What I did Today

By Jenny Bruck

Jenny_Bruck_TSA_PhotoToday was our first day back at school after a five-day weekend. Let me tell you what I did today. I assured multiple students, some who came quietly to my desk by themselves, some who called me over to a table with their friends, that I had a plan to keep them safe if there was an active shooter. This is the third distinct time I’ve had to do that in my career as a teacher.

The first time I remember doing this was in the wake of the Millard South shooting. I had a conversation with my homeroom about what we would do. They offered that the strongest of them should be the one to secure the door, and I replied that, no, that was my job as an adult. It was at that remark that a hush fell over them and we all fell silent, tears slipping down our faces as we realized that this was a possibility we all needed to take very seriously. I promised I would keep them safe.

After Sandy Hook, I remember crying in my room as I thought about my own babies who were just starting school. But I also obsessed about my students-where I would put them all, how I would have to get them past the windows of the adjoining classroom to get them into the old darkroom where we would wait? Again, as soon as the students found out, they asked me if I had a plan. Could I keep them safe? Again, I promised I would.

So today, when these children, who, at the ages of 15, 16, 17 and even 18 seem to be so grown, asked me if I had a plan, if I could keep them safe, I promised I did and I would. I showed them, told them, what we would do. They looked at me and then went about their business like small children would once you’ve assured them that there was nothing under the bed or in the closet. This happened throughout the day all over my building, just as it has been happening in classrooms all over the nation. Just as it does after every school shooting. And when we as a nation fail to protect our kids and there is another school shooting, they will once again come to us. And although we are filled with fear and uncertainty ourselves, once again we will reassure them that we will do our best to keep them safe.

Please help us keep them safe. Don’t give me a gun, don’t lock down my school until it resembles a prison more so than a place for emerging young minds to stretch and grow. Do it with common sense. Do it with the recognition that we must fund mental health. Do it with the commitment to pay teachers and fund schools so there are quality professionals in manageable ratios to ensure real relationships between students and teachers. Do it with common sense gun laws that put the safety of the majority over the death grip on antiquated ideals. Do it by truly looking at what you need as opposed to what you are afraid to let go of lest you find yourself on a slippery slope. Do it by investing yourselves in the lives of our students by fostering strong communities that let people young and old know there are others out there who care for them.

I know this won’t change anyone’s mind. I know that if you believe as I do, you will find this missive to reinforce the things you already believe. I know that if you don’t agree, this will seem to be an overly emotional piece of fluff designed to pull at your sense of morality. Nothing I say will change your mind. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I just thought you should know what I did today.

Jenny Bruck is a former English teacher and current librarian on the fringes of Omaha, Nebraska.

The Community College as a Site of Resistance

By Keith Kroll

“Macomb [Community College] is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in.”

-Community College president

KROLL_Photo_TSAAs I walk down the main hallway on my campus, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC), I pass a large glass display case containing photographs and memorabilia celebrating the college’s  50th year anniversary. Founded in 1967, during the heyday of community college expansion, KVCC began classes in the fall of 1968.
The most prominent photograph (see below)—the one that always grabs my attention—shows students holding the college’s president on their shoulders (in a pose reminiscent of football players carrying a coach off the field following a stunning victory); other students hold signs, reading “Trust the Trustees” and “A Better Future Through Better Education[.] KVCC”


The brochure accompanying the display states:

From the beginning, it was clear that something very unique was happening at Kalamazoo Valley.  In the late 1960s, while college campuses boiled with anti-war, and even anti-establishment protests, in contrast, Kalamazoo Valley made national news, when on April 15, 1969, students staged a pro-administration rally, complete with “Lake is No Fake” and “Cool School” signs.  (50 Years)

In other words, during a period remarkable for widespread campus student protests against American involvement in Vietnam, students at KVCC publicly celebrated “the establishment“ (the administration and the board of trustees and, indirectly, those who supported the war).  Each time I look at the photograph two questions come to mind: (1) Why weren’t the students publicly protesting a war being fought by soldiers that often came from the same poor and working-class demographic?  (2) Why weren’t there (even) more instances of student activism on my campus and on community college campuses around the country?

During my time at KVCC, there have been a handful of student protests. The most recent two occurred response to the board of trustees approving an increase in fees to use the campus wellness center and approving a substantial increase in tuition.  Student protest signs should read “Don’t Trust the Trustees.”

City Colleges of Chicago has a  history of student campus activism, particularly among Black students.  In 2012, Santa Monica College students were pepper-sprayed while protesting the board of trustees plan to raise course fees for popular classes. More recently, in December of 2017, students who attend St Louis Community College campuses protested faculty layoffs during a board of trustees meeting, and a student is currently suing an Illinois community college alleging her right to free speech was violated. But for the most part, community college campuses don’t appear to experience much student activism.

My immediate answer to the questions raised by the photograph was that community college students aren’t involved in campus activism do to what Doug McAdam describes as “Biographical Availability”:

In the context of social activism, biographical availability refers to the “absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities” (McAdam 1986: 70). Individuals who have spouses, children, or less time-flexible occupations are expected to be less willing and likely to participate in collective action because familial and occupational commitments can reduce the amount of time and energy available for activism and increase the risks associated with it. (In  Beyerlein, K. and Bergstrand, K. 2013. Biographical Availability. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. )

To a great extent, McAdam is describing community college students. Community college campuses are (most) often commuter schools, so students attend classes and leave. Very few students—despite the salutary effects of being on campus—spend much time on campus beyond attending classes.  Other than cohorts of students in defined programs, for example, nursing or dental hygiene, or, most importantly, in classrooms, students spend little time in groups.  Community college students work; a large percentage attend part-time (and schedule their courses two days a week so that they can work the other three days); many have family responsibilities. In short, as McAdam’s points out, activism requires time—perhaps the one thing community college students seem to have little of.

I was also quick to blame students for their lack of social activism on campus.  Along with being too busy, I reasoned they are basically apathetic towards politics and social issues, spending too much time on their phones and social media—as evidence one only need to walk down the hallway of any community college and observe students waiting for their next class.

But then I came across a piece in USA Today titled “Is this the Golden Age of College Student Activism?” which argued that student activism on college campuses is actually on the rise. An earlier The Atlantic piece, “The Renaissance of Student Activism,” made a similar argument.  Perhaps college students weren’t as politically apathetic as I first imagined.

“The American Student Protest Timeline, 2014-15,” lists numerous campus protests, many in response to the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But only one community college is included on the timeline, and, interestingly enough, it is not St Louis Community College-Florissant Valley (St Louis CC-FV)—the college closest to Ferguson.  An Inside Higher Education article about St Louis CC-FV titled “Ferguson’s College Refuge” provided an answer: rather than a site for student activism, St Louis CC-FV was a “safe haven” and a “way out.”

As I read the article, I recognized the narrative used to describe St Louis CC-FV: it was very much the same narrative told by the KVCC photograph from 1969. The narrative—despite the marketing department claim that it was “unique—was not unique at all. In fact, “trust the trustees,” trust the establishment, trust those in power, don’t question authority, the community college as a “safe haven” and a “way out” are all parts of the same grand narrative of the community college.  The community college is, according to the narrative, “Democracy’s College.” To use the (propagandistic) language of the American Association for Community College’s (AACC)  latest report on the future of the 21st-century community college, the community college is about Reclaiming the Dream.  But the way to “reclaim the dream,”  to be “democracy’s college” is not, as one might expect or as “democracy” demands, through education and citizenship but rather through vocational-technical education (or in 2018’s lingo, “career technical education”).

This grand narrative became a central part of the Obama Administration’s neoliberal education policies in response to the Great Recession: community colleges would be fundamental to the administration’s economic plan to “make America great again”; community colleges and community college students would be asked to save an economic system—one  that had rarely been in their favor—from the very establishment who had wrecked it.  And the best way for community colleges to accomplish this, and to promote democracy, according to the narrative, was not through education—but through a curriculum focused on job training, on meeting the (supposed) demands of the business community.  After all, as the story unfolded,  it was not (actually) the economy so much that needed repair as it was the American worker: they lacked the necessary skills needed in the 21st Century workforce. In this way, “Skills-gap” became the leitmotif of the Great Recession. The narrative continues in 2018 with the Trump administration and Secretary of  Education Betsy Devos visiting community colleges to announce new job training programs. In fact,  the president literally removed any pretense that community colleges provide an education by declaring they should all become “vocational schools.”  If Democratic and Republican politicians agree on one thing, it is this: community colleges are job-training centers.

Any curriculum not related to job training should be diminished or cut. Kentucky’s governor, while drastically reducing higher education funding in the state—a central tenet of neoliberal policy involves defunding higher education—has repeatedly called for colleges to cut disciplines and programs that don’t directly lead to jobs. The AACC’s Reclaiming the Dream states, the community colleges should “find ways to align programs and degree offerings more closely with labor-market demand. . . .” (11).  In response to such pronouncements and policies, KVCC’s AAS (“go-to-work”) degree is now promoted to the detriment of (general) education, the very courses where students might learn to not trust the trustees, to actually question authority. That is, students in various AAS programs no longer need to take courses in biology, chemistry, economics, foreign languages, geology, geography, history, humanities, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, and sociology. (Fourteen faculty members of the college’s Academic Leadership Council voted in favor of the cuts.  Three faculty members, including the head of the welding program, voted against the cuts.)  The English department fought to keep college writing as a requirement. (As the college president asked at a college-wide faculty meeting in 2007, Why do auto techs and welders need to learn to write?)   The argument that saved it had nothing to do with teaching students to express their ideas (with clarity and grace) in writing but had everything to do with students needing to learn documentation. In other words, if a particular course does not have a utilitarian purpose directly related to job training, it’s no longer of value.

The grand narrative of “Democracy’s College” tells students they don’t need an education; they need training. In Digital Diploma Mills, David F. Noble describes the distinction between training and education this way:

In essence, training involves the honing of a person’s mind so that his or her mind can be used for the purposes of someone other than that person. . . . Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation bu the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge.  (2)

Under the guise of training, democracy is defined in economic terms, and community college students are repeatedly told that the sole purpose of schooling is “to get a job.”

Those of us who teach in the community college and critically examine the community college know this narrative to be fundamentally a myth.  That’s not so say that community colleges aren’t without their student success stories—the community college version of the Oprah-Winfrey myth—which the AACC, politicians, and administrators are quick to retell.  Student X, despite coming from a disadvantaged background, attending a failing public school, working two part-time jobs, suffering from food insecurity and, at times, homelessness, and after being laid off from their factory job, is attending the local community college to get (re)trained or has gotten retrained and is now  productive member of society.  Student X gets trotted out each time a politician visits the campus to announce a new job (re)training program. (Disclosure: I graduated from a community college, but I have come to realize my success at the community college had little to with the community college and much more to do with my privileged background.) What’s never asked, of course, is why Student X’s public school was so underfunded, or why Student X had to work two jobs while in school, or why, as a society, we would allow any person to suffer from food insecurity or to be homeless, or why Student X was laid off, or why was the factory closed.  To ask these questions would be to reveal the mythical nature of the narrative and to expose the real nature of the current economic system.

The data on community colleges across the country exposes the falsehood of the grand narrative. The reality is poor retention, abysmal graduation rates, low transfer rates, and failed job (re)training.   For example, the “refuge” that is St Louis CC-FV has a  “graduation rate [of] 6.4 percent [. . . ]. And 19 percent of Florissant Valley students transfer to a four-year institution. . . .”   These numbers do not suggest “a way out.” As numerous community college scholars have argued, the community college is much more about maintaining social stratification than it is about promoting economic advancement.

Another answer, then, to why KVCC students would carry a president on their shoulders and carry signs that read “Trust the Trustees” is this: Community college students are rarely offered a curriculum, a critical literacy, that promotes social agency; that provides students the opportunity to express their opinions and find their voice; that teaches them to reflect, to ask questions, to know, and to resist, rather then simply accept the local, state, and national world in which they live; that teaches them what it means to be actively engaged citizens, to question the establishment.  Sadly, too much of the teaching in community colleges falls short of this. Instead, students are taught to “trust the trustees.”

In his study of community college teaching, Honored But Invisible, Grubb wrote, “a central conclusion of this book is that many community colleges as institutions pay little attention to teaching [. . .] (2), and that the teaching that does occur is often teacher-centered with little attention to critical literacy. For example, Grubb found that occupational instructors very rarely critique the notion of work:

Implicitly instructors emphasize the role of occupational education as a means of conveying the expectations of employers. They are preparing workers to function in an accepting mold—“punctuality, being there, doing the very best they can, willing to learn”—not workers as citizens who might have something to say about the conditions of their work. (130, my emphasis).

As Ira Shor wrote in Culture Wars, “Trade-school pedagogy is the most anti-intellectual and depoliticized form of education” ( 17).  Furthermore, the 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement: Essential Elements of Engagement reported that with respect to critical thinking 64% of respondents reported that “quite a bit or very much” of their coursework emphasized rote memory” (14).  The Community College Survey of Student Engagement reports that community college classrooms are often lecture-oriented with little in-class writing or experiential learning (18).  From what I have observed on my campus, I would agree: a teacher lecturing at the front of a classroom — Freire’s “banking” model—appears to be the dominant mode of instruction.  When I tell my writing students one reason they need to learn to write—my one concession to English as “service” department—is in order to write well in their other courses, they generally laugh at me.

As the community college moves closer and closer to a job-training center that resembles a (for-profit) trade school rather than an educational institution, critical literacy will all but vanish.

To prevent this extinction, community college faculty must offer a counter-narrative that promotes education and critical literacy in the classroom. On community college campuses, “the classroom may be the only place students interact with one another and with faculty, the only place where they can be effectively engaged in learning” (2). In other words, the classroom is one of the last spaces where what it means to be an actively-engaged citizen can be fostered; where not trusting the trustees can be discussed; where questioning authority and offering anti-establishment views can be encountered.  The critical pedagogy that provides the theoretical framework for such a classroom is readily available in the work of Freire, Shor, bell hooks, Bradley J. Porfilio, Henry Giroux, and many other scholars. Barry Alford, on this site, describes the critical literacy possible in a composition classroom. (Alford’s composition classroom looks nothing like the English 1A I took at the community college, which taught the five-paragraph essay and (misused) rhetorical strategies—the comparison and contrast essay, the definition essay, etc.)  In my American literature courses, I encourage my students to make connections between the texts we read and discuss, for example John Winthrop’s idea of “a “City upon a hill”—a phrase oft repeated by current politicians in describing America—and the country in which they live, and to investigate the ideology evident in those texts.  Rather than simply regurgitate facts and fill in boxes on a Scantron sheet, students produce interesting and thoughtful writing with titles such as “Is the Slavery Part Left Out Because Nicholas Cage Stole It? A Response to Jefferson,” “What Am I to Think? A Letter to Thomas Jefferson,” and “Nationalism versus the Self: Reading Howells’s ‘Editha’ in current American society. “ (Yes, my pedagogy is political, but so, too, is the course that asks students to regurgitate facts and to fill in Scantron boxes.  Despite Stanley Fish’s protestations to the contrary, pedagogy is political.)

The challenge to such a critical pedagogy, which offers a counter-narrative, arises from the realization that it requires community college faculty to be subversive: to resist the neoliberal education policy that makes community colleges job training centers, vocational schools, or credentialing mills. It requires community college faculty to resist the idea of the community college student as an economic commodity.

Such subversiveness, however, is not easy.  After teaching at a community college for thirty-two years, I believe they are generally conservative institutions, where administrators, faculty, staff, and students too readily accept their place as second best.  It requires tenured faculty to be subversive within the very institution and economic system from which they benefit—no easy task. For faculty who teach writing, it requires resisting the idea of English solely as a “service” department, whose purpose is utilitarian.

Subversiveness is in short supply for a variety of other reasons as well.

A large percentage of community college faculty teach part-time and work under precarious conditions: low pay, one-semester contracts, no role in faculty governance, and often without union representation.  The last thing they want to do is subvert college policies, which could lead to losing their jobs. Moreover, the community college’s continued growth in online education—despite research that such courses have lower retention rates than face-to-face courses—and the concomitant disappearance of students and faculty from campus reduces the opportunity for meaningful student-teacher interaction both inside and outside the classroom.

The community college’s current fascination with “Guided Pathways” will further erode general education courses and narrow students’ opportunities for exploration and discovery, as they are tracked into (meta-) majors and limited in taking courses outside their major.  Current financial aid rules may limit students—as it did for one of my former students— in career programs from taking courses not directly related to training.  For example, if a student is in a welding program, then there’s no place for an American literature course—the argument being welders don’t need to read, discuss, and write about literature: It has no utilitarian or economic benefit.

I am not arguing that community colleges outright reject job (re)training as a part of its mission. It would be naïve to do so.  Community college students attend college to get a job, or, more likely, to get a better job.  It would also be naïve to believe that critical literacy will somehow result in (all) community students becoming outstanding citizens and/or engaging in social activism (on or off campus). After all, John Yoo, with a liberal arts degree from Harvard University, wrote the “Torture Memos.”


While I originally despised the photograph in the display case, I have come to appreciate it as a stark reminder of what is required of me each day I walk into the classroom, whether teaching writing or literature. What is required of me—what is required of all community college teachers no matter their discipline or program— is to offer a critical literacy that encourages students to read, write, and/or discuss topics that explore the conditions of their lives and the world in which they/we live; and to help them learn to better negotiate that world—even if that simply means a former student approaching me in the hallway to tell me how good she felt to understand the newspaper headline “Dream Accomplished” (published the day after Barack Obama’s election in 2008) within the context of Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and Hughes’s”Dream Deferred” (two texts we had read, discussed, and written about in a previous semester).

Works Cited

Grubb, W. Norton and Associates.  Honored But Invisible. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Noble, David F. Digital Diploma Mills.  New York: Monthly Review P, 2002.

50 YearsKalamazoo Valley Community College. Kalamazoo.  KVCC, 2016.

Shor, Ira. Culture Wars. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.


Keith Kroll has taught in the English Department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College since 1986.









Composition in the New Gilded Age

by Barry Alford

Alford_TSACultural narratives die hard.  Beneath the practices and theories operating in any composition classroom are the base assumptions that situate that classroom in a larger narrative of education and an even larger narrative of merit and mobility.  The space that composition occupies is not just contested by arguments about theory and practice: it is contested as part of a cultural narrative that defines the way we value and understand language.  Since the Truman Commission Report on Higher Education and Democracy in 1947 (it sounds almost quaint to hear the words education and democracy paired anymore), one of the narratives promulgated about Community Colleges was that they were an engine for increased access and mobility in the new economy following the war.  For at least the first two decades after the commission issued its report, that was true.  In the 1950’s, individual incomes went up more every year than they did in any decade after that.  Union membership was booming, and in the 1960’s when most of today’s Community Colleges opened, the future (at least until the carnage of ’68) looked so bright you had to wear shades.

As we move forward seventy years, that narrative is harder and harder to sustain.  The economy has stagnated, mobility in America is among the lowest of any industrialized society, and recent studies have shown that education doesn’t make that much difference in the social and economic future of our students.  The mobility narrative was always suspect.  One of the first critiques of the Community Colleges was Zwerling’s Second Best, and that critique was continued in Ira Shor’s Culture Wars.  The vocationalization of the Community Colleges that Brint and Karabel outlined in The Diverted Dream made it even clearer that Community Colleges were about work and not education.  Even though the mobility narrative was amped up in the Obama administration with the euphemism of “workforce training,” the real indicators of student success were trending in the opposite direction.

It makes a difference in how we understand and ‘teach’ language which of these narratives is more accurate.  If education in general, and Community Colleges in particular, are still the agents of social and economic mobility envisioned in the Truman Report, then Lynn Bloom’s observation that composition was like “a pool filter” might have some merit.  That is, it makes sense to see language as an individual resource in a world where individual resources could shape the trajectory of a student’s future.  But if school is, as Evan Watkins said in his book Work Time, “still pretty much a place where people go to learn their place,” then seeing language as a grooming activity for social mobility is severely flawed.  Most of the people I know who are dedicated composition teachers would say that the politics don’t matter, that composition shouldn’t be political, an argument often raised against critical pedagogy.  Language is always political.  Are we teaching language to folks Gramsci called “the 100 at Eaton” so they can make their way into the managerial class, or are we teaching language to students who are more like the Chartists in Ranciere’s Nights of Labor, who need language to create a new social and political reality?

The Chartists disbanded before many of the political reforms they championed came to fruition, but Ranciere’s focus is more on the central role language and literacy played in the movement.  In an era where members of the working class were often denied access to education and literacy, the Chartists fought for the right to read and learn, often creating their own night schools.  In many ways, this struggle for literacy mirrors the students that Freire wrote about in his early practice, students for whom the simple act of naming the world was a political act.  Even though Freire was no stranger to composition studies, the political urgency of literacy was a hard sell in America, which used to pride itself on access to education.  I think things have changed.  Students in Community Colleges are faced with a crisis of political literacy.  The existing discourse of democratic politics is broken and will not help them define a role for themselves in the evolving kleptocracy that America has become.  They need to form a new language for themselves that they can use to reclaim a place in a reshaping of a democratic society.

Bakhtin, who wanted to do for language what Einstein and Bohr had done for physics, said that language always was always caught in a dynamic flow of centrifugal and centripetal forces.  The centripetal forces worked to make the language tighter and more uniform, and without them we risk becoming incoherent.  But language also always has a centrifugal force that is pulling it toward new expressions and concepts.  At different moments and different contexts, one of these forces may be more important than the other.  I think we have to take a moment and consider which of these forces are more important to students in the 2-year colleges.  If the idea that drove Eliot to reform the curriculum at Harvard after the Civil War to prepare not just the elite but a whole new economic class of managers and professionals for a new economy is outdated, then so are the underlying assumptions about language that have driven the enterprise of composition.  Those assumptions may still function in some institutions, but they are more than a little problematic for open admissions students.  The intellectual crisis facing these students, who have never transferred to and graduated from 4-year schools in significant numbers, is not how to fit through the “pool filter,” but how to create a community of people to challenge an imploding democracy.  The centrifugal force of language is more important to their struggle than learning to be compliant.

This is especially true now that the composition classroom in the Community Colleges is so often staffed by severely underpaid adjuncts.  Often when students enter one of these colleges, their best bet of meeting their first part-time employee is when they meet their Comp instructor.  It wasn’t always this way.  When I started teaching in 2-year colleges more than forty years ago, I started as an adjunct.  I taught prisoners and guards at the prison in Chillicothe, Ohio.  Almost everyone I knew had a similar story about breaking in as an adjunct, but we expected and usually got full-time employment.  The first union contract I bargained had a clause that required the college to hire a full-time faculty member if a full load existed for three consecutive semesters.  The fate of people entering the profession has followed the same economic trajectory as the students.  Bernard Stiegler in States of Shock argues that the idea that knowledge can be created in elite enclaves and then simply transplanted into other people’s lives is not only false but destructive.  Knowledge, according to Stiegler, has to be created in the context in which it is used and experienced.  What and how students and faculty in the 2-year colleges write and the language they use to write it should be an intensely local negotiation.

I don’t think the issue here is how to create a new textbook for Community Colleges (marketed by Pearson, no doubt) that standardizes a new approach.  The idea is to use the tools we have learned and practiced to find new ways to give students who usually go to comp class to be judged on their language skills a way to find their own voice instead, and not in the conventional way we use that term.  They need a collective voice, a voice they develop and share with their adjunct instructors to question the corporate inclinations of the Community College.  They have a right to a real education, a real job, and a living wage.  Looking back on all the years I taught, one of the stranger things to ruminate over is all the ‘papers’ I read.  In Textual Carnivals, Susan Miller raises the same issue.  Instead of worrying about papers written by individual students for individual grades – the height of centripetal force – these students need a collective language.  It won’t be the Marxist influenced language of what was once working -class politics.  The cultural and economic conditions that made that a relevant intervention in the last century simply don’t exist anymore and students are going to have to find a new way to articulate their experience.

Adjuncts are often even worse off economically than their students, but they have cultural capital their students do not have.  Composition in the Community Colleges needs to focus that capital on the conditions that oppress both the students and the faculty.  Writing needs to be public, collaborative and political.  It can’t simply imitate the politics of the past, it has to forge a new reality.  The students should write their local politicians.  They should write platforms and policy and encourage their classmates to run for office.  They should write letters to the Board and demand reforms at the college.  They can research and write about their own histories and the history of their area.  In order to do any of this well or effectively, they will learn how to research and revise and edit, only this time it will be for their purposes.  I know this sounds heretical, but these are desperate times.

I have often said to people that the most dedicated and resourceful people I ever met were comp instructors.  They will stay up all night fretting over making just the right feedback to a student who is more likely than not to ignore it.  Sadly, I think all that diligence and creativity has been in service to a narrative that has collapsed.  We don’t live where we thought we lived all these years.  The political and economic storm we are living through will not leave our classrooms, our students, or our practices untouched.  It’s time to tell a new story.  MLA optional.

Barry Alford grew up in a working-class community outside of Flint, Michigan.  He taught in community colleges for over forty years.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M.  The Dialogic Imagination:  Four Essays.  Ed by Michael Holquist, Translated by Holquist and Carol Emerson.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.”  College English 58.6 (1996): pp.  654-675.

Brint S. & Karabel J.  The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunities in America, 1900-1985.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed and Translated by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973.

Ranciere, Jaques.  The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France.  Translated by John Drury.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Shor, Ira.  Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Stiegler, Bernard.  States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century.  Translated by Daniel Ross.  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015.

Watkins, Evan.  Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Zwerling, L. Steven. Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,1976.

Billy Henderson’s Other Project

By Helena Worthen

H by Matt Wong_TSAI am about to return to Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, where my husband Joe Berry and I will be teaching in a Faculty of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University, a university sponsored by the national labor union, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). We will be teaching classes in leadership, collective bargaining, contract enforcement and globalization. This sounds a lot like what we taught in the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois. However, the context is different in Viet Nam.

In the U.S. there is a system of institutions, agencies, courts, and unions that work together, for better or worse, to regulate and moderate the fundamental conflicts between labor and management under capitalism. The foundations of this system have been in place since the 1930s.  In Viet Nam, the system is still evolving. There are courts of law; a lengthy, prescriptive Labor Code; People’s Committees; provincial offices of something comparable to our Department of Labor, but there is only one union, the VGCL, which represents the whole working class. There is very little of what we would call collective bargaining, which settles a whole range of problems for a definite period, and very few actual collective bargaining agreements. Instead, there is the process of “dispute resolution” that takes up problems on a case by case basis. There are no “independent” unions.

Furthermore, Viet Nam is not fully “under capitalism.” It is a Socialist country with a Communist government, although since the 1980s there has been a move (called “doi moi”) toward opening the economy first to foreign investment and then to other forms of capital accumulation, entrepreneurial activity, and investment. An example of “open” is that Viet Nam was interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If it had gone through, Viet Nam would have become a more significant trading partner with the U.S. As a condition of joining the TPP, Viet Nam would have had to sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association (allowing independent unions), the right to organize, and collective bargaining. The people who negotiated the TPP saw these as necessary because the new economic relationships of TPP would require a much tougher, strategically flexible labor union response than was exercised under the one-union socialist system. Indirectly, this would have been good for American workers.  When workers overseas can bargain higher wages, workers in the US have less competition because the labor costs overseas go up, making manufacturers think twice about shipping jobs out of the US. Even without TPP, many in Viet Nam today think that stronger unions that include real shop floor worker representation are necessary.

Internal and external pressures are pushing labor in Viet Nam to give conflict the respect that it is due and build grassroots local unions that can advocate effectively to protect workers from the race-to-the-bottom that is part of global trade. The weight of history and the accomplishments of socialism, which brought Viet Nam up from destruction after the American War, press against reform, but the reality is that the kind of union envisioned under socialism, in which workers and employers were theoretically all cooperating for the good of society, has no rational basis under capitalism. The hundreds of wildcat strikes that take place every year are evidence of this.

Billy Henderson’s constitutions and by-laws project

Joe and I are being given the opportunity to teach labor relations at a point in the history of another country when their institutions are still being developed. When I ask myself whether what we are doing has any value, I remember something I learned back in the 1980s when, as an adjunct teaching in a California community college, I got swept up in a period of activism in the California Federation of Teachers (CFT/AFT) and was handed a small job at my local union, organizing other adjuncts. It is a story about doing something that may not pay off until far in the future. It also reveals something about me – namely, my age; I’m in my mid-seventies. At a time when many of my friends are dead, others are suffering illnesses that will kill them, Joe and I both still intact and have lucked into what appears to be the start a whole new professional life.

In the late 1980s, the recently retired past president of my union (CFT/AFT Local 1603, Peralta) was a sweet fellow named Billy Henderson, who was unusually patient and willing to teach me things. Adjunct organizing was a threat to some of the other old-time leaders of the union, but I got help from Billy setting up meetings, creating and distributing a newsletter for adjuncts, speaking at events and other activities that are a normal part of organizing. His other project seemed like an exercise in boredom: he was studying the constitutions and by-laws of different locals and drawing up comparisons. I was puzzled by anyone’s willingness to work on something as dull and procedural as constitutions and by-laws. What motivated him to do that?

An unexpected gift

The explanation was that he was dying. A few months into my job, I got a phone call from the current president saying that Billy needed someone to drive him home from the hospital. Hospital? I was not even aware that he was ill. It was about 8 pm on a weeknight; I told my teenage kids I would be back soon, got in my car and went to pick him up.

He was just getting dressed when I walked into his room. I gave him a hand, during which he told me he had AIDS. This was early enough in the AIDS crisis that people treated it as a death sentence. The conversation in the car going back became quite personal and intense. When we got to his house he invited me in for a cup of tea. While in the back of my mind I worried if the kids had turned off their lights and gone to bed, I felt that this was a conversation I could not afford to skip.

He said, when we sat down in his redwood paneled living room with a view of the Bay, “I am going to tell you something maybe you can use. It is this: You can make anyone do anything using positive reinforcement.”

Anyone do anything? I doubted it. My experience as the rep for my fellow adjuncts did not fit with that. Positive reinforcement when dealing with an obtuse, narcissistic administrator whose idea of an adjunct instructor was a unit of flexible labor? Who could lay off a woman in her 50s who had been teaching for twenty years at one of our colleges – twenty years without a “permanent’ assignment – and explain it saying, “We need fresh blood”? A human resources manager who refused to negotiate access to healthcare for adjuncts even when it would have cost the District nothing – at a time when one of our leading activists (someone else – that was a period when people were dying all the time) had just died on the floor of his apartment of untreated hepatitis?

Did he really mean that situations like these could be managed with positive reinforcement?

Building the foundation and the framework

Over the years, his claim stuck in my mind. Maybe that was his purpose: to make me keep thinking about him. The puzzle was like glue and it had the by-product of making me think about his other project. Most of the time, constitutions and by-laws are shadow structures. Out in the sunlight, day to day, one can organize a sit-in, a pressure campaign, or run a reform slate for the executive board, but back in the office someone should be going over the small print in the dusty pamphlet that says who can join, who can speak at meetings or raise concerns from the floor, who can run for office, or how often elections should be held. These constitute the structure of the organization into which people can invest energy, trusting that they are not being taken on a fool’s errand.

The good thing about the structure is that when it is right it is hard – hard in the sense of tough. If the structure works – if people are free to organize and take action, if judges are fair, if enforcement is strong – then the structure can be used to push back against the hungriest exploiters.

Billy was combing the small print on behalf of all the California local unions that were part of the CFT. He chose to do this at a time when he already knew he was dying. He was taking care of the big stuff in a way that he would never live to see implemented.

Acts of Adulthood

I am now older than Billy was when he died. Since that time, I have read about Eric Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development and understood, in fact, experienced, the way with age one shifts one’s attention from immediate challenges to the structures that lie behind them. Erikson calls this maturity, adulthood, and wisdom. Designing Social Security back in the 1930s or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example – those are acts of adulthood. Yes, passing them required the hot energies of many younger people, but getting the language right took desk work, research, and extensive discussion, institutional memory, and experience.

So now, in my seventies, although I do a certain share of the activities typical of people like me, writing letters and signing petitions to express opposition to our appalling governing clique, most of my thinking and writing energy is spent figuring out how to stimulate college students in Viet Nam to imagine a system of industrial relations that would harness the capacity of capitalism to create wealth in such a way that saves Viet Nam from the crisis of inequality that we face here in the US..

Sometimes I wonder whether what we are doing in Viet Nam can make any difference. Do our students really understand the urgency of needing strong unions? Do they recognize that employers who come to Viet Nam because of the low wages are not joking around and that organizing to improve wages and working conditions is not a simple matter of justice, but a fight? Do they understand that fighting requires organizing, and organizing requires planning and structure?  There is such a contrast between the safety and modern design of the Ton Duc Thang campus and the monster factories in the Export Processing Zones; do they really understand that what they are learning in comfort is to be applied in situations where workers faint from exhaustion in the heat? That learning the full range and calendar of practices that go into building a strong fighting union is not something you do overnight? You may be able to call a wildcat strike and put thousands of workers in the street, as a way of dealing with a crisis, but that only produces quick fix to a specific problem. Building a fighting union that can raise labor standards over the long term takes years and deep organizing.

Standing in front of a class of young students in Viet Nam, students who are going to become union staffers or HR managers, I say a silent thank you to Billy Henderson, for demonstrating by dedicating his last months to a boring project, the value of what does not appear to be exciting.

Photo credit: Matt Wong

Thanksgiving 2012 and the Sunlight of Memory

By Susan Naomi Bernstein


Photo description: Birds circle under a gray sky at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. 12-24-2012

Pushing through the market square

So many mothers sighing

News had just come over

We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us

Earth was really dying

Cried so much his face was wet

Then I knew he was not lying

David Bowie – Five Years

Today, a friend gave me a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay “Preaching to the Choir.” Far into the essay, Solnit shares a story about two New Yorkers of very different backgrounds in a time long gone by. These two New Yorkers find a moment of connection one day on the ferry, sharing their experiences of the raw winter weather.

I read the essay in class while my students worked on their writing. And suddenly, without warning, I began to cry. The story of the ferry reached through the recesses of my defenses and hit the nerve of Thanksgiving 2012, five years ago, a year after Occupy Wall Street and a month after Hurricane Sandy.

I have written before about Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy. But I have written very little about Thanksgiving 2012 — a holiday fraught with colonialist implications and frustrations.

Yet that Thanksgiving five years ago holds powerful memories.

We were only a month beyond the superstorm and signs of its impact were everywhere, from the plastic grocery bags catching the wind in leafless trees, to circling hungry birds, to the piles of rubble along the coastline. The late autumn damp chilled the bones more than usual, and I had the sinking feeling that my partner and I would be leaving New York soon.

I tried not to give the feeling any attention, but economics demanded it. I had gone three years without full-time work and my partner had just applied for disability. We had no money. I had seen an ad for a job out west that looked like it might be a “good fit,” except for the fact that it was 2500 miles away from the place we called home. I knew that people would do anything to stay in New York City, including living in their cars on adjunct teaching wages. We did not have a car, and my partner was recovering from a serious illness. As much as we hoped to stay in NYC, we could not compromise my partner’s health, and we had already discussed many times the possibility of leaving.

The melancholy of that autumn is difficult to describe. Wrapped up in Autumn 2012 is that peculiar feeling of learning to treasure every moment because tomorrow was not promised, a cliche, of course, but our time in NYC was beginning to feel fragile and finite.

And then my partner and I learned about Thanksgiving at St. Mark’s on the Bowery. In the spirit of Occupy, everyone was invited to bring something so that everyone would have enough to eat, especially those who had survived the worst of the storm’s devastation.

Many of us who attended that Thanksgiving were homeless or living from paycheck to paycheck, or were still unemployed or underemployed in one of the most expensive cities in the US. We were four years into the fallout of the 2008 mortgage collapse, and the impact of the recession that followed can still be felt in all too many communities across the country. In New York City after the storm after the collapse, the suffering was palpable.

At St. Mark’s, we were able to offer food and also clothes and blankets. At the doorway to the church, we would let visitors know what we had available, and work with them to fill out a list of what they needed. Then one of us would run back to the room where the clothing was kept to retrieve the items for which visitors had asked. Our work together reminded me of the DIY spirit of Occupy Wall Street the year before. In order to create the promise of a better future, we would work in coalition in the present to alleviate suffering exacerbated by the recession. These circumstances helped us stay mindful as ever of the intersectional nature of suffering.

Afterward, as we walked to the subway in late afternoon, my partner said, “So many of us who volunteered couldn’t have afforded such a good meal on our own. But together we all had a feast.” This moment remains among the strongest of my memories of New York City. The air felt cold and heavy clouds covered the sun. The wind gusts were sharp against our faces. When that sense memory surfaces, as it did today, the weeping is immediate. I am back in that moment, in the deepest sense of community I have ever known.

As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, I find myself living in the desert, where my partner and I have made our home since the summer of 2013. My partner is recovering from heatstroke and cannot go outside in the extreme heat. Even in late October the afternoons remain warm, and in the last full week of the month, the temperature hits a record high of 99 degrees.

The university where I teach is located in this parched and starkly beautiful landscape. Our students come from all over the country and all over the world. Some have been impacted by recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Gnawing in my gut is the memory of the hurricane five years before, and the climate disasters since. I am thinking of food insecurity before and after climate disasters, and I am thinking of the heat which feels as if it will never end. I am also thinking about Halloween.

Last spring in our Stretch course (for students in need of extra preparation, Stretch offers English 101 stretched over two semesters for six full credits that count toward graduation and transfer), students had a culminating project that invited them to write a proposal for a project that would make the world a better place. More than a few students asked for help for students with hunger and loneliness, two ongoing frustrations of the college transition. The students were ahead of the curve. Hunger and first-year loneliness are two issues that have since received the national spotlight.

One does not usually think of my current institutional home as a place of hunger, or even of loneliness, perhaps. As the institution has grown in numbers in the last half decade, it has also grown more selective. That selectivity of students with higher test scores and grade-point averages does not fit the stereotype of hunger, nor does the notion of the high school success of “better” students conjure up images of loneliness.

Yet students may find themselves unexpectedly lonely, whether they commute from home or live hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families. Transitioning from communities of origin to the very large community of our university can be daunting, if not intimidating or even downright depressing. For this reason, the stereotype is unfortunate. The struggles of hunger and loneliness often remain invisible to faculty and staff, no matter how well-intentioned we are.

Building on students’ suggestions from their projects to make the world a better place, we created a team of undergraduate and graduate students and adjunct faculty with the purpose of creating a community writing group for new students. Our graduate students participating in the Stretch teaching practicum came up with the idea of a large write-in on Halloween morning, a day when several of us taught at the same time. We found a room, obtained money for food, and invited other teachers in our program and their students to attend.

October 29, 2017, marked five years since the hurricane, five years since the last Halloween I spent in NYC. It was an uncanny Halloween. Because our neighborhood was on high ground, we had no flooding, though the damage from high winds added to the number of lost trees our neighborhood had sustained from a tornado the year before. Even as children along the Atlantic Coast faced Halloween with food shortages and without electricity children from our neighborhood dressed in costume and did trick-or-treating at local businesses, as they had every year before.

But the annual Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan was cancelled, and along the water, there were greater troubles. People were trapped on the upper floors of public housing high rises because the electricity was off, the stairwells were dark, and the elevators were down. A wealthy neighborhood where our congressional representative lived burned to the ground. The subways and most other public transportation had stopped running. As a result, during that first week after the storm, we had an inadvertent break from school.

Palimpsest, I remembered thinking then, the traces of a more distressing material reality breaking through a bright shiny surface. That is how this sixth Halloween celebrated after Sandy feels as well.

But Halloween is a trickster holiday. Our event planning team plans to dress up for the festivities. We will offer breakfast food, and I will continue thinking through the lessons of Halloween in 2017 and that long ago autumn of 2012. When survival is the most significant goal, we all have the potential to learn to help each other, and to help ourselves find the road back to our hearts. When the hierarchies are gone, coalition becomes possible.

Nothing in this struggle is easy, especially since universities do not work this way, and life itself does not work this way.

Yet the palimpsest and its traces remain. And it is still our job to pay attention to and to work in coalition. Coalition, in this sense, means working collectively and horizontally, through the challenges of consensus decision making. Neither top down nor hierarchical, coalitions allow us to make sense of working in the midst of differences, without either celebrating or ignoring those differences. This is harder work, but work that offers, perhaps, deeper and more lasting growth and transformation. In coalition and through consensus, more of us can contribute to strengthening our own communities.

In other words, my greatest hope is that we can offer mutual support in the midst of challenging times. Sara Ahmed suggests that “To share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility.” Addressing such challenges does not preclude “joy, wonder, hope, and love,” which “are ways of living with rather than living without unhappiness” (196).

Even more, in working for mutual aid, I am more interested in alleviating suffering than in reinvesting in hierarchies. Hierarchies, I have come to believe, try to keep a sense of normalcy, even as the traces burst through the page. Those traces cry out for attention in a world that would prefer to ignore them, as often happens when institutions perceive that applicants are in need of “remediation,” and therefore viewed as a liability. Despite the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, the institution can classify the need for “remediation” as a reason for exclusion.

Raising admissions standards to leave out students with lower test scores, for instance, marks such students as forever trapped by an empirical measurement of a single performance. This exclusion has become common practice and negates the need to foster potential among people whose life circumstances stand to improve with equal access to educational resources. Until we make this hierarchy of educational access visible and open to interrogation and transformation, we, as educators, will continue to exacerbate the problems of unequal access to institutional resources, and cannot claim ourselves as true agents of change.

When we do pay attention, we can uncover hidden glimpses of our own humanity. We can affirm our “contingent collaborations” (Tuck and Wang) with students, against all hope and against all immediately visible evidence of the possibility of collaboration. With such affirmation, we may also find traces of a more compassionate future that we can all take responsibility for creating. Contrary as it seems, I have never felt such comfort in the cold as on that first Thanksgiving Day after Sandy in 2012. Walking to the subway, I sensed the moment of a future not yet visible, if only I could find the courage to discover the unimagined light.


Photo description: The Stretch Halloween Write-In Planning Team: Bill Martin as a hippie, Meghan Kelsey as a dog, Susan Naomi Bernstein as a glam rocker, Ian James as Perfume Genius.

Susan Naomi Bernstein has a longstanding commitment to Basic Writing pedagogy as a means of enacting educational equity.   Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing (MacMillan), a professional development resource now in its fourth edition, and she blogs on Basic Writing pedagogy for MacMillan’s Bedford Bits. Her recent work includes “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” published in Welch and Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Her work also has appeared in Journal of Basic Writing, Chronicle of Higher Education, Pedagogy, and elsewhere. She has taught in rural and urban settings from Northern Appalachia and a Native American Community in the Southwest to Philadelphia and the Bronx. Currently, she lives and works in Arizona where she co-coordinates the Stretch First-Year Writing Program at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

Writing Networks for Social Justice: A Brief History of 4C4Equality

By Don Unger and Liz Lane

We first began the work of what would become the 4C4Equality initiative in fall 2013. As rhetoric and composition graduate students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, we watched as the debate surrounding the location of the 2014 Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs) unfolded on the WPA LISTSERV (WPA-L).  4Cs was set to take place in Indianapolis, just 70 miles down 1-65 from us. Indiana politicians and their legislation had been growing increasingly, openly hostile toward LGBTQ people, and 4Cs members were talking about what kind of response the conference organizers would take to House Joint Resolution 3 (HJR-3).

Living and working in Indiana, we watched how the battle around HJR-3 took shape and felt the fear it created in our personal and professional lives. The proposed legislation sought to write discrimination against same-sex marriage into the state constitution. In response, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) worked through their statewide front group Freedom Indiana to oppose the proposed legislation. The HRC sent organizers from around the country to different Indiana cities in order to set up phone-banking and letter-writing campaigns. They also organized a coalition of national and regional corporations, and local businesses to oppose HJR-3. These companies signed a letter of opposition. Others boycotted the state. We were simultaneously appalled that such a law had been proposed and eager to do something to oppose it. Yet, as graduate students, we felt there wasn’t much space for us to do that. The HRC’s well-oiled machine limited what action local people could take as local LGBTQ organizations in Lafayette and West Lafayette simply deferred to the HRC. Still, the debate about 4Cs continued on the WPA-L.

Folks involved in the WPA-L discussion made a lot of suggestions about what to do, but it seemed like no one was going to put them into action. We began to talk about what it would mean to take an activist approach and turn the 4Cs conference into an organizing space against HJR-3. We were eager to explore how our own activist experiences, pedagogical training, and scholarly expertise might inform such organizing. So, we decided to strike out on our own and use a grassroots approach to support action in Indianapolis. In a theoretical sense, it meant establishing or tapping into connections among a number of stakeholders with myriad concerns and political leanings, including conference organizers and attendees; representatives of social benefit and social justice organizations; and local LGBTQ people and allies who weren’t affiliated with any of these institutions. We began to ask how to approach the issue as a network useful for all these stakeholders, and we began the work it would take to start to create such a network. In a practical sense, it meant putting into action those skills we taught students in professional writing courses.

Emergence of 4C4Equality

We dubbed this work 4C4Equality (4C4E) as a nod to the professional organization that we sought to work within and a nod to the fight for equality that we had taken up. We gathered a group of graduate students and created a plan of action, taking a few ideas from the online conversations mentioned previously and developing some of our own. We spent countless hours emailing and calling people, holding meetings, and attending other groups’ meetings, as well as designing a website and materials to give out at the conference. Eventually, we reached out to faculty to support our plan to engage 4Cs attendees and draw them into actions that supported LGBTQ Hoosiers and allies. For example, we offered materials to allow attendees to take part in a Freedom Indiana letter-writing campaign opposing HJR-3 and provided small cards for conference attendees to share with local business owners while they are or shopped in Indianapolis, asking them to oppose HJR-3. When it came time to implement the plan, we reached out folks on the WPA-L again. Writing instructors from all over the country volunteered to sit at our conference table and speak with other attendees about the fight against HJR-3. New and veteran conference goers donated funds to reimburse us for the cost of the materials and to allow us to make more. We were encouraged by the support that folks showed for our grassroots, graduate-student led, and donation-funded initiative.

You can read more about our history and approaches to local activism and organizing at our website, 4C4Equality.wordpress.com. Additionally, we detail our ongoing work with the initiative in “Considering Global Communication and Usability as Networked Engagement: Lessons from 4C4Equality,” set to appear in Thinking Globally, Composing Locally Rethinking Online Writing in the Age of the Global Internet in the January 2018 from Utah State University Press.

From a Grassroots Action to a Writing Network

Since our earliest days, we have worked to develop 4C4E as a network that connects writing, rhetoric, and literacy scholars to local activists in the cities that host 4Cs. Through yearly interventions centered around the annual conference, we have employed different tactics to expand this network and to make it sustainable, from serving as local organizers at 4C14 in Indianapolis, to supporting the work of local teachers and activists at 4C15 Tampa, to designing and circulating an online map that locates activist-scholars around North America at 4C16 in Houston. As the next step in developing this network, we decided to create a zine through which teacher-scholars could address their activist work for themselves. In the context of our ongoing work, providing a platform for others and putting these folks into conversation with one another reflects our approach toward local organizing. In our interventions at 4Cs, we have always asked how our work affords greater participation rather than asking how these interventions refine an infallible political critique. Through the zine, we set out to present a vibrant and multifaceted understanding of activism that supports many approaches. Given the current political climate in the US, our emphasis on participation rather than perfection feels more important than ever.

The 2017 Zine

Following the 2016 US presidential election, American politicians—led by Donald Trump—and their sympathizers have stepped up legal and extralegal attacks on poor and working-class people–particularly immigrants, Muslims, and all people of color, transgender people and queers, women, people with disabilities, and even children. To oppose these attacks, activist groups have organized national, regional, and local resistance. Teacher-scholar-activists have played a role in such resistance, from participating in high profile national actions–such as the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and A Day Without Immigrants–to carrying out day-to-day organizing in their communities, fields, and classrooms.

To shed light on such work, our zine bridges conventions in academic and underground publishing to build a network. Through our call, we hoped to highlight activist work in a more immediate and accessible manner than is found in most traditional academic publications. This DIY-approach has been integral to 4C4E from its beginning. Broadly speaking, each piece included in the zine addresses one overarching question:

In the current political climate where students and faculty are becoming increasingly involved in direct action and local organizing, where do writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies and adjacent areas of inquiry fit in this work?

To focus this question, we asked contributors to describe the activist and organizing work with which they are involved; how they feel writing, research, teaching, and service play into this work; how they discuss activist work among academic and organizing audiences; and how they collaborate with others through activism or local organizing.

The point is not to erase differences among these methods so that we might gather under one banner, but to write a(nother) network for social justice within, across, or through writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. This zine provides a platform for activist-scholars to consider various methods for resisting and organizing resistance, and to consider how others relate to and employ these methods. It is a step toward building a network where we learn from, support, and respectfully/productively challenge one another to organize or further develop our local work.

In the zine, you’ll find a mixture of interviews, scene reports, and columns that reflect the spirit of underground publishing culture while allowing contributors creative license to articulate their activist work in unique ways. The zine is organized loosely around a number of themes: from perspectives on how grassroots organizing and activism fit into writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies; to pedagogical approaches to activism; to discussions of cultural rhetorics and how race informs praxis; and personal accounts of bringing activism into the classroom and community.

A majority of the interviews were conducted by the editors, as we invited scholars from writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies who influence our work with 4C4E to share their perspectives about the current state of the field and activism through it. The scene reports and columns offer first-hand perspectives on contributors’ extant, local work. It is our hope that the work described in the zine inspires others to engage, organize, fight back, and to listen to one another.

If you are interested in getting a print copy of the zine, check out the information on our website about ordering one. We will also be redesigning the zine to publish it as a webtext in constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space in time for 4C18. Additionally, we are always open to chatting about ongoing activist work and hearing about the ongoing activist and social justice work underway in the field of writing studies.

Don UngerDon Unger is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University. He also serves as the Faculty Fellow for Community-Engaged Teaching & Learning with St. Edward’s Center for Teaching Excellence. His research explores the impact that network technologies have on how we conceive of public rhetoric and what role service plays in shaping networks. You can contact Don at dunger1@stedwards.edu and follow him on Twitter @donunger.

Liz_LaneLiz Lane is an Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on feminist activism in digital spaces, new media, and technical communication, and designing for community engagement. You can contact Liz at etlane@memphis.edu and follow her on Twitter @fancyscholar.

Stank 2.0 and the Counter-Poetics of Black Language in College Classrooms

By Carmen Kynard

Is it possible to align with the illegible oppressed/contemporary subaltern, the falling apart abject nonsubject, inside a university English class? ~Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Kynard photoDisplacing Suede Patches and Stayin Fly…

In 2013, I moved to a new university with 20 years of teaching fully in tow.  I added these words to my syllabus in that fateful fall:

In this class, you will always be expected to connect outside sources to the topics of your writing (these sources could be books, articles, videos, film, music, archives, surveys, lectures, interviews, websites, etc). Writing critically with and from multiple, informed sources is perhaps the single, most common trademark for the kind of writing and thinking that is expected of you in the academy.  However, this does NOT mean: that you write about things you don’t care about, that you write as if you sound like an encyclopedia/wikipedia, that you omit your own voice and perspective, that you cannot be creative and energetic, that you must sound like the type of person who might wear wool/plaid jackets with suede patches on the elbows in order to be taken seriously, that you cannot be everything that makes up your multiple selves, that you cannot be Hip Hop/ Soul/ Bomba y Plena/ Soca/ Bachata/ Metal/ Reggae/ EDM/ or Rock-N-Roll, that you cannot have some FUN with it.  As Hip Hop teaches us, when in doubt, always stay flyyyy! You do not give up who you are to be an academic writer; on the contrary, you take who you are even MORE seriously.

You woulda thought that I had slapped somebody’s momma with these words given the way that my department chair responded.  Less than two months into the school year, I was called into my chair’s office and warned against including this statement on my syllabus.  Of particular concern was my crack on the suede-patch-elbow professor because it was “just mean and unprofessional.”  What if the professor coming into the room after you actually wears suede patches?  How would he feel?  I’m not sure what was more ludicrous: asking a black woman this kind of question out loud; expecting black faculty, in dire shortage at this college, to care and keep in the forefront of their minds how the predominantly white professoriate feels; or ignoring the predominantly black and Latinx students at the college to whom the words on the syllabus were directed.  She went on to explain how uncomfortable she would feel in my class as a white person, further marking black and brown bodies as an illogical racial location of college students today.

Daily moments like this remind you of the white-policing function of language in the academy.  It should come as no surprise that a white administration would respond so swiftly to my attempt at interrupting the reproduction of white language, affect, and power. The bodies of racialized students and faculty in these settings must be managed away from their proclivity to express themselves in alternative means and from alternative cultural and political legacies. Within such colonizing norms, I am expected to teach students to compose themselves by containing and restraining what Janine Young Kim calls racial emotions, namely grief, anger, fear, hatred, and disgust. In the particular instance that I am describing about my syllabus’s racial transgression, I was quite literally asked to ensure that some unnamed suede-patched-elbow white man who enters any classroom after me will not find an emotive student body of color who questions his sanctity and power.

White expectation, however, does not control black expression.  So what did I do?  I clapped back.  My seemingly offensive words are now on every syllabus that I create in even bigger, bolder, brightly-colored lettersEvery course website that I design now also bears the stamp of those words accompanied by a short word-video dropped onto a 50cent backbeat.  This way, if folk aren’t sure that I mean what I am saying, there should be no confusion now. It’s yo birthday/ We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday… And you know we don’t give a damn it’s not yo birthday! Borrowing from Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her remix of Glissant’s scholarship, pedagogy can work as a counter-poetics where everyday, routine practices in the spaces designed for the purposes of colonization are resisted and challenged.

The Counter-Poetics of Black Stank

Counter-poetics must also speak directly to the local schooling’s specificity of the colonization of brown and black people.  For me, this didn’t become clear until 2015, two years after I decided to retain my diss of suede patches on my syllabi, when I asked my first year college students a pointed question at the end of the semester: what was the best piece of writing that you did this school year (in any class) and why do you call that your best?  The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.

Those students who I would call activist and conscious, mostly queer and/or students of color, talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even answered my question as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.

But then there were those other students in the “special,” mostly white “advanced” cohort.  I was, at best, bored… but mostly disgusted.  A large number of them talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they had selected, told them what arguments to make, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go.  For these students, successful writing was when you got your drafts back from the teacher and there were no more markings on it.  No one talked about ideas, content, or dispositions they had learned or developed.  No one even talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising).

One student in particular, a young Mexican man, floored me.  We had talked on numerous occasions about his desire to assimilate into the white space of his cohort— all that he might gain and all that he stood to lose. In this assignment, he admitted that he was once flattered when his previous white male professor congratulated him when, at the end of the semester, the student was finally able to produce “clean and crisp sentences.”  Because he was ashamed that he once felt good about himself for this compliment, we talked at length about the racial undertones of a white man telling him that he was a good, “clean” and “crisp” Mexican.  I assured the young man that all was not lost, that the first step in warding off internalized colonialism is to recognize it.

I would be hard-pressed in some corners to convince some folk that wanting students of color to produce “clean and crisp” writing is a racist artifact of historical neuroses around racism and white purity.  Hard-pressed, yes, but Ima do it anyway.  The explicit discourses of nineteenth-century ideals of white purity produced a white identity, status system, aesthetic disposition, and social dominance and though these discourses are out of fashion today, this history has produced a living heritage.  Early U.S. discursive practices around cleanliness were associated solely with civility and whiteness and anything outside of that was considered polluted, impure, and immoral.  Whiteness, purity, and cleanliness have an undeniable linguistic genealogy in the United States (as well as a material reality given the money that the producers of Ivory soap made) undergirding what Dana Berthold calls “the formation of a dominant subjectivity which…is coded white” (p. 13). If my analyses of a white male professor’s inclination to insist upon “clean sentences” in his writing classes seems a bit far-fetched, I remind you that ideas around whiteness, bodies of color, and cleanliness have always been illogical. One need only remember the psychoses of Jim Crow rules where separate silverware, bathrooms, and door entries were quite violently maintained for black domestics in white homes as a way to maintain white purity.  This circulation of notions of white purity in racist systems veered long, long ago beyond the realm of the far and the fetched.

My students’ experiences with “clean and crisp” college writing politics compelled me to think more deeply about the ways in which blackness and black language can offer a counter-poetics that does not attempt to subdue, remove, and alienate physical embodiment, especially for brown and black bodies.  In fact, one of the greatest compliments that you can receive in African American culture— especially for artists likes cooks and musicians— is to be someone who can put some stank on it!  If we really listen and hear what this expression means, then we can arrive at some alternatives to the aesthetics of whiteness and racial purity that schools teach and promote.

When I tell students to put some stank on their writing, I am explicitly using a racialized code to counter teaching practices related to writing that are all about following the rules, delivering a nice, tidy, clean product to a teacher, and composing a white self that has rid itself of racial emotion.  I have in mind here a very specific argument that Hortense Spillers makes about black culture. In Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan’s interview with Spillers in 2007, “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that in black culture a narrative of antagonism is inscribed in its memory.   The epistemological antagonism of Black language in the utterance of “puttin some stank on it” offers a kind of risk-taking and ground-breaking where an audience can engage the fullness of a black/brown energy, body, and emotion in motion.

I do not just verbally repeat this mantra in my classes though.  It is also now policy, loaded onto every course website.   The instrumental of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” plays in the background; for those students who recognize the song, they will get that I am asking them to lay aside the baggage of what school has taught them.

This is not to say that everyone will like or respect my students’ writings or my own writing pedagogy.  That is not the goal, especially if liking and respecting what we do means the kind of performance for white comfort that my chair was asking of my syllabus. I tell my students that when they write, they need not accept the request that they act like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben typa domestic servants who tidy up and cater to everyone’s comfort and house rules.  The politics of why, what and how we write— and who we write for— are never racially neutralized of the history of white dominance.

Blackness As Pedagogical Transformation

In his essay describing Afro-pessimism as a critical frame for examining the structural condition of slavery and racism and their personal, subjective, and embodied realities, Jared Sexton argues that “in a global semantic field structured by anti-black solidarity, it stands to reason that the potential energy of a black, or blackened position holds out a singularly transformative possibility[…].” If we take Sexton’s arguments here seriously about a blackened position as a transformative possibility, then we can understand that black language also bears socially altering possibilities.  In fact, I would argue that expressions such as “put some stank on it” and the ways in which it circulates across black communicative spheres offer just one concrete example of how black language transforms experience: in this case, one simple utterance ruptures an entire genealogy of white purity and aesthetics and articulates an entirely different effect and affect.  If we situate black language as something beyond the general grist of research articles (for mostly white academic audiences) that explain divergences from (whitestream) dominant linguistic norms, then we see black language in terms of its own epistemological system.  This is not merely an invitation for students to speak and write in their own languages in our classrooms, but a renewed and radicalized social possibility for why.


Below is a video that one of Professor Kynard’s classes articulating their polices of composing using the same method:

For more information about this video designed by Latinx undergraduate students during a class session, please click here.


Carmen Kynard is associate professor of English at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She has led numerous professional projects on race, language, and literacy and has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her first book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the 2015 James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions” Her personal website can be found at: http://carmenkynard.org).

Works Cited

Berthold, Dana. “Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 15, no. 1, 2010,  pp. 1-26.

Gumbs, Pauline Alexis. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity.”  The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, University of Minnesota  Press, 2014, pp. 237-259.

Kim, Janine Young. “Racial Emotions and the Feeling of Equality.” University of Colorado Law Review, vol 87, 2016, pp. 437-500.

Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/sexton.html  [https://oi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02]

Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley and Jennifer L. Morgan. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 299-309.

Activist Labor: Thoughts on Getting Organized

Hubrig-TSAPHOTO20SEPT2017By Adam Hubrig

*Sigh* DACA. Climate Change. Education Policy. Institutional Racism. Community Literacy. Labor Rights. Disability Advocacy. “School Choice.” The Vanishing Tallgrass Prairie and Dwindling Number of Pollinators. And *sigh* . . . And *sigh*. . . And *sigh*. . .

As much as I want to, I can’t tackle it all.  None of us can tackle it all.

We only have so much labor we can contribute to the causes we believe in, and we have to be thoughtful and strategic about how we leverage those limited resources of physical and intellectual labor we can contribute as activists for our students and the causes we feel so strongly compelled to address.

To unpack this issue of labor as a limited resource, consider the article “What Kind of Citizen” by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. It is cited and circulated widely among practitioners of many disciplines, but I was introduced to it through my work in Community Literacy and Civic Engagement.  In the article, Westheimer and Kahne provide a useful framework for thinking about the implications of citizenship.  They define three visions of engaged citizenship, which are less distinct categories but rather broad philosophies that often blend together.  These categories are:

  • Personally-Responsible Citizenship
  • Participatory Citizenship
  • Justice-Oriented Citizenship

These categories speak to the question “What kind of citizen do we need to support an effective democratic society?” and Westheimer and Kahne use them to explore how these visions of citizenship might impact educators’ approaches to the noble goal of teaching for an engaged citizenry.

Expanding this framework to think about activism has been helpful for me as I reflect on my own activism and community involvement and how it often takes different shapes. I hope it might be useful for you, too, in thinking about the question what kind of activism best leverages our labor to affect change in our communities?

Personally-Responsible Activism

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework begins with the personally-responsible citizen, who personifies all of the basic etiquettes of engaged citizenship you were likely taught in grade school; follow the rules/laws, don’t litter, do recycle, and volunteer when the mood strikes you.  Westheimer and Kahne’s primary example, threaded throughout their writing, is that of dealing with hunger: the personally-responsible citizen is the one who might donate some cans of soup and potted meat to the food drive.

The personally-responsible citizen is primarily concerned with tending to the most immediate perceivable threats and worries.  This kind of citizenship is certainly important.  I think, here, about the outpouring of support in these last weeks for Hurricane victims and how that immediate, tangible response is necessary for relief now.  But it also has its limitations; the personally-responsive citizen is primarily reactionary and does not address the systems in place that cause or contribute to the problem(s).

In the category of Personally-Responsible Activist, we see activist work that deals with immediate needs.  I think, here, about work I do alone or as a volunteer for community organizations; working with People’s City Mission in Lincoln to address homelessness, participating in marches and rallies, providing habitats in my backyard for solitary bees, and writing letters to my elected representatives all seem like work I do as an activist that fit in this category.  I see my work advocating for my students, here, as one-on-one meetings where I address student concerns or vote for representatives-both within and outside of the institution where I teach-who will most justly and fairly represent my students.

Community literacy scholars try to encourage their students to work as thoughtful citizens, often engaging them in work as activists, too.  There are certainly community literacy projects that fit this framework of engaging students on a level of personally-responsible activism.  These projects are foremost concerned with students’ individual actions; projects designed, for instance, to get students to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours or attend a specific event and write a reflection essay.  These are all geared toward personally-responsible activism.

I don’t mean to belittle anyone engaging in the work of personally-responsible activism, here. It’s important to address these immediate needs, and personally-responsible activist work such as participating in public demonstrations or providing literacy workshops are useful to our communities.  But there are also other approaches available to those of us who aspire to be teacher-scholar-activists, and thinking strategically about these kinds of activism can help us better leverage the limited physical and intellectual labor we wish to contribute to these causes we’re investing our resources in.

Participatory Activism

Returning for a moment to the “citizenship” framework provided by Westheimer and Kahne, we’re presented with the “Participatory Citizen”.  The participatory citizen engages in work closely tied to collective, community-based efforts.  This view of citizenship recognizes the power of collectives; if, in Westheimer and Kahne’s example, the personally-responsible citizen is the one giving soup to the food bank, the participatory citizen is the one organizing the food bank and going door to door for donations.

This work, in terms of my own activism, is some of the work that I find most personally rewarding and satisfying; I serve as Co-Director for an organization called The Writing Lincoln Initiative, for example, where I help organize volunteers to work with different community partners to provide literacy workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I also work with groups of K-College writing teachers through my role as Co-Director of the Nebraska Writing Project to help teachers organize to respond to various concerns education faces (of which there are certainly many).  This organizing with other teachers and with students to various ends is deeply rewarding work, and I’ve seen it have largely positive impacts on communities.

But it, too, is primarily reactionary in that it addresses, in a more systematic and less-short term way than personally-responsible activism, symptoms caused by larger problems.  Again, this brand of participatory activism is important, necessary labor, but there are also other strategies that can be used to affect change across our communities; how else can our labor be leveraged?

Justice-Oriented Activism

The third vision of citizenship Westheimer and Kahne explore is the “justice-oriented” citizen, who “use rhetoric and analysis that calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice” (242).  In their example of addressing hunger, the Justice-Oriented Citizen uses their rhetorical, analytical savvy to address what flaws in our current system are the causes of there being humans who need the food bank in the first place.

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework for the justice-oriented citizen is laden with abstractions, and extending this framework to activism creates a potential trap of inaction; it’s not enough, shifting this framework to reflect on activism, to identify the sources and causes of those concerns (though it is an important and necessary step), we must move to action, action which frequently involves the other two visions of activism.

This kind of activism strategically leverages our labor to address the root causes of systemic issues.  Most of the labor I do is not this kind of work.  I am trying to use my labor towards this kind of activism in my own classroom through a partnership with Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a group I’m collaborating with to help other teachers in the Nebraska Writing Project network make issues of civic engagement real and tangible in their classrooms, a proactive approach to strengthening democratic involvement.

Though my personal contributions to Nebraskans for Civic Reform are self-contained, the work the organization takes on is, by its nature, Justice-Oriented Activism. It’s labor focused on addressing and changing specific causes of inequality in our democratic system.  This work aims to not only relieve symptoms of this inequality but to address root causes, mobilizing labor to change a system rather than deal with its end products.

The strategy of governance as activism, outlined in a previous post here by Holly Hassel, is a great example of leveraging our labor towards Justice-Oriented Activism.  Hassel guides us as teacher-scholar-activists to work collaboratively in the governing bodies of our departments or schools to affect policy to the benefit of our students, writing that “A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.”  Hassel points us to Justice-Oriented Activism through our labor, pinpointing a political arena where we as educators can best affect meaningful change for our students.

I wonder how I can reimagine more of my activist work in proactive, justice-oriented terms, how I can better leverage my labor inside and outside the classroom.  While this framework has been helpful in prompting reflection on activist labor, it leaves me with so many questions; how can we do more as activists with students in our classrooms to facilitate the kinds of discussions necessary for change(s) to occur?  How can we work with our peers and colleagues as activists to affect change in ways that are strategic and productive?  How can we use our own research and scholarship, as activists, to best serve ourselves, our students, and our communities?  How can we best leverage the labor we’re already engaged in to have the greatest impact both to relieve the symptoms and the causes of the difficulties our communities face?

I’m not sure, yet, but I’m excited to work with you to keep inventing, inquiring, and interrupting.


Adam Hubrig began teaching in the writing center and as an adjunct at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska.  His love for writing, education, and community engagement led him to be deeply involved with the Nebraska Writing Project and the Writing Lincoln Initiative, serving as Co-Director of both organizations. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches courses on and is fascinated by Community Literacy, Civic Engagement, and alternative forms of argumentation. He and his partner, Tiffany, enjoy volunteering in their community and tending to a meager garden, four snuggly cats, and solitary bees in Seward, Nebraska.  Reach him at Adamhubrig88@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @AdamHubrig.


Westheimer, Joel and Joseph Kahne.  “What Kind of Citizen?  Political Choices and Educational Goals.” Encounters on Education, 2003.



Governance as Activism

By Holly Hassel

Hassel_Photo_TSAIn his 2015 essay that led to the concept of this blog, the Teacher-Scholar-Activist, Pat Sullivan (building on the work of Jeff Andelora) argues that “community college students–often the most marginalized, least affluent, and least politically connected members of our communities–depend on our advocacy efforts. We must continue to speak for those who have no real voice and no real power” (329). In this blog post, I want to argue for the value of participating in representative governance as a structural avenue for activism. In many university and college systems, shared governance is the operational term. Steve Bahls defines it as an organizational practice that “align[s] the faculty, board, and administration in common directions for decision-making regarding institutional direction, supported by a system of checks and balances for non-directional decisions” (Bahls). I am in my third and final year as chair of the Faculty Council and Senate in my university and want to draw from that experience to argue for the value of participation in shared governance as a strategy for advocacy. In particular, governance work can produce policies, practices, and procedures that support equity, transparency and social justice. I would like to use this space to call upon faculty colleagues–and any institutional employee who is represented within the governance unit in their institution–to turn their activism to the internal landscape of the institution.

Faculty may find the idea of participating in governance as activism surprising, in part because–from conversations I overhear, observe, or have–there is often a sense of dispirited disappointment around the work of faculty/university senates. For example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull more Weight?” notes, “Professors have long complained about faculty-senate lethargy, and they have questioned how much the governing bodies are able to accomplish. But as tensions between administrators, faculty, and students have increased over the past few years — particularly over issues like free speech — more professors say they are seeing the consequences of weak faculty governance” (Chan). In what most would agree is an increasingly consumer-mentality, neoliberal university, it’s more important than ever that shared governance and faculty oversight of key elements of the work of the university–including curriculum, instruction, personnel evaluation, organization (or consolidation or dissolution) of departments and programs, and principles of due process, appeals, or grievances–are generally the province of academic senates. And yet, as the Chronicle article observes, “Leadership veterans describe something of a vicious cycle: If faculty members are not engaged in the senate and voicing their concerns, the senate itself is limited in what it can accomplish. Before long, the senate can acquire a reputation that it’s not powerful or effective. Once that reputation has taken root, faculty members may not view the senate as a meaningful place to spend their time, leaving a body of disengaged senators” (Chan).

At the same time, Inside Higher Ed recently published an advice column from mentoring scholar Kerry Ann Rockquemore calls faculty out by pressing them to consider the role of tenured faculty: “You have power, you cannot be fired, and — because you are one of a shrinking number of faculty with tenure — you are a leader on your campus.” Though certainly governance isn’t–and shouldn’t–just be the role or responsibility of tenured faculty, that increasingly shrinking employment class has a moral obligation, I would argue, to contribute to the organization in specific ways. It’s true that fewer and fewer of us have tenure protections–and those who do may find themselves under increasing legislative efforts to diminish those protections (see here and here). And it’s also true that even though these positions may feel less secure than they were historically, they are still the most secure positions in academia. As a result, and because of the centrality of governance work to the working conditions (and teaching and learning conditions) of students and teachers, there should be no more exigent place for tenured faculty to contribute their time and talents and yet, as the Chronicle  article asserts, it’s fairly easy for governance work to spiral into disengagement. Why?

Governance is service work, and service work can feel like a bad investment no matter what kind of place you work. For folks at R1 institutions where the reward system values research and publication, service can feel like a poor commitment of time since the value attached to it in the evaluation process is largely checking a box to indicate whether someone has served on a committee–with little to no attention paid to quality of contribution or workload associated with the activity. In a two-year college, full-time faculty with 5/5 teaching loads may find governance (if it is even part of the college culture) takes back seat to service obligations that are more time-sensitive, or have immediate payoff (advising students, curriculum development work, personnel committees, mentoring of junior colleagues, and any other array of departmental types of work). At any rate, between service to one’s campus, perhaps to the profession in the form of organizational leadership or disciplinary committees, and in some places, community service, the prospect of governance work can seem just one more unrewarding committee responsibility to take on or yet more meetings to attend without the tangible outcomes that other types of service provide.

Further, policy work is not glamorous. It often involves wading deep into weeds that many faculty are not trained to fully understand or think through despite our advanced training and for folks in the humanities and social sciences, deep engagement with complex texts. Lastly, and most frustrating, can be the sense that a governance unit or bargaining unit has no real authority, doesn’t do any work, or just puppets the view and desires of the administration. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t true in many places or that I have not seen this myself. That being said, I want to argue for participation on senates or other governance groups.

First, representative governance is the way to have a voice. In some states, this function is handled by a union, or an AAUP chapter, but in many institutions, this is a faculty senate (or combined body of staff, students, and/or faculty). It serves a democratic function, representing the interests and needs of the people in the organization to a body who governs policies and practices–and who has a special kind of obligation to telegraph those in a formal way to the powers that be, typically the administration who has at the very least the power to approve or veto the work of the senate and at the most, carte blanche fiat to ignore the will of the governance bodies.

Second, many accrediting bodies vet institutions through standards that explicitly or implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy, authority, and jurisdiction of governance groups or policies. Institutions regularly use the existence and practices of senate as support for reaccreditation reports. In this way, governance groups hold a specific type of value for university administration and senates can and should leverage this value. For example, in my own institution’s most recent accreditation report letter from the site team, the responsibilities, oversight, and work of the faculty senate (or a senate-supervised committee) was used as evidence to demonstrate fulfillment of criteria and core components related to mission and integrity; ethical conduct; quality resources and support for teaching and learning; evaluation and improvement of teaching and learning; and resources, planning, and institutional effectiveness, with the specific core component “Administration, faculty, staff, and students are involved in setting academic requirements, policy, and processes through effective structures for contribution and collaborative effort.” While certainly most documents give chancellors or provosts the ultimate right to overturn or veto almost any decision by a governance body, it is almost never in their interest to do so if it can be avoided, and governance groups can make it easier for administrators to support their activities through careful, thorough, and evidence-based policy recommendations that reflect institutional values and are tuned in to the expectations of accreditors.

Third, governance is the work of the university. In many institutions, senate policies or documents govern the process for approving curriculum, for admitting students, for appealing or filing a grievance in the case of unfair treatment; for evaluating instruction, for allocating resources. This work is core to what we do, and it is through governance that we have a voice when the values that are core to higher education are threatened, whether from internal or external forces. A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.

Last, let me also make a compelling argument for policy work. Since becoming involved in my institution’s governance body, I have mentally committed to the refrain “better living through policy.” This is because policies that are explicit, thorough, and clear have the capacity to substantially clarify and codify institutional expectations, particularly those that are unwritten or unstated but still used. Historically, academia has been an organizationally conservative and masculinist culture, driven by competition for resources, funds, or publication credit; with argument, reason, and logic privileged above collaboration, empathy, and multiple perspectives; senates are associated with the rigidly controlled structures of parliamentary procedure and a smartypants culture. However, as Kristi Cole, Eileen Schell and I have argued in  “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism,” there is room for collaboration in governance if attention is paid toward achieving it, just as the work of policy making can be essential to creating clear, transparent expectations that apply to everyone. This reduces reliance on some of the unwritten rules that may govern departments or schools and spells out criteria that can then be transparently applied to decision-making, whether that is evaluating an instructor’s performance, reviewing a curriculum proposal, or making a recommendation on a tenure dossier.

In other words, don’t give up on your faculty senate, or on governance. Service work is institutional citizenship. It cultivates a deeper understanding of campus structures which subsequently makes it easier to get things done. It is a place in which university and college workers can have their voice heard. If yours is not working, fix it. We have work to do.

Holly Hassel is Professor of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, one of 14 two-year campuses that make up the UW Colleges. She is in her third year of serving as chair of the UW Colleges Senate Steering Committee and Faculty Council. Most recently, she is the co-editor of Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership (Routledge, 2017) with Kirsti Cole. She currently serves as editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

Works Cited

Bahls, Steve. “What Is Shared Governance.” Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. https://www.agb.org/blog/2015/12/22/what-is-shared-governance

Chan, J, Clara. “A Common Plea of Professors: Why Can’t My Faculty Senate Pull More Weight?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 06 July 2017. http://www.chronicle.com.ezproxy.uwc.edu/article/A-Common-Plea-of-Professors-/240552

Cole, Kirsti, Holly Hassel, and Eileen Schell. “Remodeling Shared Governance: Feminist Decision-Making and Resistance to Academic Neoliberalism.” Surviving Sexism in Academia: Strategies for Feminist Leadership. Routledge, 2017

Rockquemore, Kerry Ann. “Who Do You Think You Are?” Inside Higher Ed. 6 September 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/09/06/how-consider-leadership-paths-once-youve-gained-tenure-essay

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Two-Year College Teacher-Scholar-Activist.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 42, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 327-350.

What’s the Rush?

By Karen Uehling

Karen UehlingA high school student visiting my campus last spring mentioned that she will be bringing in a large amount of college credits from high school, possibly entering with close to an associate’s degree. Her parents were obviously proud of their hard-working daughter who they believed had saved them a great deal of money in college costs by taking concurrent enrollment classes. The student talked about how she had gotten “her basics out of the way.” It seems Idaho students are encouraged to enter college with as many credits as possible. I was surprised to discover all this, and I wonder how such students will do in upper-division courses at a university.

What is the impetus for this credit stampede? For one thing, Idaho is searching for quick fixes for its underpaid workforce who cannot or do not go on to college. This has led to national advisory groups, state task force reports and recommendations, local advertising campaigns, and more. Like many states, Idaho embraced Complete College America (CCA), and, in 2012, the Idaho State Board of Education endorsed “Complete College Idaho.” CCA, an educational organization, calls itself a “national nonprofit,” but to me it feels corporate in some ways, with its slick, professional website and well-scripted presentations. Linda Adler-Kassner describes movements like CCA as “larger, more powerful, and better funded than any writing teachers, or even any group of writing teachers, will ever be” (136); that description resonates with me. A key element of the Complete College Idaho plan, one still strongly supported by our governor in 2017, is the “ambitious goal that 60% of Idahoans ages 25-34 will have a degree or certificate by 2020” (AKA “60X20”). One element of 60X20 is the “go on” rate in Idaho, which refers to the number of students who continue to college directly after high school. Darlene Dyer, of Wood River High School in Hailey, ID, notes that “for three consecutive years the go-on rate has been slipping”: 2013, 54%; 2014, 52%; 2015, 46%.

In 2016, the legislature passed a resolution of support for 60X20, describing it as “a stretch goal”; however, the resolution carried no additional funding, even though, as a state lawmaker noted, “Idaho is still spending less on higher education than it did in 2009” (Corbin). And in 2017, the governor convened a 36-member higher education task force to support 60X20. According to task force co-chair Bob Lokken, “There is no way we are going to get [to the 60% goal] by 2020. . . . If we could immediately increase by 50 percent the number of people who are getting degrees every year out of all of our two- and four-year institutions, we would have to run at that rate for almost a decade to get to the 60 percent goal” (Roberts).

The 60X20 goal affects first-year writing in that so-called “remedial” writing courses were reconceived as co-requisite courses rather than non-credit, pre-composition level classes, adapted from the acceleration model of the Community College of Baltimore County (ALP). In addition to college acceleration, 60X20 hinges on alternative ways to rack up college credits, including AP courses, CLEP, and other testing mechanisms, and concurrent enrollment with a vengeance. High school students are encouraged to graduate as quickly as possible through challenge exams of high school courses and financial incentives: beginning in fall 2016, all 7th -12th-graders began receiving $4,125 to spend on extra high school classes, exams that speed high school graduation, exams that may carry college credit, and concurrent enrollment college classes (“Advanced Opportunities” brochure). And, not only is there money for concurrent enrollment classes, the classes cost less than regular college attendance: for instance, a teacher at Renaissance High School in Meridian, Idaho, stated that students “can take a class for $195 versus $600 or $700 for the same class on campus” (Beach).  Linda Clark, 60X20 task force co-chair, has stated that “Idaho has a unique opportunity. With a State Board that focuses both on K-12 and higher education, Idaho can capitalize on dual credit courses and other initiatives to encourage high school graduates to stay in school” (Richert). It seems extensive concurrent enrollment and related efforts are subverting the role of community colleges or the first two years of four-year colleges.

Secondary students can also qualify for a college scholarship for early high school graduation: $1500 per year skipped (brochure).  And students can attempt many college credits: “The Dual Credit for Early Completers program allows students who have completed all their state-required high school graduation requirements early (with the exception of the senior project and the senior math requirement) to take up to 36 college or professional technical credits of dual credit courses, 12 Advanced Placement exams, or 12 College Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams paid for by the state” (“Task Force for Improving Education”).

In their book, Composition in the Age of Austerity, Tony Scott and Nancy Welch point out that projects like Complete College America (and its state affiliates, like Complete College Idaho) use “metrics like speed to degree of completion, loan default rates, and post-graduate earnings” (4). These ideas favor “quantification while ignoring or denying the qualitative,” assessment based on “scalable curriculums,” and scholarship . . . that cedes composition teaching to the realm of market algorithms and efficiency imperatives  . . . ” (8). This quantification of education is a form of speed up.

I have several concerns with speed up, especially concurrent enrollment. How can a high school teacher, no matter how skilled, take on the role of a college professor? Imagine a small, isolated mountain town where, as I learned a few years ago, there may be only one secondary English teacher who teaches all English, 7-12, oversees the school newspaper and yearbook, directs the plays, and serves as school librarian. She knows all the kids and the kids know her. She has lived in the community for some time, and she and her husband have bought a house, had children, and therefore she also knows the parents and other adults in the town. There is pressure on her to conform to community values and not rock the boat or challenge basic town mores. How can this person offer a college course for these students? Perhaps, in this case, prepared high school students could register for an online college course that at least would have a more diverse group of students in the class and would be taught by a college instructor—but how many high school students are ready for online courses? Many college students are not.

Another problem with speed up is the assumption that one time of life is primarily preparation for the next. If high school is preparation for college, then junior high is preparation for high school, and elementary for junior high; also college is preparation for grad school, and grad school, for a post doc perhaps, and a post doc for a career that probably has stages. So, philosophical question: when are we there? When do we live and enjoy the now? Obviously, I have exaggerated this, but taken to an extreme, education becomes just something to get through, not to be savored. I have met a high school teacher who believed that if even one student needed a review class in college then that meant the teacher had failed. Such teachers beg for a definition or a plan for what “college ready” means or requires them to do, implying that if only college instructors would tell them, they could make all students college ready. These teachers do not live in the present. I would ask secondary teachers, “What constitutes great secondary teaching?” Doing great teaching at the course level is the key, not rushing to prepare for the next level.

In short, high school is for high school and college is for college. I just don’t see how speeding life up helps. Potential students talk about getting all their “basics” done before they come to college, as though first-year writing and other first-year classes are mere impediments to real learning. What is “basic” in life? What are the educational “basics”? Security is basic. Trust is basic. Working toward goals is basic. Reading is challenging work, and engaging in conversation with a writer through the page is basic; that is, thinking is basic. These are basic qualities of an educated person, basic for a life.

Another concern I have is that minimum “adjunct” status is used as the norm for qualifying secondary teachers to teach concurrent enrollment classes. At Boise State University where I teach that means “a master’s degree in the subject area of the course” (Mongeau). There is also a professional organization for accrediting adjunct status for high school teachers in all subjects: the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP).  I wonder what accrediting bodies in each discipline would say about this accrediting body. In addition, there are recent incentives for secondary teachers to attain adjunct college status, including programs at Purdue and in Montana and Wyoming (Mobley). And high school teachers teaching dual enrollment are paid well below what even exploited contingent faculty earn: At my institution, high school concurrent enrollment teachers receive “an average stipend of about $800 a year for their extra time spent doing administrative tasks and attending the required professional development” (Mongeau). Contingent faculty are paid over $3,000 for a three-credit course (over $1,000 a credit hour), and beginning full-time lecturers earn $39,400 per year with benefits (Heil).

The problem of motivating students to attend college, is, in my view, intimately related to wages and the health of the economy; in 2016, Idaho was one of five states “with the highest percentages of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage” (“Minimum Wage Workers in Idaho”). Many students see little value in higher education, especially in a low wage state. In a 2016 survey study, University of Idaho researchers focused on graduating seniors with follow-up four months later. One key finding: “One-third of respondents were not fully convinced that more education would help them financially. Idaho’s average wage per job is among the lowest in the nation. Over time, the average wage gap between Idaho and the rest of the nation is increasing” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life After”). A respondent stated: “Life is hard. I am going right into work but without scholarships or any form of transportation I’m stuck in the rut of my life working to survive, saving lil’ by lil’ hoping to get an education and reach my dreams” (Hensheid and McHugh, “Life Choices”).  A couple years ago, reporter Daniel Walters, in a fascinating newspaper piece, offered comprehensive reporting on why Idaho students do not go to college, noting Idaho’s isolated geography, attitude of self-reliance, dwindling number of good paying jobs even with technical skills, and low national ratings of public schools.

In an interview with the 60X20 task force co-chairs Linda Clark and Lokken, three key points emerged: “Idaho needs to do a better job of matching degrees to workforce needs. Many Idahoans still don’t see the value in getting an education beyond high school. A statewide information campaign may be necessary to drive home the importance of post-secondary education” (Roberts).

All of this begs the question of what a quality education is—at any level. We need to focus on great secondary English teaching and great first-year college writing and how both buttress a serious education.


Adler-Kassner, Linda. “The Companies We Keep Or the Companies We Would Like to Try to Keep: Strategies and Tactics in Challenging Times.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 36, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2012, pp. 119-140.

Advanced Opportunities BrochureIdaho State Department of Education. Accessed 25 July 2017.

ALP: Accelerated Learning Program. The Community College of Baltimore County. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Beach, Holly. “An AA Degree and Head Start on College.” Idaho-Press Tribune. 10 May 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Complete College America.“About.”. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Complete College Idaho Plan.. Accessed 25 July 2017.|

Corbin, Clark. “House Debates Bible-in-School Bill; Vote Slated for Thursday.” Idaho Education News. 16 March 2016.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Dyer, Darlene. “Go-On Issues for Idaho.” NCTE Policy Report: Idaho, 30 Nov. 2016. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Heil, Mark. “FY ’18 Change in Employee Compensation.” Received by Karen Uehling, 8 June 2017.

Hensheid, Jean, and Cathleen McHugh. “Life After High School.” Idaho at a Glance. vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2016. University of Idaho, McClure Center for Public Policy Research.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

—. “Life Choices of High School Seniors.” Idaho at a Glance, vol. 8, no. 1, Jan. 2017. University of Idaho, McClure Center for Public Policy Research. Accessed 25 July 2017.
 “Idaho Dual Credit Program – Idaho State Board of Education” [brochure, PDF]. Accessed 25 July 2017.

“Minimum Wage Workers in Idaho – 2016.” Bureau of Labor Statistics. United States Department of Labor. 16 June 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

Mobley, Kimberly. “Overcoming the Shortage of Qualified Instructors to Teach Concurrent Enrollment Classes.” National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. 17 Dec. 2014. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Mongeau, Lillian. “Students Get Education Money to Manage Themselves.” US News and World Report, The Hechinger Report. 6 April 2017.  Accessed 25 July 2017.

National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP). [website]. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Richert, Kevin. “Otter Announces Higher Education Task Force.” Idaho Education News. 6 Jan. 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Roberts, Bill. “How Will Idaho Get More Workers With Degrees? Higher Ed Task Force Begins Search for Answers.” Idaho Statesman. 9 April 2017. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Scott, Tony, and Nancy Welch. “Introduction.” Composition in the Age of Austerity, edited by Scott and Welch, Univ. Press of CO, 2016, pp. 3-17, DOI: 10.7330/9781607324454.c000.

 “Task Force for Improving Education.” Idaho Office of the State Board of Education. Final report. 6 Sept. 2013. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Walters, Daniel. “Why Idaho Kids Don’t Go to College and What That Means to the Gem State.” Boise Weekly. 11 Mar. 2015. Accessed 25 July 2017.

Karen Uehling is Professor of English at Boise State University, where she has taught since 1981. A founding Chair of the Council on Basic Writing (CBW) and frequent CCCC presenter, she has published histories of CBW and basic writing at her institution and articles on adult learners, teaching, and writing. She serves as the NCTE Higher Education Policy Analyst for Idaho and posts reports for the Policy Analysis Initiative.