series will feature other contributors who address this moment from a number of critical perspectives, e.g., how the 2020 US elections relate to white supremacy and how to combat neoliberal politics in higher education through and beyond the election process. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing EditorsSpark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

Service, Activism, and Writing Teachers

By Holly Hassel

“Though our culture celebrates innovation, at times it encourages and rewards compliance. When we look across our schools, it can seem that the people who move forward are the ones whose loyalty to mandate outlasts their bonds to creativity. We talk about entrepreneurial spirit while worshipping at the altar of status quo.”

–Cornelius Minor, We Got This: Equity Access, and the Question to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, p. 123

When I was first introduced to the concept of the “teacher-scholar-activist,” coined by Patrick Sullivan, a two-year college teacher scholar I have long admired, it resonated with me. A lifelong two-year college English teacher, Sullivan invites readers of his 2015 article to “theorize activism as a foundational part of the two-year college English teacher’s professional identity and philosophical orientation,” connecting this work to writing program administrators as change agents (McLeod) and to marshal our “vision, knowledge, and ethos to alter institutional philosophies and practices (quoted in Sullivan 331). I want to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on what teacher-scholar-activism means in writing studies. In kicking off this new and exciting blog series, I invite readers to reflect on, and strategize about, what teacher-scholar-activism and Spark’s mission—activist work taking place within writing studies spaces—seeks to accomplish, and how they can find ways into that work in their own places and spaces.

 Here, I offer my thinking on two terms this series is framed around: activism, which is central, and service, which is absent. This is because my own professional identity is deeply connected to the idea and practice of service, and because the term “activism” can be a signifier that has a range of meanings. Reflecting on these two ideas, I hope, will help my writing studies colleagues see avenues into their own teacher-scholar-activism.

 Considering Service

We know that the impact of our work in higher education looks different in the various components of our jobs–teaching is an immediate avenue toward increasing good in the world in that our classrooms can be spaces that are exciting, generative, and where student success and growth are central. Those students go forward–largely to futures that we won’t and can’t track or see the outcomes of, but if we have done our jobs, they have more skills, knowledge, and focus than they did before they arrived at college.  Scholarship, likewise, we can imagine having a long-lasting impact, on unforeseen audiences now and in the future, across time and spaces, which can feel rewarding because publications, in theory, endure beyond us.

 Service, however, is undervalued in the range of academic activities that we undertake (not to mention disproportionately distributed)—and its impact on the shape of our professional environments is similarly underestimated. The work we do in task forces, committees, senates, boards—these are spaces that can fundamentally shape how we experience those spaces. Whether it’s revising the general education program, launching new degrees, undertaking an exploration of curricular change or adjusting policies for degree programs that offer greater flexibility and respond to students’ needs—the work that happens in meetings and committees changes our work lives. It is essential to transforming our classrooms, and to do creating ethical and equitable educational spaces.

 What I wish is that we would and could do two thing—define our service work more broadly, not just committees and shared governance, but also activist efforts that seek to build a sustainable, ethical infrastructure (for example, fair evaluation and assessment practices, support services and curriculum, and professional resources that support our best work); that include developing (and challenging) policies, practices, and structures that are transparent and equitable, and second, to see that work as valuable, to make it visible, and to reward it. Our service—often seen as a kind of drudgery work in academia—is as important as our teaching and research, and it has the capacity to extend values of social justice, equity, and ethical conduct. What would it look like to embrace our service to students, colleagues, and the profession as activist work?

 Advocacting, Acting, and Risk-Taking

In volume 1 of Spark, Berte Reyes writes “Activism requires a means of using a moment to build momentum, then coordinating the resulting movement—both in terms of movement toward the next moment and in developing and sustaining a social justice movement.” What stands out to me about Reyes’ guidance is that effective activism is strategic—it is forward-thinking, and it is purposeful.

 I see a model for this kind of forward-thinking and purposeful service work in the profession—where colleagues on various Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and other organizational committees are working on developing strategies: for example, the Committee for Change (convened by CCCC chair Asao Inoue and led by Janelle Jennings-Alexander and Bernice Olivas), is working to challenge policies, practices, and unwritten rules within CCCC that reinforce hegemonic and exclusionary practices. The newly approved “CCCC Statement of Professional Guidance for Mentoring Graduate Students” and the Writing Program Administrators-Graduate Organization (WPA-GO) led “Report on Graduate Student Instructor Labor Conditions in Writing Programs” are examples of efforts emerging from professional service seek to change problematic and inequitable cultures in the field. I saw this service activism as a member of the WPA-List Reimagining Working Group, led by Iris Ruiz (UC Merced), in which I participated in difficult conversations and time-intensive reading and writing tasks. I had to practice listening and learned from group members about what changes were possible, what change would make a difference to them, as well as the reservations, disappointments, and cynicism about the list as a professional space. This was service that I not only participated in but also learned from. Every service activity I engage in, I learn more about the profession, if I am willing to listen.

 Listening in Order to Act

Cornelius Minor’s book, quoted at the start of this post, is aimed primarily at K-12 teachers and introduces the concept of authentic listening that I find applicable not just to our classrooms but to our service work in higher education. Minor writes, “I pose authentic listening and the actions that result from it as the most radical of all teacher behaviors. When we seek to create better realities for our students and our peers, our listening has to be informed by what we know, by what we are learning, and by our desire to actually hear what our students, communities, and partners are telling us” (14-15). I see authentic listening as one part of the equation in making sure that the organizations that we are part of—whether our academic departments, our professional organizations, or the larger profession of postsecondary teaching—change work. But I also want to argue for a process of asking. We can hear when students, colleagues, or constituent groups are expressing their views—but responsive service-leadership also means asking. We have to listen, and we have to ask.

 Transparent efforts that ask about people’s experiences who are different from ours (which is to say everyone) is the way that we have transparency. This is the most visible to me in my work in shared governance—as a faculty senate chair, senator, member of the CCCC and the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA) executive committees, and now an elected officer in CCCC. A responsive organization doesn’t just wait to hear complaints. So often the burden is placed on people with less power in the hierarchy (whichever one—students in a classroom, constituents in an organization) to “voice concerns” or “just ask for what they need” Why aren’t we asking people what they need and want? Why aren’t we asking students what their experience is in our programs and classrooms, and figuring out how to meet them? When students or colleagues tell us about their experiencethrough course evaluations, through letters or requests, through emails, conversations, and reports, through surveys—this is an opportunity not to communicate but to hear and act.  

 In this moment, acting can feel challenging. In the wake of public policy efforts that strip rights and resources from marginalized populations and communities, and the privatization of the public structures that have built engines of opportunity and mobility for generations (e.g., public institutions with low tuition; stable employment for college faculty; loan forgiveness programs; commitments to accessibility; Title IX protections for victims of assault; pathways to college for DREAMers) efforts to resist such political moves, let alone take care of ourselves and those we care about—students, colleagues, families, communities—can seem overwhelming.

 I also recognize that service and activism, and the time available to engage in them, is limited, and inequitably distributed. Our labor conditions differ, and responsibilities outside of the profession differ. Yet, I have seen how labor efforts, particularly in states without union representation, largely take place through our committee and governance work—my experience has included senate recommendations to rectify compensation inequity that affected non-tenure track faculty, and most recently departmental support for compensating instructors for service work that is outside their contractual obligations, allowing them to have a voice and participation in department decision making. These took place through committees, senates, and faculty commitment to equity. 

 I hope that through valuing service and using it as an opportunity to strategically and intentionally move work forward that truly serves the interests of stakeholders rather than the agendas of the powerful, we can find meaning in this work in ways that are possible within our other responsibilities.

 I am grateful to Darin, Liz, and Don for leading this new collaboration. I amplify Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt’s February 2019 TSA post, “NCTE/CCCC/TYCA: A Community of Advocacy”  where she invites readers to consider several questions: “Where are your spheres of influence? What problems can you convert into possibilities? How can we, your professional community, help?”, and I would add, how can your service—to students, colleagues, and communities—be a place of effecting change? How can you hear what those who you serve are saying? How can you invite their voices into the conversation, and use it to advocate for change in support of justice?

holly 3

Holly Hassel teaches at North Dakota State University, and previously taught at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, an open-admissions two-year college, for 16 years. She is completing her term as editor of Teaching English in the Two-Year College. She begins her service as CCCC assistant chair this month.


Works Cited 

Calhoon-Dillahunt, Carolyn. “NCTE/CCCC/TYCA: A Community of Advocacy.” Teacher-Scholar-Activist. 22 February 2019.

Minor, Cornelius. We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Question to Be Who our Students Need to Be. Heinemann, 2019.

Reyes, Berte. “Moments and Movements: On Scholar-Activists Considering the Connection between Activism and Organizing.” Spark: A 4c4Equality Journal. March 2019.

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activist.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 327-350.


Writing Democracy and the Struggles Ahead

By Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek

The publication of our coedited volume Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Writing Democracy Book CoverBeyond the Trump Era (Routledge 2019) coincided roughly with the third biannual Conference on Community Writing in October 2019. Interestingly, the issue of Donald Trump’s presidency, which resonated powerfully across panels and dinner tables at the last CCW in 2017 was barely mentioned this year, except in relation to impeachment—at least not in what we heard. This sea change can be interpreted as a sign of hope that the 2020 presidential elections are around the corner and the Trump era is soon to end; inurement to and exhaustion from the incessant barrage of Trump’s criminal, immoral policies and outrageous tweets, including his most recent betrayal of the Kurds in Syria; and/or proof of entry into a new, even more troubling stage of neoliberal capitalism that Trump may have hastened but will outlast him and pose even greater threats to the country and the planet.

Writing Democracy is our attempt to intervene in this conversation and argue for a “political turn” in and beyond the field of composition and rhetoric that can help address disciplinary, theoretical, pedagogical, and activist questions about the current conjuncture and to join with a coalition of forces in and outside higher education to “make our own history” in what Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen call “the twilight of neoliberalism.” Contributors to the collection address the history of radical projects within composition and rhetoric, the ethics of the political turn, the pedagogy of the political turn, union organizing strategies, the political turn and two-year colleges, student movements, Islamophobia, dismantling the Trumpian “wall” in light of Naomi Klein’s theory of the “shock doctrine,” historical lessons from the civil rights movement, and border politics and education. Interviews with Angela Davis and Dana Cloud mark continuations and new insights into the work of expanding this conversation beyond the borders of our own field (see complete Table of Contents here).

The intent of the collection is to join existing and inspire new conversations about the field, its pedagogical, research, and theoretical priorities, as well as how writing functions as a tool for liberation across diverse communities. This collection is also rooted in the sense of crisis that we so vividly remember in the period leading up to and following the 2016 election of Donald Trump as we bore witness to the rise of fascism and the acceleration of global accumulation, dispossession, and ecological destruction. At the 2019 CCW, for example, it is precisely the sort of question raised by Carmen Kynard in her keynote address, asking us to examine what we read, write, and teach in light of how it does the “work” of revolutionary transformation, particularly anti-racist and anti-capitalist work, that we agree is critical to advancing what we call the “political turn.” Rather than see the Trump era as anomalous, we see it as a sudden, sharp deepening of the multiple crises that preceded and will follow the Trump era even in the most hopeful view of a future recovered by radical mass mobilization for democratic social change: gross inequality, rising racism, nationalism, xenophobia, and fascism, mass incarceration, a mounting war and climate refugee crisis, and present and looming ecological disasters.

Rather than a unified position, the collection reflects how a diverse group of rhetoric and composition scholars are working to illuminate the present through analysis aimed at reclaiming our collective futures, especially those most vulnerable to current assaults on human rights, dignity, and material needs—people of color, white working-class/poor, women, LGBTQ communities, immigrants, displaced refugees, victims of war, incarcerated people, and so on—and of the world’s children, whose fate is more uncertain than any other generation in human history. And yet, even the four of us have fairly significant political disagreements, not about the dehumanizing, catastrophic effects of neoliberal capitalism but about historicizing, theorizing, and transforming it. The contributors likewise focus on a variety of concerns from diverse perspectives that, while rooted in the ethical and political values of social and economic justice scholarship, teaching, and activism. To quote from our introduction, we aim to show how progressive academics in composition and rhetoric and across disciplines can contribute to creating conditions for genuine democratic dialogue and critical, historically, and scientifically grounded pursuit of just solutions to local and global problems. We argue that historical exigencies call on us to enact a “political turn” that embraces yet goes beyond more celebrated cultural, public, and social turns to ask critical questions about our political economy and our field’s potential response(s) to them: How are social class and race interpolated in American—and global—history? What is the future of education in this era of austerity, privatization, and corporatization? What sort of future is in store for the world’s children and their children? What are the underlying structures of U.S. and global capitalism? Whose interests does capitalism serve? Who benefits? Who suffers? What can be done about it? These are key questions we take with us in and beyond the Trump era. (20)

Again, we hope the book will spark discussion and debate, inviting not only a political turn in our classrooms, campuses, communities, conferences, and journals, but also commitment to the doubly hard work of activist engagement in local, global, and national struggles, and deep study of history, theory, and practice or strategy as we catapult into the third decade of the 21st century. Two other observations in closing: First, teachers and faculty across the country in our own and other disciplines were already taking a “political turn” as this book was in production, with wildcat strikes, critical interrogation of language, literacy, race, and identity, resistance to sexual harassment and male domination, and involvement in transgender and other sexual politics, prison abolition work, immigrant rights, the rapidly growing climate change movement, and so on. We hope this provides additional examples and naming of such moments and enacting of a political turn. Second, that mercurial, frustrating aspect of radical history, never static, and thus impossible to capture in any time-driven publication, is also what gives us hope that we can unify our forces to fight for a just world. As John Trimbur writes in the book:

…political consciousness moves in ebbs and flows, not in a straight line; it is subject to fits and starts, intense struggles alternating with hiatuses, defeats, distraction, quietude and periods of repression and reaction. What this means, to put a positive spin on it, is that even at the bleakest moments…reactionary forces cannot permanently cancel the prospects of the left. (36)

It is this “struggle for revolutionary consciousness” (Trimbur 27-50) that we are hoping the book will precipitate, deepen, and broaden in us all as we enter what will, we think without question, be a tumultuous, transformative period—one in which the movements from below, the global 99 percent, must organize to win.

Writing Democracy includes contributions by John Trimbur, LaToya Lydia Sawyer and Ben Kuebrich interviewing Angela Davis, Nancy Welch, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks interviewing Dana L. Cloud, Seth Kahn, Vani Kannan, Paul Feigenbaum, Geoffrey Clegg, Darin L. Jensen, Tamara Issak, Steven Alvarez, Shannon Carter, and Tamera Marko.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek. Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Beyond the Trump Era. Routledge, 2019.

Cox, Laurence, and Alf Gunvald Nilsen. We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. Pluto Press, 2014.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Random House of Canada, 2007.

Kynard, Carmen, “‘All I Need is One Mic’: A Black Feminist Community Meditation on the Work, the Job, and the Hustle (and Why So Many of Yall Confuse This Stuff).” Keynote Address, Conference on Community Writing, 2019.

Trimbur, John, “Composition’s Left and the Struggle for Revolutionary Consciousness.”

Writing Democracy: The Political Turn in and Beyond the Trump Era, edited by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, Stephen Parks, and Jessica Pauszek, Routledge, 2019, pp. 27-51.

Shannon Carter is Professor of English at Texas A&M-Commerce, where she teaches courses in community writing and digital storytelling. Her publications include articles in College English, CCC, and Community Literacy Journal, and The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity and the “Basic” Writer (SUNY Press, 2008). With Deborah Mutnick in 2012, she edited a special issue of Community Literacy Journal emerging from the first Writing Democracy conference in 2011, which won the 2012 Best Public Intellectual Special Issue from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. Her current book project project traces the history of community writing alternatively designed to reify and resist racial injustice in her conservative, relatively isolated university town, which is also the subject of a digital humanities project funded, in part, by NEH.

Deborah Mutnick is Professor of English at Long Island University Brooklyn and author of Writing in an Alien World: Basic Writing and the Struggle for Equality in Higher Education. Other publications appear in a range of journals and edited collections. She is currently researching Richard Wright’s relevance and political, intellectual, and literacy development.

Steve Parks is author of Class Politics: The Movement for a Students Right go Their Own Language and Gravyland: Writing Beyond the Curriculum in the City of Brotherly Love, as well as a textbook, Writing Communities. He is founder of New City Community Press; Co-Founder/Board Chair of Syrians for Truth and Justice; and Editor of Studies in Writing and Rhetoric as well as Working and Writing for Change, Parlor Press

​Jessica Pauszek is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her work has appeared in CCC, Community Literacy Journal, Literacy in Composition Studies, and Reflections. She is the co-editor of Best of the Journals in Rhetoric and Composition and Writing and Working for Change seriesHer current book project explores working-class community literacy practices of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers as well as examines an archival curation project alongside community members in the context of precarity.


The Activist-Reader, or Teaching (Deep) Reading as a Moral and Civic Imperative

By Howard Tinberg

How you construe is how you construct. (Berthoff 10)

After four decades of teaching first-year composition, I have belatedly come to this conclusion:  we have a moral and civic obligation to teach reading in our writing classroom.

This change in my own thinking seems hardly a new idea in Writing Studies.  Scholars of howard-tinbergreading like Alice Horning,  Mariolina Salvatori, and David Joliffe have urged us for years to pay more attention to reading in our writing classes.  More recently, Patrick Sullivan, Sheridan Blau, Ellen Carillo and others have taken up the refrain.  Louise Rosenblatt, a genuine pioneer in the field of reading, bravely took of the theme in “Literature as Exploration,” initially published in 1933.   And, within literary studies,  the New Critics and others instructed us back in the day on how to read for nuance.

But note the difference in what I am asking from what our field and related disciplines have urged in the past:  I am urging us to commit ourselves to reading INSTRUCTION, and I wish us to view reading itself a MORAL and CIVIC act.   In other words, we must know how to teach reading not simply engage in it or even model it,  and we must regard the act of reading—reading deeply, I will assert—as a civic responsibility.   All citizens must acquire and routinely re-enact the practice of curating the information that comes their way.  It is our solemn responsibility as literacy educators to enable these best practices in citizenship.

For myself, as for many in our field, the misinformation that pervaded the 2016 Presidential campaign seemed like a stinging rebuke and a call to action.  This moment is no mere “literacy crisis,” Carillo reminds us (4).   The perfect storm of political polarization, infusion of social media, and foreign interference has us staring at a “post-truth culture” that threatens the existence of fact itself.

Years ago I wrote a piece on “reading as if your life depended on it,” placing the act of reading within the context of teaching Holocaust literature (Tinberg).  I had made the argument that teaching and reading Holocaust literature carries a special burden:  it demands that we turn to “face the Gorgon,” as Primo Levi puts it, and that in reading we must assume the responsibility of bearing witness when encountering those who by word or deed seek to do harm to others.  I have come to believe, since 2016, that we all must take up this burden, as citizen-, and, yes,–reading-activists.

It seems odd, does it not, to describe readers as “activists.” After all, reading is a private act, done mostly in silence and apart from others.  Years ago, while I was still a doctoral candidate working in Romantic Studies, Ann E. Berthoff encouraged me and others to consider the act of composing as an act of forming, of “constructing,” driven by the awesome power of imagination.  Berthoff, a proponent of I. A. Richards’ view of reading as active exploration, knew full well that reading, like writing, amounts to an act of “constructing,” a creative act of the mind.

This past summer, I and several colleagues , spent a good deal of time at the Institute for Reading and Writing Pedagogy, focusing on students  at access-oriented Institutions, funded by the Mellon Foundation and delivered under the auspices of the Modern Language Association (shout out to Paula Krebs, Executive Director of MLA, for being the prime mover of this project).  We all of us read complex materials,  wrote in response to what we read and engaged each other on the margins of the page in an active dialogue.  We enacted reading and writing pedagogies that were eminently portable to our classrooms.

This fall, I have taken up the challenge to bring reading instruction explicitly into my first-year composition classroom.  Instead of simply assuming that my students will do the required reading for the course, I asked them to “read a page”  of a difficult text in class aloud and then, in dialogue with other students and with my guidance, to highlight, annotate, and discuss their reasons for selecting key passages from the text.  The room was engaged in an act of collective reading and in response to the reading.  I can already see the difference in my students’ written projects, which draw from the readings:  evidence of genuine engagement, of deep reading.  I see less skimming and more deep diving into the reading.  And I see more wrestling for meaning, rather than a cursory and disinterested glance at a silent text.

After all, when all is said and done, reading and writing instruction aims to allow our students to find meaning, both in the text and in their own lives.   But it must do more:  it must give our students the means to engage as citizens.  Meaning-making is not merely a private matter.  It must be a collective good.

Howard Tinberg is a 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.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E.  The Making of Meaning:  Metaphors, Models and Maxims for Writing Teachers. Upper Montclair, Boynton/Cook, 1981.

Blau, Sheridan. “Performative Literacy:  The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers,” Voices from the Middle 10.3 (2003). 18-22.

Carillo, Ellen C. Teaching Readers in Post-Truth America. Logan:  Utah State UP, 2018.

Horning, Alice, and Elizabeth W. Kraemer.  Reconnecting Reading and Writing.  Anderson: Parlor P, 2013.

Joliffe, David.  “Review Essay:  Learning to Read as Continuing Education.” College Composition and Communication 58.3 (2007):  470-94.

Levi, Primo. “Shame.” In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology.” Ed. Lawrence L. Langer. New York:  Oxford UP, 1995.

Rosenblatt, Louise.  Literature as Exploration. 4th ed. New York:  Modern Language Association, 1983.

Salvatori, Mariolina, and Patricia Donahue.  “What is College English?  Stories about Reading:  Appearance, Disappearance, Morphing and Revival.” College English 75.2 (2012):  199-217.

Sullivan, Patrick. “`Deep Reading’ as a Threshold Concept in Composition Studies.” In  Deep Reading:  Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom.  Ed. Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau. Urbana:  NCTE. 2017. 143-71

Tinberg, Howard. `Read as If For Life’:  What Happens When Students Encounter the Literature of the Shoah.” College Composition and Communication 60:3 ( 2009).

“Career-” and “College-Ready”: Some Historical Context

by Danielle Pieratti

“It’s important for teachers to actively question damaging narratives that reinforce the binary between vocational and liberal education, just as it is crucial that we recognize the historical differences between the two.”

At a recent monthly English department meeting, my colleagues and I read a brief, double-sided handout with excerpts from two 2017 articles our administrators had hand-picked for discussion. The first, The New Teacher Project’s Sobering Report on Students Doing Below-Grade-Level Work, began with the genuinely sobering announcement that “While more students than ever before are enrolling in college, far fewer are succeeding once they get there,” a claim it supported with data on remediation from the Institute of Education Service’s National Center for Education Statistics. On the flip side both literally and figuratively, Education Weekly’s ‘Elevator Speeches’ and Other Skills Students Are Missing compared and contrasted the writing tasks students practice in high school (as in: book reports, Powerpoint presentations, note-taking, and reading analysis) with those employers are actually looking for (i.e. straightforward and courteous emails, clear and concise explanations for different audiences, and written interviews).  Both articles were troubling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was their obvious incongruity; while one bemoaned students’ lack of utilitarian skills, the other pinned the increase in college remediation on graduating students’ inability to tackle “grade-level” work, a theory it based on a five-district study by a team that admittedly “did not seek to construct a nationally representative sample.”

While I frequently check my own knee-jerk reactions to articles like these, I came away from the meeting with a tangible sense of whiplash. Forget that the purpose of writing isn’t just to communicate, argue, or sell, these articles seemed to say. Never mind the highly varied conventions of writing in academia, or the fact that an economics student could no more write a linguistics paper than a public relations professional could an engineering proposal–as secondary school English teachers, our job is somehow to prepare students for any and all of these. And this frustrating truth persists despite its historical impotence: unresolved and often poorly supported arguments concerning the role of literacy have existed since the early decades of modern history.

The English teacher’s most dreaded student question—“when are we ever going to need this?”–is a case in point. Indeed, although much public scrutiny of the humanities relies on the assumption that education’s purpose is to prepare students for the workplace, the alignment between education and work is a relatively new construct, one that has alternately flourished and waned since the end of the 19th century. According to scholar David R. Russell, prior to the rise of industry and the specialization of universities, all higher education was “liberal”–characterized not by research but by a fixed canon designed to nurture broad cultural knowledge, ethics, and civic engagement–an approach whose legacy still impacts public education today. Yet for at least the past century, vocational and professional demands have competed with this liberal precedent, pitting the utilitarian against the humanistic, and inspiring loyalties that fall along expected political lines.

Similarly, the seemingly ubiquitous cry for schools to maintain reading and writing rigor falsely assumes that the readers and writers of the past were a more elite bunch than we see in schools today. In truth, recent generations of college-bound public school students, though increasingly more linguistically, culturally, and socioeconomically diverse, have been challenged more than ever. A 2008 study by Lunsford and Lunsford found that students in first-year writing classes wrote papers that were two-and-a-half times longer than in the 1980s, and that the rate of errors in student writing had remained the same; indeed, the rate of errors per 100 words had remained steady since 1917, despite the fact that 2008 essays were more than six times longer. In addition, the papers of students in 2008 focused more heavily on sophisticated argument and research than on personal narrative.

Detractors who point to some prior golden age as evidence of waning intellect in today’s students or teachers misunderstand the fickle social and political forces that have always governed who was educated, how, and for what purpose. And the sloppy conflation of academic writing with professional writing betrays a fundamental lack of familiarity with their context—a polarizing narrative that still connects technical skill with blue-collar work, necessity, economic mobility, and mental drudgery, and academia with luxury, self-improvement, idealism, and elitism.

It’s important for teachers to actively question damaging narratives that reinforce the binary between vocational and liberal education, just as it is crucial that we recognize the historical differences between the two. Furthermore, when we assume in the first place that the only purpose of education is to meet tangible, foreseeable demands, we may miss larger, more crucial questions: What is meant by terms such as “grade-level,” and “career-ready,” and who gets to decide? In what ways do the demands of higher education and corporate America reinforce hierarchies that compromise public education and threaten students’ ability to learn? And in the service of those volatile demands, what are we willing to sacrifice?

Danielle Pieratti is a high school English teacher, poet, and PhD student at the University of Connecticut. Her book of poems, Fugitives (Lost Horse Press, 2016), won the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry in 2017. 

Reassessing a Redesign of America’s Community Colleges Redux

By Mike Rose

Prefatory note to essay on Guided Pathways:

In 2015, Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, published what would become a hugely influential book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. Most of the readers of this blog in some way have been affected by it. In a nutshell, Bailey and his co-authors propose a more structured community college curriculum with a limited number of disciplinary and occupational pathways through it. This redesign —generally known as “Guided Pathways” — is intended to improve student retention and completion rates which at the majority of community colleges are distressingly low. (Many of you reading this have been involved in efforts to improve the quality of students’ education —likely before 2015.) The Guided Pathways Model has been taken up by a large number at colleges across the country; in my home state of California, the entire system is in the midst of a five-year implementation plan.

Bailey and company identify real problems with institutional structure, advising, student course-taking patterns, and more, and I think some of their recommendations have merit. But as the Guided Pathways Model was gaining influence, I began to worry about some broader issues that weren’t covered or were covered inadequately to my mind in the authors’ book. This was 2016, and I ended up writing an article for Inside Higher Ed, which is reprinted below. As you’ll see, I was concerned about a thin treatment of power and ideology —the political and social dimension of institutional change— and also about the complex reality of the lives of the wide range of students who come to the community college.

I certainly don’t claim to know what is going on with implementation of Guided Pathways around the country —readers can provide detail from their regions— but what I understand from those folks I know in Southern California suggests that the concerns I raise have been emerging as people try to implement some version of the model—and administrators and faculty are trying to respond accordingly.

What I did not address in the 2016 article because of limitations of space are some of the broader conceptual and philosophical issues that run through the Guided Pathways model and that I treat in Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. These issues include the purpose of education, the conceptualization and representation of the “community college student,” and the increasing reliance on schooling in a shrinking welfare state to solve our social problems.

Reassessing a Redesign of America’s Community Colleges

Originally published in Inside Higher Ed June 23 2016

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

A much-discussed, comprehensive reform plan for improving community colleges and rose cropped high quality 1.jpgtheir low rates of student persistence and completion is the “guided pathways” model put forth by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars and Davis Jenkins in their bookRedesigning America’s Community Colleges​. Published last year, the book condenses and focuses years of research — a fair amount of which comes out of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which Bailey directs.

I support the reforms laid out in the book. But I also have some concerns — maybe “cautions” is a better word — about the social and political dynamics of establishing the guided-pathways model, and about the complex nature of the typical community college student population.

In the book, Bailey and his co-authors locate the fundamental problem with the community college in the structure of its curriculum and the institutional assumptions that undergird that structure. In its attempt to serve all members of an area, the typical community college has allowed to proliferate a wide range of academic, occupational, general interest and service courses and programs. Though some type of orientation, counseling and advising is typically available, quality and effectiveness vary, and counselors’ caseloads — 1,000 students per counselor is not uncommon — work against any substantial contact. Many students don’t use these services at all.

The authors label this arrangement the cafeteria-style, self-service model. Students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, might enroll without a clear goal, get inadequate or incomplete advising, and take courses that don’t lead to a specified outcome, are out of sequence or that they’ve already taken.

As a remedy, the authors suggest a basic redesign, arguing that community colleges “need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths.”

The authors acknowledge the laudable reforms attempted recently, such as improving the curriculum for remedial courses and streamlining them or creating programs at the front end of college to better orient and guide new students. But these reforms have had limited impact on completion, the authors claim, because the large macrostructure of the cafeteria model remained in place.

To realize the guided-pathways model, faculty and staff would create sequences of courses that lead to clearly defined outcomes. And this major restructuring of the curriculum would provide direction for other significant institutional reforms that will aid in retention and completion. Faculty members who work within a particular pathway will together define the skills, concepts and habits of mind they want students to develop through the pathway “and map out how students will build those learning outcomes across courses.” At the front end, increased effort will go to helping students clarify goals and choose a major or “metamajor,” which would reflect broad areas of interest. Orientation to college will be beefed up, and students will be enrolled in courses that provide ongoing information and guidance about college life. Through the increased integration of technology into advising, students will receive timely feedback on their progress, and instructors and counselors will be alerted when something goes awry — when a student drops a course, for example.

In addition, the authors adopt various promising reforms to remedial education, such as sequences featuring fewer, more intensive courses, and the use of additional instruction and tutoring. Their assumption is that improved remedial courses will function more effectively as part of a pathways model, resulting in greater numbers of students moving into a college-level course of study.

 Enacting the Model

The pathways idea is a good one. I have known so many students who would have benefited tremendously from it — who would have taken fewer courses that were extraneous to their goals, used up less financial aid money, moved more quickly toward completion of a certificate or degree or toward transfer to a four-year school. And the suggested reforms that follow, especially related to orientation and advising, are long overdue. I raise similar suggestions in my 2012 book, Back to School. As for rethinking remediation, I’ve been on that boat for more than 35 years.

To achieve this restructuring will require collaborative engagement on the part of faculty and staff, both within departments and across them. The authors realize the challenges of effecting such engagement and devote a chapter to the topic. They wisely begin the chapter by noting some of the difficulties, including the possible lack of trust among administrators and faculty and staff members, the divide between faculty and student services, and the disruptive role played by dissenters.

The book then suggests strategies to work through these problems. For example, its authors suggest including dissenters in program planning, creating planning teams that combine faculty with student services personnel, the use of data to question current practices and so on. Though this is a legitimate way to structure such a chapter, the structure implies that the barriers to change listed at the beginning of the chapter can be overcome with the management and group facilitation techniques presented in the remainder of the chapter — an impression reinforced by the lack of any examples or discussion of what to do when the techniques fail.

The authors have a wealth of experience studying two- and four-year colleges, so they surely know how messy and unpredictable the process of reform can be. Perhaps they (or their editor) decided that it was best to present their model and a process to achieve it, and not to overly complicate things with extended discussion of potential pitfalls and blunders. Fair enough. And perhaps the authors’ disciplinary backgrounds in economics, public policy and quantitative methodologies limit their treatment of politics, ideology and the tangled day-to-day dynamics of status, power and turf — which, depending on the institution, can include everything from budgets to racial tensions to contentious personal histories.

To limit treatment of all this is a legitimate choice, but should be stated and underscored, for my worry is that individual colleges attempting the reforms suggested by Bailey, Jaggars and Jenkins will encounter more of a mess than anticipated and possibly scrap or significantly weaken the implementation of ideas that have real merit.

The organizational compartmentalizing and the administrative hierarchies that exist in the community college are not only structural features; they are electric with power and status. The various methods suggested by the authors to bring people together to work through these dynamics toward the common goal of creating guided pathways are good ones, tried and true in the tool kit of management consultants. But they also can be foiled by genuine ideological differences about the purpose of a particular area of study or of education in general. They can also be foiled by turf protection, administrative power struggles and pure and simple personal animosity.

To be sure, change happens. I’ve witnessed several successful programs take shape over the past few years as a core of energetic and creative faculty are given the resources to run with their ideas. But during that same time I’ve also seen such groups — inspired, seemingly tireless people — be stonewalled or shut down by larger groups of faculty within their subject area, by their department heads or by middle managers.

Bailey and his co-authors suggest arriving at shared values as a starting place for examining current practices and changing them. For example, the authors write, “In our experience, faculty and staff choose to work at community colleges because they believe in the open-access mission and are passionate about improving students’ lives.” This is generally true in my experience as well, but with two qualifications — which illustrate how arriving at shared values can be more complicated than it seems.

First, regarding the embrace of the open-access mission of the community college, a percentage of faculty at most institutions believe some of the students they teach should not be in college, and certainly not in their classrooms. These faculty align themselves with the universities that educated them, want to teach students who have some affinity with their discipline and are not at all trained to work with students who are academically underprepared. In some cases, they are younger and work at the community college because that was the only position available in a tight job market. In other cases, these are older faculty who have been at the college for decades and lived through a significant shift in student demographics. They look back at a golden age — one that most likely did not exist as they remember it.

Furthermore, faculty can have quite different beliefs about concepts like “improving students’ lives.” And some of these differing beliefs can present resilient barriers to change. One faculty member believes that to change methods of instruction will compromise standards and lead to subpar education. Another believes that students — particularly those with poor academic backgrounds — need to have positive experiences in school, so avoids challenging them intellectually. And yet another operates with racial, class or gender biases that limit what he or she thinks is realistic for some students in school or career.

Another assumption in the book is that when faced with data about student, instructor or program performance, faculty and staff with guidance will engage in reflection and behavioral change. Some people will respond thus — and thank goodness for them. But other responses are also possible. People don’t believe the data — especially in institutions where there is a high level of distrust between faculty and administrators. People question the way the data were obtained. People blame the students. This last response is a big one where test data or pass/fail rates are concerned. When faced with data demonstrating the low pass rates in remedial English or math, some faculty respond by stating that those students don’t belong here. As one community college staff member said to me, “It’s hard to admit we’ve been doing something wrong.”

For all its merits, the book’s implementation plan is sometimes thin on the political and social dynamics of institutional change. To work amid a complex human landscape, the plan might well need to be combined with savvy, perhaps even Machiavellian leadership, with horse trading, with both symbolic and financial incentives, with the strategic use of personal relationships, and, unfortunately, at times, with reassignment or marginalization of obstructionist personnel.

 Pathways and Students’ Lives

The structural fix Bailey and his co-authors offer makes sense given the evidence that the status quo creates a host of barriers to student success. Still, like all structural remedies, this one runs the risk of reducing nuanced and layered human dilemmas to a technical problem, and thus being unresponsive to or missing entirely the particular life circumstances of students. So, yes, make the college curriculum more coherent, but realize that other human and material resources also will be needed to meet the needs of many students, and, as well, build into your structural changes the flexibility needed to honor the range of life circumstances your students bring to college. Otherwise, the fix may create unintended negative consequences.

A significant number of people who go to community college are adults with family and other responsibilities. They can only go part time. They can’t go every semester. They sometimes quit in midsemester because of family emergencies or changes in employment. They go to two or three different institutions. A guided-pathways model could help them in some ways — at the least lend coherence to their course selection — but not necessarily speed up their progress through college. For them, evening or weekend classes, good online courses, legitimate competency-based options, and counseling and advising in off hours, weekends or online also would be necessary.

A different kind of problem lies at the other end of the college-a continuum. We don’t have in our country many avenues to help young people develop after high school. We don’t, for example, have a robust system of occupational apprenticeships or of national service. Young people who are not on the academic fast track and do not have a clear college goal have few options: entry-level, low-skilled, low-paying work or the military. Or they can enroll in the local community college hoping some career path will reveal itself. Many such students don’t stay long, but those who do typically change their areas of study several times, shift between full-time and part-time attendance, start classes they don’t complete, stop out, and return to school. Eventually some find their way. A guided-pathways model could help these students by more clearly delineating curricular and career options at a critical stage of early-adult development.

But there are some powerful developmental dynamics going on here that lie beyond a structural fix in the curriculum. In interviewing such students, I’m taken by the simple but powerful fact that this process of discovery takes time. A lot of growing up happens: cutting back on partying and frivolous entertainments, changing one’s understanding of the purpose of school, bringing one’s fantasies in line with one’s abilities, learning how to manage time and to study. In some cases, students arrive at the big questions: Who am I? What kind of work do I want to do? What is meaningful work for me? Why am I on this Earth? It certainly could be argued that the community college is not the place to work all this out, but if our society provides limited transitional institutions or spaces, young people are left with few other options.

Then there is the issue of the burdens students carry. I am continually struck by the hardship experienced by so many community college students. To be sure, middle-class students from stable and secure backgrounds attend community college, but, depending on the location of the college, many students come from low-income to destitute families; have to work 30 or more hours a week; live in cramped housing, some of which is substandard; are food insecure; and have health problems that are inadequately treated. For some, there are worries about immigration. Some must contend with prior involvement in the criminal justice system while others struggle with addiction.

In the book After Admission, sociologist James Rosenbaum and his colleagues make the critical point that a structural analysis of the problem with community college student success takes us “beyond individual blame” and focuses our attention on institutional factors that create barriers to academic progress. Bailey and his co-authors offer a corrective to these problematic structural features. I do not intend to refocus blame on students, but I think it would be a mistake to not attend to the details of their lives while conducting this structural analysis. Otherwise the structural remedy might promise more than it can deliver — thus threatening its longevity — and also inadvertently contribute to the barriers students face by diverting attention from other remedies they need.

I do not want the issues raised here to be used as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. But even with the most coherent and streamlined curricular pathways, there will still be a number of students who enroll in one course at a time, who stop out, who take years to find their academic or occupational path, whose past blunders and transgressions continue to exact a material and psychological price, whose personal history of neglect and even trauma can cripple their performance. All this and more require institutional responses beyond guided pathways (though the model could enhance these responses) as well as extra-institutional social services. The needs of the community college population require a range of programs and accommodations to make “the people’s college” more fully the uniquely American institution it, at its best, can be.

Mike Rose is a Research Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He has taught in a wide range of educational settings —from elementary school to adult literacy and job training programs— and has directed an EOP tutorial center. He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His books include Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.