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Narratives, our stories: Empathy and Presence in the Face of Madness

I haven’t written a blog post in a while—I could blame lots of busy-ness, or a host of other things, but the truth is that it’s sometimes hard to know what to focus on, what to write about as a teacher and father in the 21st century. But here on December 5th I find myself feeling sad. I know lots of other people are angry; angry about unarmed black men and children being killed by police, angry that our society is alarmingly unbalanced with competing narratives of class and race, angry at stagnant wages and income inequality, angry at sickness and disease, and angry at what is an inadequate response to all of these. But also we are angry that we can’t seem to have a conversation about these things without dismissing one another and demonizing the other side. There is a great deal to be angry about, but I find myself to have a heavy heart. I spend a great deal of time with teachers and graduate students who share many of my views on race, social justice, and education. I am also lucky enough to spend time with lots of working class folks, usually coaches and other parents I know. Finally, I am blessed to spend lots of time with students. While most of my teacher friends and many of my students have been outraged at these deaths, I have also read and heard accounts and had conversations that blame the people who were shot. They blame them because they should have followed police instructions, or because little boys shouldn’t have toy guns that look so real, or for a lot of other reasons. These folks are some of the same ones from whom I hear that it’s people’s own fault that they are poor, and by implication, it is African-Americans’ fault that they are poor. I hear, too, that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to fear from the police. I find these to be naive views that don’t fit my or my students’ experience. Many of the people from whom I hear things like this work hard and are good community members, good parents, good church members, good people who often absolutely refuse to see the role that racism has in these events. It’s disheartening. It’s complex. It’s hard to understand. One of the things that I’ve realized is that I can’t fight all of those battles or have all of those arguments and, while I disagree with their sentiments from my toes to the top of my head, I don’t think it’s ever made clear that these attitudes seem to be the prevailing ones. In fact, my non-teaching friends, especially my friends who are working class, often feel like they are the ones being persecuted. I often feel like voices that speak out against systemic racism and classism aren’t heard or are dismissed. Every one of these interactions is exhausting—overt and coded racism are everywhere. Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s most overt with white men when they’re together with other white men. Perhaps it’s the blaming that I find most difficult. After all, it isn’t as if I wasn’t in trouble all the time when I was a kid and it isn’t as if my own children have been angels either. I could tell people that I ran around with a BB gun that looked just like a rifle when I was a kid and that no one shot me, or that my stepson, who is 20, shop lifted at a Wal-Mart and was simply told to come back inside and was released with a ticket when he was 18, or that he stole a truck and that the wide response to that was that boys will be boys. I could write that I am the same size and shape as Eric Garner, and I can’t imagine a police officer speaking to me that way, much less three of them attacking me. I, too, have asthma, like Mr. Garner did, and know well the constriction of airways brought on by panic or highly emotional situations. I could be Eric Garner; my stepson could be Michael Brown; and my 10-yr old, who is big for his age, could be Tamir Rice. Yet, we couldn’t. Some of the reason for that is class privilege, but a greater portion of it is our while privilege. Having this conversation outside of classrooms and teacher offices is exhausting and difficult. It isn’t always worth it. I know that some people will be angry at that statement, but it’s true, the conversation isn’t always worth the trouble. Therefore, I’ve been searching for some narrative, some story, to be able to explain just what many of my students face that my own children don’t face. Here is one example that I think is worth thinking about. We began classes at Metropolitan Community College this week. It’s our winter quarter and I’m teaching two sections of students who are in our dual-credit high school completion program. I love them already. The afternoon group happens to be made up entirely of African-American women. I am a double minority in that class. This week we’ve been talking about definition maps, vocabulary acquisition strategies, note taking and all of the other things that go on in my blended reading and writing section, but we’ve also been getting to know each other and learning to trust each other. This task isn’t easy—it never is. But I wanted to write and share about some of the things that I’ve learned this week. One of the texts that we read is Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, who I will hug if I ever meet him. It chronicles Jack’s mistake of selling drugs in the early 1970s and his subsequent incarceration. But Jack is also a writer and the book chronicles his literacy journey and his work to become a writer. My students love it; I love it. And it gives us a great deal to talk about. Jack tells us in the beginning of the book that he’s been to nine different schools. When I read that the first time, I was stunned. That’s a lot of schools to have gone to, especially given that he’s not even out of high school yet. I went to three schools. I had never considered the advantage of the stability of my school life, but here it was. About four years ago, I began to use Jack’s number of schools as a writing prompt. I was interested in having the students count up the number of schools that they had gone to and to have them write about why they changed so often. It’s been an immensely successful prompt and lets us talk about their story and their wounds from school (see Kristin Olsen’s important book, Wounded by School). So what did the students say? The numbers are high. Usually, Jack’s nine schools isn’t even close to the top. Yesterday, one of my students could count 20 schools, the lowest number was 8 and the mean was 13 (if you trust an English teacher’s math). Why is it important that students switch schools so often? After finding that so many of my students, especially students who are economically struggling, and who have other disruptions in their lives move so much, I became suspicious that it affected their learning in a detrimental way. This revelation is one of those “well, duh” findings, but I hadn’t really considered it and I wonder how many of my colleagues at post-secondary institutions do either. We don’t necessarily get to see those disruptions or see the history of those disruptions. But we are often bitter and upset about students’ lack of preparation for our classes and we’re often disheartened by how many of our students begin in our developmental classes. The research shows that my “well, duh” moment is accurate. Students who move frequently have trouble succeeding academically for a variety of reasons. A study authored by scholars at Portland State University and Center for Community Research and a study by an Economics Professor at Notre Dame make the effects of frequent moving quite clear. Academic growth, social integration, and variety of other items are negatively affected by frequent moving. These studies don’t quantify the losses as simply as I would like, but my students are often three grades behind in reading according to our measurements at the community college and are even further behind in math. My students report going to different schools and starting in the middle of a curriculum, or having to relearn something they’d already done, or that a school was much easier or harder than the previous one. It’s easy to generalize that these disruptions are difficult and are catastrophic in their accumulation. So, one of the takeaways here is that my students, who are dropouts, who resist and dislike school for the most part, are students who have had a great deal of disruption. This disruption is a kind of wounding and requires our empathy rather than our contempt. There are many other wounds, which require our empathy too. What else have I learned about my students this week? I have learned that substance abuse has ravaged their families and their own lives in many ways. I learn this every quarter, actually. I hear stories from my students who are recovering alcoholics and addicts. I hear stories about their parents who are still addicts and alcoholics. Often these students have had to live with their grandparents and have been bounced around the foster care system, to say nothing of the moves that they’ve had to make with parents in the middle of the night. At the end of last quarter, the administrative assistant told me that one of my former student’s mother had overdosed and died. She probably could have been saved but for the fact that, while she was choking on her own vomit, her partner was passed out on the couch and unable to help her. This week, one of my students told me about how both of her parents had died of drugs, and that she is now in recovery herself. Another student’s mother is working at a halfway house after getting sober herself. And I know we’d like to believe that these are isolated incidents, but they are not. They are the lived reality of the students in my program. And it is the reality of my students regardless of race. Substance abuse, poverty, frequent moving, and the resulting low-academic ability/achievement form a powerful and mostly inescapable combination. All of this, the racism, the classism, and the frequent moving, the substance abuse, combine to make my students’ lives challenging. I haven’t even touched the trauma of violence and rape. It adds up and is staggering. I respond to my students with empathy most of the time, but sometimes I don’t or I struggle with it. When a student cannot keep still or quiet, sometimes I remember that she is the daughter of two drug addicts, was abandoned by her father, and has been to 20 schools, all of which has combined to prepare her very poorly for my class, and sometimes, despite my training and reading and experience, I respond with anger and frustration. Sometimes I cannot hear students in these circumstances. I have to practice what Mary Rose O’Reilley calls listening like a cow in her book Radical Presence. That kind of listening and acceptance of a student where they are at is hugely difficult and goes against my training as a teacher in the current-rhetorical tradition. Am I not supposed to make students learn? I don’t think that anymore, but I feel like it’s hard wired in there sometimes and that some of the old wiring just hasn’t ever been removed. All of this makes me wonder if my friends see my students and the victims of police violence completely; have they really heard and considered their stories? Would they call public safety or the police on my mentally ill student who got under the table and curled into a fetal ball and cried? I didn’t; I couldn’t. I think the value of the story of my students isn’t that it’s sad or exploitive like some kind of dystopian narrative, but that it evokes empathy. If I am at my most present, my most human, then I must listen to and respond to my students’ humanity. I wonder that if we could tell their stories, then we might just raise more empathy for the worlds that we live in, which are so often segregated by race and class. I don’t know the answer to this, but I know that I’m a better human being for trying to listen to my students rather than to exercise my authority over students. Of course, my authority, to my knowledge has never killed anyone directly. I’ve never choked anyone to death or shot them. But I think of Sherman Alexie’s Character Mr. P in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Mr. P apologizes to the protagonist Jr. telling him that he and other teachers did horrible things in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the child”. Obviously, there’s a long and terrible history permeating every letter of that statement. But I want to extrapolate an analogy here—through listening and empathy I’m killing fewer students, perhaps by refusing to assimilate them and by valuing them. What is the equivalent of that for law enforcement and our national dialogue? How do we listen and be present in a way that fosters the valuing of black students and people—black fathers who are overweight and have asthma and children just like this white father? It’s so radical a notion to think that listening and presence are an answer to this madness that makes my heart so heavy. Perhaps it’s madness, but it’s what I have today.

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Reading Class, Connecting with Students, Teaching Linda Christensen

In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen tells the reader that “equating success with wealth starts early—think of Cinderella’s magical transformations. Through clothes we can move from scullery maid to princess.” (71).  Of course, this made me think back to the original non-Disney version, where the ugly stepsisters chop off their own toes to make them fit into the glass slipper. Being very visual, I can see the blood smearing on the glass and have images of the slipper filling up.  And I think this is about right in some regards; many in our culture would wound themselves, mar themselves to fit into the idea of beauty, especially beauty expressed through the material and the body.  Christensen goes on to write “students play out this story on a daily basis. Children begin ranking and sorting each other based on those material possessions: clothes, toys, electronic gear, cars” (71).  My students’ experience proves this to be true over and over again.  And, when I examine my own story—growing up working class in an increasingly middle-class suburb, I know that what I thought was my own unique anxiety over clothing and status wasn’t unique at all, just painful in the way that I hacked at my own toes to fit in.

We write about class every quarter in my Fundamentals of Writing Class at Metro.  It’s a terrific course and I have a textbook called Seeing and Writing that allows the students and I to look at things through both text and images.  It’s a smart book.  Interestingly, the chapter called “Confronting Class” is one of my students’ favorites.  I actually begin with a piece of a documentary called “People Like Us” which always engages my students by pissing them off.  One of my students, we’ll call him Hank, was watching the documentary in this disengaged way.  He’s already resisted our conversations on race and gender, struggling to see how these related to him.  But when a woman in the documentary made a snarky comment about driving a Ford in a true blue blood old money voice, he erupted. “Fucking bitch, what does she know!”  Now I know I’m probably supposed to admonish Hank in this moment, but I didn’t.  Instead I saw it as a way into him, into our conversation.

Hank dressed like a middle class guy and wrote his first essay on snowboarding, which has some decidedly middle-class markers.  I think it’s safe to say that none of my poor students from North and South Omaha have ever been snow boarding, or skiing or water skiing.  Heck, neither have I.  But Hank suddenly revealed that his father was a mechanic.  He wanted to stand up for that Ford and for the people who drove Fords.  The documentary had punctured something for him.  I seized upon it and we began writing about class.  Hank gave me an essay about when his parents sent him to a parochial school in Omaha during his elementary school days.  Hank went the first day wearing his shoes that lit up.  They were worn shoes, but they were cool to him and they were what he had.  None of the other students had light up shoes, they were considered infantile.  And all of the students had new shoes, something that was expected for the first day of school.  This painful memory served as the motivating force for Hank to go on to become a drug dealer. And that choice led to him watching his friend die in front of him.  He had to have his own money to have clothes to fit in with everyone.  He had to pass as middle class or as cool.  I saw Hank with new eyes then.  He had been performing his identity. His middle class clothes and the stories of middle class exploits, including vacations and cars weren’t exactly true or untrue—they were what he wanted others to see because he was carrying the legacy of being laughed at for light up shoes and his father being a grease monkey.  His anger about class was bright and hard and gave us a place to build on his writing and thinking.

Hank’s story and the narratives in Christensen’s chapter “Can’t Buy Me Love: Teaching About Clothes, Class and Consumption” brought me back to several memories from my own childhood growing up a working class kid.  I don’t think that I ever thought about clothing until I got to Harry Anderson Middle School in the sixth grade.  Suddenly clothes were a competition just as Christensen describes in her chapter.  I didn’t know what was cool.  Didn’t own what was cool, and suddenly I had been marked.  I had found that “clothes [were] class. And coming from my class background, I wanted desperately to fit into [my classmates’] world” (71).  I began begging my parents to take me shopping at Richman-Gordman’s rather than at K-mart.  I quickly learned that the blue light special was a special mark of shame.  In the sixth grade, I can remember sitting on a gazebo bench with my friend who had migrated from the same elementary school to this enormous, terrifying middle school, and grabbing the back of his shirt and twisting it so that I could look at the label.  I was desperate to compare, to consume, to fit in.  I wanted my foot to fit into the glass slipper.  I remember the fads, coca-cola branded clothes, Guess, t-shirts with ivy league college logos on them (I believe I convinced my mother to get me a Princeton shirt, which I feel laughably embarrassed even writing now), and Ocean Pacific.  Dear God, I needed OP clothes to be cool.

It didn’t end there. In the seventh grade, my friend Brian and I had finally been invited to a party and we dressed ourselves up in new shirts and jeans and liberally, much too liberally, splashed Brut cologne on ourselves.  We were anxious to have it right—to perform the right codes so that everyone at Emily ‘s house would accept us somehow.  I can remember my cousins laughing at us in the driveway.  They knew we’d overdone it.  And Brian’s shirt’s color was coming off and was turning his skin and unhealthy corpse colored green.  Of course, we’d totally misread everything.  When we got there everyone was in t-shirts and we still didn’t fit in there.  I can remember nothing about that night’s party except for an ugly sixth grader making out with the seventh grade girl I had a crush on.  Clothes hadn’t allowed me to fit in; there were still many more things that seemed to leave me out in the cold.

Christensen tells her readers that writing about these things is “part of [her] yearlong campaign to get students to examine what is taken for granted and normalized” (75).  She sees it as part of a literacy that is vital for students to become aware of because “too often, school allows students to stay isolated in their private feelings and observations” noting that “their emotions and interpretations are at the mercy of advertisers and a culture industry that rarely have young people’s best interests at heart” (75).  Hank and I were just like that.  Our private observations about class and clothing had led us to conclude that we weren’t worthy and that we had to fit in at any cost.  I see this with more and more with my students as I learn to read this phenomenon more adroitly.  The awareness that Christensen raises here is the awareness that Freire calls for us to have as he urges us to read the word and world.  As I’ve taught in a community college over the last six years, I’ve learned to read class and to look back and see how much better I might have managed the world I was slogging through if I had been taught the kinds of literacies that would have allowed me to raise my consciousness along these lines.  Teaching that now is an opportunity that I’m terrifically grateful for and one that my students respond to in a ferociously positive manner.

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Mindfulness, Literacy, and Class: What keeps me up at night

In the forward to Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice, by Mary Rose O’Reilley, Parker Palmer writes “the ‘secrets’ of good teaching are the same as the secrets of good living: seeing one’s self without blinking, offering hospitality to the alien other, having compassion for suffering, speaking truth to power, being present and being real” (ix).  I’ve just finished my first week of teaching for the fall 2014 quarter and I’ve struggled with that a bit–I think I’ve been successful at it too, but it’s a challenge.  The other night my wife, Sara, asked me if I was going to teach in the Gateway program next year, which is the program where my community college takes on high school dropouts as students in an attempt to get them a diploma and to help them reset their lives.  Mind you, we’re a week into the first of three quarters, so I was a bit surprised by her question.  She told me that she thought it brought me down.  She went on to contrast it with the ethnic literature class that I taught the previous summer, which had brought me a lot of joy.  I had to concede that the first week had been difficult.  My section of English 0950 is very immature and really aren’t a good fit for the Gateway program.  They are immature and nearly devoid of cultural literacy with no real awareness of even the most important events of the day.  They are alien to me as Parker mentions in his introduction.

Even though I grew up without a great deal of material resources and with parents who didn’t have an education beyond high school, I was a voracious reader.  I was curious.  I think that I saw being smart as a good thing and I wanted that. I think one of the problems here is that I project my own intellectual curiosity onto these students and am disappointed when they don’t have it.  Or perhaps what I should say is that they don’t value it and thus have chosen not to develop it.  I come back to that writing prompt I gave them on the first day and know that many of the students in my 0950 class value money.  Or they think they do.

I’ve also been reading a book called Defying the Odds: Class and the Pursuit of Higher Literacy by Donna Dunbar-Odom wherein she discusses the “conventional wisdom” that argues that children who grow up in a “book-rich environment” make kids who are readers (45).  Dunbar-Odom has always found this to be an interesting assertion because she grew up in a working-class house of “indifferent, infrequent readers” (45).  In fact, she says that her work in that book is to figure out why some seek “higher literacy against all expectations […]” (45).  I love that move because I’m that kid.  I sought literacy against the expectations and reality of my circumstances.  There were no books in my home except the ones that I brought in to the home.  My father did read the paper everyday, but that really is the only literacy practice that I saw undertaken and modeled in my home.  So perhaps the reason I loved my students in my ethnic lit class this summer so much is that they were really very much like me.  They were students who didn’t come from literacy rich environments, but who had nonetheless turned to reading, and most importantly the reading of literature, for something they weren’t finding elsewhere.

I want to come back to another conundrum in my own personal life.  Last night I went to Oktoberfest at Gerda’s with my wife and son.  We met several parents from Maxwell’s school, which is a private co-ed school in Omaha.  Last year, during Max’s first year there, I struggled with the school, which I love in some ways, and the kinds of values that come with it, which seem at times to be less about education than about status and the maintaining of privilege.  The contrast is especially stark when I teach in North Omaha during the day, across the street from dilapidated houses and where I’ve seen the SWAT team twice and then pick up Max in the afternoon in a long train of Mercedes, Accura, BMW, and Porsches (2 and 4-door and what is the point of a 4-door Porsche).  In fact, we had been invited last year to a back-to-school get to know you shindig and I had an anxiety attack when we rolled up to the mansion and I saw how well-dressed everyone was.  We didn’t go in–I couldn’t have done it and thankfully my wife didn’t press the issue.

But back to Gerda’s.  Gerda’s is a neighborhood joint and it’s my kind of place.  And I did well with the parents, but, in a way, they are like my students who were talking about being rich.  Within two minutes of sitting down with a man that I met, he was telling me about his time at Georgetown and Michigan.  He probed about my educational status, asking if I was a K-state alum because of my hat.  I didn’t offer that it was my graduate degree or anything else.  Later, I heard him talking about where to go skiing in the spring given the sad state of the short spring break that the kids get.  I’ve never been skiing and see it marked by class. Plus I had no idea that our spring break was too late and too short.  I’m really amazed at the stuff I don’t know when I arrive at the intersections of class.  A couple of minutes later, the men across from me were talking about their Porsches–one of the men just bought a house in Regency (a neighborhood that has a reputation for being incredibly wealthy in Omaha) so that he could tear it down and build a new house–he needs something with six garages for his sports car collection.  What’s interesting is that there was little to no talk of the work that these folks did.  I have no idea what these men do or what their wives do.  It’s a weird disconnect because I grew up hearing men talk about their work, but it’s one of the things that I’ve learned by observation: the more one makes, the less they talk about how they make it.  I don’t know why.  But again, these folks are not bad, but they seem just as interested in the material as my students.  So I can’t judge my students’ low literacy and educational achievement as the root cause.  It must be somewhere else.

But then, am I the alien that Parker is talking about?  I know that many writers have talked about the disconnect that happens when one moves between classes and from an uneducated place to a an educated place.  Sherman Alexie’s character Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is one of my favorite examples.  Jr. doesn’t feel at home with the white educated kids for the most part and his launching out into the world to pursue an education has separated him from his home community as well.  I feel like my best students, and again, perhaps what I’m really saying is “the students who are most like me” are like Jr. and suffer in this way.

And what does it mean to be present and hospitable to both of these groups–the first of which made me angry this week because they didn’t share my vision of escape through education and the second of which makes me angry because I feel like they’ve misused their education and advantages–they haven’t achieved any kind of critical consciousness or lifted anyone up–they’ve just reified their own position (I don’t really know that though, so I’m making assumptions here).  Yet I’m drinking with them and my son is playing with their sons, so we must share something.

In returning to Dunbar-Odom’s book, I’m trying to find an answer.  I love the move that she makes to show two major arguments about the uses of literacy.  On one side she places Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom and E.D. Hirsch who, quite reductively, see literature as a way to show what is best about culture and to instantiate and propagate that culture.  Dunbar-Odom says that this tradition claims that “the grand narrative of literacy is that it will enable prosperity and critical awareness” (45). She contrasts that with Freire, Finn, hooks, Gramsci and others who she argue see “the same emancipatory function” of literacy “in different terms” (46).  Interestingly, I have no idea what my students or the parents at the bier garten are thinking about this.

I wish all of this had some sort of neat conclusion.  But what I know is that when I’m honest, my definition of literacy is complicated and comes from both the position of thinking of literature of emancipation and of transmitting culture.  I know that I love students who are like me and that I genuinely want to help struggling students even when they are not like me.  I want to offer them the hospitality that Parker Palmer discusses.  However, I’m coming to see that it’s a dangerous fallacy to think that all of my poor and working class students will want the kind of emancipatory narrative that I’ve wrapped myself in as I’ve moved from the working class home I grew up in to being a college instructor with cultural capital and even some material capital.  I have to remember something I saw years ago as a good analogy.  There was a man in Nebraska City who was in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He had helped many people get sober and put their lives together.  Really a pretty terrific guy.  Well one day he was attempting to help a woman, they were sitting at his kitchen table, and she looked at him and said: “I don’t want to be your fucking miracle.” At the time it stunned me.  And it’s one of those moments that has always stuck with me.  I have to be mindful that my students may not want what I want for them, and no, it isn’t just a case that if they knew what I knew that they would.  My awareness is not their awareness.  It’s that they are different and alien and I must meet them as they are.  But I wonder if that line is bullshit.  Who knows.  Tomorrow I teach again.

Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

Recently I’ve been thinking of a presentation that my colleague, Sarah Thomas, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, gave at the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute.  The problem that she brought up, as I understand it, is: how do we still have authentic writing and writing instruction in the classroom in an era where the assessment culture, driven by neoliberal notions about the purpose of education, dominate.  One of the audience members, Adam Hurig, who teaches at a community college, had the courage to say that he didn’t get the formative and summative assessment jargon that we were talking about.  I think it is the confluence of these two events that has clarified the direction of my continuing research and my decision to go back to school to get a doctorate.  To be clear: we have to fight the assessment culture that has become the dominant force in education.  And, concurrently, we have to train the teachers who will be practitioners at community colleges with the background and methods that will make them more than just content experts, but also able to talk back to their own institutions and to the education culture in ways that serve students.

I’m sure that these two items seem very different, so let me spend time with each of them and then try to synthesize them in a way that makes my “mad bomber” activism and perspective seem, I hope, a little more sane.  First, I think that most educators would agree that NCLB is a disaster, a failure of epic proportions.  I say that without hyperbole.  And I should be quick to add that by most educators I mean K-12 educators and professors in education departments.  Interestingly, while faculty in English and math departments at colleges and universities bemoan the preparation of their incoming students, they don’t know why the students are that way.  Really, I know it sounds like an over-generalization, but most of the faculty, good and smart people for the most part, know abstractly that NCLB and the testing culture that it has spawned are bad, but they don’t know why exactly and deeply.  Charles Simic, who is one of my favorite poets, is a good example of my colleagues’ attitudes.  In a post called “The Age of Ignorance” on the New York Review of Books website, he lambasts the public’s ignorance and their belief in conspiracies, creationism, love for foolish, yet attractive politicians etc., which he sees as a result of the dumbing down of the high school curriculum over decades.  When I posted this article on my Facebook feed, many of my professor friends were quick to like it and comment with something like an amen.  Of course, Simic fails to mention that we educate more of our populace than we ever have before and that many more students take an advanced curriculum that was only available to the rich 100 years ago.  His post smacks of elitism and it’s just wrong.  The curriculum isn’t to blame–it’s the assessment culture that has made the curriculum huge, but which also precludes the time to investigate deeply and creatively.  He’s right in a way, but for the wrong reasons, and his call from the ivory tower is condescending.  I would love to invite him to the high schools that my colleagues teach at or to the community college where I teach–it’s a different world.

But all of this doesn’t get rid of the fact that my students at my college are shockingly unprepared.  Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, college and university teachers are largely unprepared to undo any of the damage that has been committed to these students because of the test culture.  This fact brings us back to Adam, who I’m using as a cipher, with apologies, who teaches at a community college in Lincoln and to myself who teaches at a community college in Omaha.  We are both highly trained content experts.  We understand the deep teaching of writing, reading and thinking, and we work hard with our students.  However, he and I, like most teachers at community colleges, and I would bet like most teachers at universities haven’t had any methods training or training that gives us a background in the current issues in education.  Teachers like us only know and engage with the rhetoric of education and the current issues surrounding our national discourse on education if we are interested. And there are many many Charles Simic’s out there who would rather blame the curriculum than look deeply at real causes.  Of course, this isn’t new; Joseph Harris in Composition: A Teaching Subject since 1966 speaks directly to this as a cycle rather than something new.  When the sons of merchants entered Harvard in the 1800s, the professors were quick to point out that these students didn’t measure up. Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary tracks the increasing numbers of students being educated at higher and higher levels.  And never mind that, while my students cannot do the critical thinking that I want them to do, that they instead have digital literacies that astonish.

Simic writes that “A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business” and this is true.  The neoliberal ideology and corporate kleptocracy that run our country see students as human capital rather than as human beings to be developed.  Educators fall into this trap too, especially when we talk about the point of education, or the major outcome at the minimum, to be getting students “career ready.” We did not push back on the argument that our culture had about the purpose of an education.  And, unfortunately, we have substituted an education that prepares students to be citizens, activists and better humans, for an education that is interested in mere preparation to be a part of the economy.  We must never forget that those who run the economy aren’t interested in their subjects’ resistance to these systems.

All of which brings me to a recent conference that I attended in Austin Texas called NISOD–I was receiving a teaching excellence award that the organization doles out to its member colleges every year.  One of the keynote speakers was a woman from the Lumina foundation.  She explained that the goal of the foundation was to help 60% of Americans receive a degree or certificate by some date in the near future–the current rate is a little less than 30% nationally, so it’s an ambitious goal. And it sounds laudable right? But this rhetoric is insidious.  For colleges to judge the quality of their offerings, she suggested that we will have to engage in much more assessment, what Sarah called the “data culture” in her equip.  The speaker also made it clear that the reason why we needed 60% of our citizens to be educated with a degree or credential was so that they could engage in the 21st century economy–there was a little talk about being a good citizen, but it was clear that her version of a student was one who engaged with, rather that critiqued and resisted the global capitalism that has resulted in the larges income inequality in history and brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.  Lumina comes from the latin for light.  As I sat in the darkened auditorium with 500 other award winners though, I could see very little of the light going on with the education professionals there.  It sounds harsh, but community college instructors are largely unprepared to meet and resist the current rhetoric of education which is permeated by the assessment culture that has already overwhelmed and undermined my K-12 comrades.  I was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but it might be too late.

When I add this up, it this makes me even surer that my research work will revolve around critical pedagogy at the community college.  How do we make sure that our instructors have a broad view of the purpose of education?  We often talk about the poor persistence and completion rates at our community colleges.  And Vincent Tinto, the guru on student retention and success argues in Completing College that it all comes down to engagement.  We see engagement very narrowly in our culture–we see it as enticing students with the promise of future success in a competitive economy.  Perhaps though it is the students’ unconscious resistance to joining the rat race that makes them drop out.  What if instead we taught the whole student, what if we gave them the tools to be activists in their community against those unjust systems rather than worked to conform them in some way to fit within that system?

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Max and Dad Up to Bat: Connecting Writing and Baseball

Maxwell is up to bat.  He’s 10 and 4 ft 11 inches tall, a solid 100 lbs.  His swing is good, level, practiced through fall ball, winter clinics, weekly trips to the batting cage.  The kid on the mound is huge, his shoulders tell me he’s a farm kid, maybe he pulls the plow by himself.  He’s easily five eight and he’s throwing heat–the equivalent of a little league Nolan Ryan.  The first pitch is a ball and Max pulls himself out of the batting box holding up his right hand, the sign for time.  He steps back in, holding his hand up and wiggles his cleats down into the dirt.  He lowers his hand, adopts his stance and the pitcher lets go. “Strike!” growls the ump.  The ball hit the catcher’s mitt with a satisfying thwop–meaty and deep–the ball was flying.  The next pitch, Max gets a piece of it, pinging it foul to the first base side. The next pitch, a ball high and hard–Max’s whole body jerked he wanted it so bad, but he restrained himself.  Another pitch, another foul.  Another pitch, another ball a full count.  And a good AB, he’s making the pitcher work–making this demi-god who needs his birth certificate checked sweat a little bit in the humid after rain morning of Lincoln, Nebraska.  The next pitch Max swings… and misses. He’s out.  He has failed.  It was a good at bat though–seven pitches is a good attempt–it’s good work at the plate–it’s not the result he wants, but against a tough pitcher, a quality plate appearance is all one gets sometimes.

I’m in my office, and while the dimensions aren’t nearly that of a baseball park, something like an at bat is going on here, too.  I’m facing a page two-dimensionally projected onto my laptop screen,  my only spectator on old black lab who’s looking awfully sleepy at what must seem like a lack of action.  Hank Aaron wrote that the thing that he liked “about baseball is that it’s one-on-one. You stand up there alone, and if you make a mistake, it’s your mistake. If you hit a home run, it’s your home run.”  I’m working through the pitcher’s repertoire here, trying to get ink on the page that makes sense for the reader even if it’s only the equivalent of hitting a bloop single in A ball, hell maybe in sandlot ball.  I type a bit, and then a bit more, stop, put my hand on my head or drink my coffee.  I consider that I should be in the shower, should be making breakfast, should be waking my wife, but then reject all of that and come back to the plate or the page.  The great Yogi Berra once quipped that “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical” and this morning as my concentration ebbs and flows like the the concentration of my son in the batter’s box, I laugh at the genius of Berra.  It’s like there’s more happening than is possible, the control of the prose, the pushing of the ball out into a part of the field where no one is standing–feels immense–like more than two halves crammed into a whole.

Learning to hit a baseball well is the hardest thing in all of sport.  It’s simple physics really: hitting a sphere with a cylinder, which are both traveling at varying speeds, and are further affected by wind, temperature, humidity, and how the fallible human eye perceives it, all create lots of room for difficulties.  If I were a physicist, I could probably explain the fluid mechanics to you, but you’ll have to take my word for it–it’s hard.  Over the years of coaching baseball and now watching my son on a select team (he’s left my coaching abilities behind), I’ve seen countless kids cry after striking out, or after getting a weak grounder and being tagged out at first.  To say that there is no crying in baseball as Tom Hanks’s character claims in the film A League of their Own is patently ridiculous.  There’s also anger in baseball. I’ve watched kids wallop home plate with their bats and come back pissed to the dugout.  And, of course, on tv I’ve seen major league tantrums by major league players–bats destroying water coolers or rows of helmets.  Hell, in just the last week some guy went on the DL for breaking his hand in anger after a poor pitching performance.

Learning to write well is another of those hard skills.  In writing, I’m a player/coach, that is a writer and a teacher of writing.  One of my favorite grading standards that I’ve seen is: student is in control of the prose, which I suppose is like saying that the player has a good swing, but that doesn’t mean that the idea, the concept that we’re trying to tattoo down the line for a double, is holding still at all.  The ball isn’t controllable, but the swing is practicable. This morning I’m controlling the sentences as they come out, but the mind, the pitch, goes wildly everywhere, racing ahead of me like a fastball and suddenly cutting out from my ability to hit it like that nasty breaking stuff.

Baseball and writing are all about process, we spend time judging the product, but the work that makes that product possible is in a process. Last year for the city all star tournament, Max cried everytime he struck out (he was nine folks)–and there were a couple of epic strikeouts with runners on base, in scoring position, with the game on the line.  Max had to produce in that pressure filled situation.  It didn’t matter what he’d done the rest of the season, all those doubles to right and the stolen bases to get his team 60 feet closer to a run, he needed to produce here too.  After those games we rode home in my truck, such conversations should take place in a truck by the way, and I tried to tell him how to mentally work through those plate appearances–the pitcher’s weren’t better than Max, and I’m not saying that as a dad, it’s just that they were hittable–the task was doable, but the pressure got to him–he wasn’t in control of his process.  And I’ve had those moments writing too.  There are times when the sentence isn’t right and that I’m not saying what I mean.  Like right now, I want to bowl the reader over with beauty, with the connection of baseball and writing and how they both teach something about human endeavor.  I should go back to my advice in the truck, which was make contact with the ball, don’t worry about the homer, or the score, be present for the ball.  Being present for this sentence does teach me about human endeavor if I am there for it.

Often students tell me that they just aren’t good at writing and that they don’t like it.  I’ve come to believe that they just aren’t good at practice, which is something that baseball is teaching me over and over.  Every coach will haul out the old chestnut that you will practice like you play. It’s true; just as one has to write an essay many many times, has to free write for 15 minutes every morning, has to make sure their butt is in the chair at ‘o’ dark thirty, one also has to put the glove in the dirt while putting the second hand over it so that the ball doesn’t squirt out.  We build muscle memory in the field just like we do writing pushups.  Fielding and writing don’t happen overnight.  And just as with my writers, it’s enjoyable and satisfying to watch the growth of baseball players from year to year. What had seemed impossible two years ago, and improbable a year ago, is routine this year.  Max knows the two strike approach, he can protect the plate and extend the at bat most of time now–just as I, over the years, have learned to fill a page or two with something readable and coherent, if not brilliant and insightful.

The lesson of baseball is practice and that is the lesson of writing too.  The 15 minutes at the batting cages everyday is analogous to the 15 minute free write.  But it’s more than that, it’s also the lesson of process.  There is a right way to learn a batting stance and there is a right way to field the ball, but each of those right ways is subtly modified by the individual–there are several right batting stances and swings, but they must be arrived at through hundreds of hours of trial and error.  I think back to writing poems in notebooks as a senior in high school–terrible poems–like the worst hacks of the untrained batter.  I had a pen and paper, a bat and a field, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I  only had desire.

Taylor Mali, in his great poem “What Teachers Make”, quips that he teaches students to show their work in math and hide their work in English.  He tells his listener that he makes students write definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful over and over again until they will never ever misspell it.  Writing and baseball are like this: they hide the work that they do.  Maxwell is a catcher and he will go out and he’ll gear up and I’ll throw him nasty, mean balls that bounce and spin so that he can practice blocking the plate, being a wall as you’ll hear coaches scream.  Definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful as ball after ball hits his gear or his unprotected inner thigh, or bounces into his mask.  And it looks beautiful in the game, but it’s the ugly practice, the work, the catching of fly balls until the sun is so low that each one is a broken cheekbone waiting to happen that makes it work on the field.  Do the work, but hide it and look brilliant when you perform–this is the lesson of baseball and writing.  I know this because it’s 5:49 AM and I, too, am doing the ugly work of practice, trying to get the words right so that when others read them they are beautiful.

Still Teaching the Work

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a great deal about social justice and I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about what that might look like in the classroom.  But, the truth is that the classroom is just one of the spaces where the discussion of social justice is important. And a second truth is that the work is tiring, even in small doses.  And a third truth is that the work is messy.  I decided to call this blog teaching the work, because I believe that is what I do: I teach the work of becoming a better writer and thinker, often times through what Freire calls conscientization, but might be recognized in the classroom as the Socratic method, or lots and lots of questions and loads and loads of writing and students lamenting that this is the most they’ve ever written and half-complaining about why everything has to be thought about.

The problem with that work is that many of the other people and institutions with which my students interact will not support and nurture that nascent work that they’ve done.  In fact, I would argue that many of my students resist the work precisely because they understand that what I’m asking them to do is difficult.  And it is: I feel like asking questions, having convictions, and thinking deeply is hard hard work.  It’s work that’s worth it, but it’s easy to be dissuaded from if one is not careful.  I want to give you a few examples of where the work is being done.  I’m synthesizing just a bit of what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

One of the things that has come up at my school this year are two inter-twined notions: competency-based and contextual education.  If you’re not familiar with the most recent edu-speak, then check out an Inside Higher Ed piece or a Chronicle piece or you might read the American Association of Community College’s report called: “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future” which you can tell is quite important because it has a colon in its title and there are lovely colors and figures and graphs.  The final example I will offer to you is the Lumina foundation’s draft of “The Degree Qualifications Profile: Defining U.S. Degrees through Demonstration and Documentation of College Learning.”  Certainly the titles are Orwellian enough, but the documents themselves, which reflect the federal government’s decade-plus of reshaping community colleges as the degree of choice, are chilling.  Competency-based education seems wonderful, as does contextual education.  Competency-based education tests whether the student has the skill, if she does, she moves on to the next skill.  But of course, this model does not concentrate on abstract thinking or the development of the soul.  Contextual education is related—it looks at the student’s experience and gives them practical experience in the subject in different settings—often a great deal of credit comes from that.  Often though, the learning is narrowed to just the context, again leaving out the training in the broad thinking that have been prized in the academy.

But this is coming and it’s part of the testing and assessment movement, which is part of the larger movement to think of education in terms of the inputs and outputs of business—that is the lens of neo-liberalism—the notion that market solutions are the best solutions for everything and that the point of education is narrowed to the context of markets itself.  In the scheme of neo-liberalism, education only happens as a preparation for work—as Patrick Finn points out in Literacy with an Attitude, there is a working-class education for the working class and a middle-class education for the middle-class who will lead and manage the workers.  Of course, Finn’s book doesn’t predict the astonishing growth of income inequality and the staggering losses of the middle class.  So it’s all too nifty that Bush II and Obama have put the community college on a pedestal just as the middle class goes on life support.  Of course we don’t need a university education anymore, or at least most of us don’t, after all we’re going to be lower-class wage slaves as the super rich rule us all.  It seems like an exaggeration, but it isn’t.  Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Review of Books makes a convincing case.  We don’t need anything but competency-based and contextual education in a new neo-liberalist community college because we aren’t expected to have agency, we’re expected to be cogs of consumerism.

I think that the community colleges have already largely lost.  They do not have the tenure system as a rule, often they have 75% adjunct labor for the faculty, and the full-time faculty who are there often teach five classes per semester or four per quarter as is common at our college.  Further, even after taking into account the Herculean teaching load, the faculty often don’t have faculty senates to give voice to their concern.  The community colleges I’ve worked at have been anything but a model for shared governance.  Faculty are a necessary evil to be disempowered at every turn.  I know it sounds pessimistic, but it’s true.  I don’t think the universities and four-year colleges are far behind though.  Look at the recent case of the Kansas Board of Regents, which created a far-reaching policy on social media and faculty speech that is a clear attack on educators and upon the higher education system itself, never mind the terrible implications for free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  The faculty, in an attempt at shared governance, helped to revise the policy.  Unfortunately, the Board largely ignored what many called a sensible revision.  Phil Nel, a former professor of mine, gives a terrific account of this in his blog. Nel notes that Kansas universities and others are fighting an ideology that sees the “university not as a place for intellectual inquiry, but as a business that produces future employees” (Nel).  I remember being shocked that the policy contained the word CEO rather than college or university president.  I won’t rehash Nel’s points; he does it so well that you simply must go back and read the post for yourself.  The point I wish to draw on, and it’s one that Nel makes with universities, is that American education is under assault from a neo-liberal corporate ideology that does not value the multiple purposes of education.  They value only the production of workers who can work within a market ideology that reifies wealth and has little social mobility.

And it is this last sentence that brings me back to social justice.  This semester I’ve been lucky enough to take a whole class on social justice curriculum and pedagogy.  The readings and the dialogue with my colleagues have illuminated my practice, but I’m still restless because I’ve not been able to get Mary Soliday out of my head.  Soliday’s Politics of Remediation is twelve years old now, but it seems to be the debate that my institution and many other institutions are having about developmental/basic/remedial education.  Soliday makes two arguments that I love.  The first is that institutions use developmental courses to manage their enrollment rather than to help the student.  At my institution there were students pouring out into the halls just two years ago—the boost of enrollment was perhaps caused by the recession or perhaps by modernizing the workforce or perhaps some other reasons.  The point is that the college was full and many 100s of students were shuffled into developmental coursework because of their placement tests—many many of them did not stay—or persist, which is the preferred nomenclature at present.  Now that we’ve graduated the largest class in the college’s history and the economy is better, enrollment has dropped.  With that drop a 100 chicken little’s from the administration building have begun a chant about the fast approaching sky.  But to Soliday’s point, this is a manufactured crisis—now that we need the students—we have none to throw away—we are showing a new commitment to persistence and completion and to new methodologies that will keep them paying tuition—or more accurately—will keep the Pell grants and financial aid coming.  I know this sounds cynical, but we didn’t hire to serve the teeming hordes when we had them—we made do—if we really cared about student completion, then I submit that we would have appropriately ramped up our services when the need was there.

Soliday’s second argument is one that I hold close to me. She asserts that faculty can have the best curriculum and pedagogy, but that it won’t matter to the student unless the entire institution reflects that commitment.  I’ve stated it strongly, perhaps more strongly than she would, but I think it bears examination. If I am teaching students to read and write and thing through the frame of social justice, critical pedagogy and the development of the whole person, but no one is doing that in their other classes and no one is doing that in the administration of the institution, then how likely is that student to be able to integrate these practices into their lives, especially given that my students come from a litany of oppressions?  It isn’t likely, is it?  And from here we move to what I think is Soliday’s most important point: we must manage up the chain in addition to teaching our students.

I have been trying to practice this “managing up” over the last year and have found it frustrating.  Some of my colleagues and I have challenged how the Vice President of Academic Affairs communicates and shares governance; I have gotten a place at the table of committees on persistence and completion and have begun to ask questions like: “who owns the college” or “does this committee accurately reflect the community it serves” or “how will we involve students and faculty in this decision”?  It has been hard work.  It’s hard to find allies and I’ve been heartbroken by some colleagues’ lack of conviction and moral turpitude.  But the work is worth it.  I see the work in Nel’s call for the Kansas Board of Regents to step down.  I see it in Scott Samuelson’s “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” and I see it in many of my colleagues’ work to give students the ability to develop themselves as humans, as citizens, and as activists—it isn’t that developing them for the economy is wrong, but it isn’t first and it isn’t the only thing, which is what the corporatization, adoption of standardized tests, and neo-liberal ideology are doing.  This blog post is my last for this class, but I hope that you’ll join me as I continue this work and I hope that you’ll engage in the work in your own way.

Punishment is “cool”; thinking is not

Twice a year our college has an Academic Affairs day before the quarter.  This day is set aside for a presentation to the faculty followed by breakout sessions for professional development.  Over the past five years I have struggled with all of the speakers we’ve had.  Part of the reason that I’ve struggled is that I find these sessions to be infantilizing and demeaning.  For example, the speaker today began the session by giving away copies of his books, explaining that everyone “likes free stuff.”  He gave away two books by calling out for the “first female who wanted it to stand up.”  Surely there could have been no deep meaning there at all.  Of course, a couple of hours earlier, I was speaking to my Labrador Retriever that way about a treat.  I don’t do it to humans though.  On other occasions we’ve been given highlighters and butcher paper to draw out our relations—I can’t remember it all.  I try to block it out.  But I go every year, after all, the poor academic associates have been made to sit there and check the faculty in as if they were children.  We used to all have premade nametags and the associates would be able to report on those faculty who weren’t there by gathering the ones that were left over.  As you might imagine, faculty started taking their friends’ and colleagues’ tags to cover for them.  Now we have a list.

Wow.  So today I’m sitting in a room full of teachers and deans who are being forced to listen to a purported expert on student engagement.  Of course, we might think it is ironic that he’s one of the most inexperienced teachers in the room.  So, obviously, he’s an expert in what it takes to make students successful.  We’re three minutes into the presentation and he’s talking about getting students into the career they want through an academic path.  Once again, we have the reduction of school and education to being merely about a career.  He brings this up over and over again throughout the first half of the presentation.  And he keeps talking about the way to get students engaged is to show them a point to their education and that point is that the student gets to have a career and make money.  He brought up salary a good deal.  Because, as we’ve been indoctrinated to believe again and again, it’s all about the money.

There’s an irony here.  Just before he launched into this tirade about being career focused, he explained our students to us.  He essentialized them as a generation, millennials to be exact.  He told us that they wanted purpose in their education, that they wanted their work to have meaning.  Well, never mind that I often have three generations of students in my class or that my students have multifaceted identities and personhoods which prevent such easy categorization, let’s go with his assumption for a minute.  He assumes that the purpose the students are seeking—that the meaning they are seeking—is a career and money.  He then goes on to say that the problem with college admissions is that we give the student the “sales pitch” that they will have to write papers, do home work, read text books that “aren’t exciting” on top of working, just to get to that career.  His method of engagement is to make that sound better by explicitly connecting a job to that path so that they “buy in” and are engaged.  The irony is that this is his exact misunderstanding of students and the purposes of education.  His neoliberal essentialist ideology, as unexamined as it is asks: “how can we fit students into the neo-liberal framework in a way that they will accept” and asks the faculty to be a party to the corporate and market-driven subjugation of everything and everyone.

And that, folks, is why it often fails and students resist.  Because, if we accept that students really want purpose, then we also have to accept that there are purposes and meaning beyond fitting into the economy. The speaker was setting it up even, but couldn’t see it.  He recounted that students, after seeing their parents work like slave just to survive, wanted something better.  Of course his better is a better job where they can have a different kind of less uncomfortable oppression, rather than taking that moment and developing it as a place for critical consciousness.  He isn’t liberating them and is only performing a kind of shell game.

Sadly it went further. The presentation had a racial migroagression, classist jokes, and was rife with anti-intellectualism.  He presented the standard Horatio Alger narrative where he was just a poor waif with a bad GPA who pulled himself up to eventually be Greek of the year at his university.  Yes, he said that; unironically I might add. The presentation seemed to be designed to demoralize the faculty—after all, here’s a guy who gets money to do this, who is lauded in our culture, who was taught by our colleagues somewhere and he is incredibly blind to how the world is constructed—and we’re sitting here, listening to it.  He showed no ability to demonstrate critical thinking about his position or his audience at all.  The joke is on us and it shows how powerless we are.  And it also reveals the multi-faceted and layered levels of privilege and oppression.    Of course, as one of my dear colleagues pointed out: apparently all we need to get an education and a jog and to overcome oppression is to speak enthusiastically and say “cool” more than one thought was humanly possible.

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Rhetoric of Love in the Classroom

One of the things that I think that happens with my students is that many of their educational experiences have dismissed their reading of the world.  The experiences and perspectives that they bring to the classroom are not validated and are instead thrown away.  Then comes the banking system and the oppression.  The student’s language isn’t appropriate in an academic context, so throw it out—the student does not dress right or act right or talk proper—they’ll never get a job.  So many teachers work from the perspective of deficit and limitation.  Just last week I was sitting in a meeting full of English teachers and someone in the back said “they have to have the foundation of the academic essay by the time that they leave developmental writing.”  It’s shit like this that makes me cringe.  I want to hear how my students read the world and hear what their voice and vision is.  Simply imposing a staid and stodgy form on them so that they can be “academic” is fruitless.  Students disengage in this moment.  They cannot read the world the way that those who have been indoctrinated by the academy and it’s arrogant for us to assume that they need to do so.  Reading the world in the classroom must be reciprocal and recursive rather that unidirectional.

And what I’ve just written is a political act—because if I get a student to believe that their reading of the world is legitimate, then they might resist that rejection in a different and more productive way the next time they encounter a teacher.  It’s still too easy though—teacher power in the classroom can shape us in surprisingly insidious ways.

Students have a right to read the world with their experience.  I assert that this is both a Freirian and a poststructuralist moment.  I’ve been thinking of Corder’s 1985 article “Rhetoric as Love” recently and want to come back to his notion of the self as a narrative.  He writes that the person/subject is always stationing that self within its narrative, that is her or his history and identity (17).  Corder goes on to discuss how these narratives come into contact with one another.  Freire would seem to agree with this sentiment in that his consciousness-raising pedagogy asks the student/person/subject to understand their history and its context.  What Freire is drawing on the student to do then is to understand their narrative in ways that it hasn’t been understood before—and through that process to give the narrative and the history and the subject value.

Return with me then to the English teacher who is demanding that the student understand the academic essay by the end of a developmental writing course.  That demand is for the student to adopt a particular way of creating narrative, and it is one without regard to the student’s own story and history.  It seems, in some way, because of its demand for dominance, to be destined to fail.

Not long after I heard this English teacher, I heard another English teacher telling her colleagues that she was going to start administering a test at the beginning of her classes to see of students could follow directions.  I eavesdropped.  She went on to tell her colleagues that the test would be like one that she had to take when she was in high school.  It would have a series of instructions, with the last one being something like: don’t do any of the other instructions, just write your name on the paper and turn it in to the teacher.  This colleague of mine was sure that this would show students the importance of following directions.  I was silent.  For me, that exercise only ensures humiliation and the disengagement of students.  It would make them feel stupid.  I would be right there with the students too—I’m the type of student who dives right in—I want to do well and please the teacher after all.  But my colleague had a different story for that and a different history.

And I think that the arguments that these teachers are making are serious ones.  The kind of high stakes arguments that Corder argues make people feel threatened when they are opposed.  The arguments as I seem them are: 1. Students should be able to write academic prose; and 2. Students should be able to follow directions.  I like both of those.  And heck, I can follow directions and I can write academic prose, but I don’t think those skills are the most important thing about me, nor do I think that they encompass my personhood in totality.  And there, I think, is the rub.  When we are interested only in one totalizing narrative of what it means to be a student, then we marginalize and dismiss, even oppress, other ways of knowing and learning in the classroom.

Corder wants to see argument as emergence, a sort of Burkean entry into the parlor, but more interior—Corder wants argument to invite us to know the other and for the other to know us.  It’s a much riskier prospect than making sure those darn students get it right and failing the ones who don’t.  Corder makes the assertion and that argument and rhetoric must begin, proceed, and end in love (28).  For me, this move sounds like Freire and his admonition that the oppressed must not become the oppressor and that the binary relationship must be broken.

But what does that mean in the English classroom and how are students going to meet standards if you just love them? I don’t want to be glib here, because being a loving teacher is my goal and my attempted practice.  I know that my students write more and think more than they ever have because they feel valued and heard—two words that I would argue are conditions of love.  I have students who want to keep their narrative—the one where I’m a jerk and responsible for their failure—I can’t always change that.  But if we talk about how we are creating a classroom space and then we work to enact it, then amazing things happen.  They become writers and thinkers and those words become part of the way that they identify themselves in the world—the are more conscious in the Freirian sense.

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An emerging philosophy of teaching (a story of radicalization)

At Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, I teach developmental English and first-year composition.  Over the five years that I have been there, I have come to think of my teaching in drastically different ways than when I started.  There are many reasons for this, all of which I think are germane to a discussion of what an authentic and useful teaching practice does in the 21st century.  Yes, I am making the bold claim that my experience can serve as a symbol for teachers and that it can be drawn on productively. Part of that reason is embedded in the title of this blog: Teaching the Work.  When I arrived at Metro, even though I had had training in discourse, multi-cultural education, composition pedagogy, and had years of experience.  I found myself flummoxed by the students—I was failing them and failing to engage them.  What’s more, the students had a list of circumstances in the way of their education, things that served as problematic, often traumatic, complicating factors, that if I listed them, many people would not believe me.  Thus began my journey to be a teacher for these students.  And thus began the journey of the students awakening in me the realities of my own working-class identity. And from all of that came a radicalization that hasn’t stopped.  And part of that radicalization is an exploration of critical literacy and pedagogy as a way to train and educate students in their own best interests.

Paulo Freire asks us to “begin to understand literacy as the relationship of learners to the world, mediated by the transforming practice of this world taking place in the very general social milieu in which learners travel, and also mediated by the oral discourse concerning this transforming practice.  This understanding of literacy takes me to a notion of a comprehensive literacy that is necessarily political” (Paulo Freire Reader, 174).  If we take this expansive definition of literacy, then we can see the work of the teacher, my work, as building connections and consciousness for students to transform them politically.  When my students read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian we are able to explore the forces that shape junior’s life, and by proxy and extrapolation, those that shape my students lives. We see institutional racism, trauma, violence, alcoholism, lack of real educational resources—all of which students quickly note as extant in their lives as well. When we read Miss Lasko Gross’s A Mess of Everything or Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street we explore Melissa and Esperanza’s identity and my students’ identities.  These are consciousness-raising discussions, for both the students and myself.  But they are also political because they begin to move students from what Patrick Finn calls domesticating education to empowering education.  We move away from the conformity of current rhetorical pedagogy, to the work of listening to and developing our ideas together.

Paulo further predicates that literacy “even in this global sense […] should never be understood as the triggering of social emancipation of the subordinated classes. Literacy leads to and participates in a series of triggering mechanisms that need to be activated for the indispensable transformation of a society whose major reality destroys people. Literacy in the global sense takes place in societies where oppressed classes assume their own history” (Paulo Freire Reader, 174). When my students and I make the moves to understand ourselves differently and more completely through texts, then we are triggering the students to begin to own themselves, their identities and their histories.  In these classes, we build from these experiences in discussion and reading to develop a writing and thinking practice that begins to define the students outside of the deficit model by which they’ve always been categorized.  This action is liberatory and Freire tells us it is revolutionary: “Literacy must be seen and understood in the global sense. Since the reading of the word is preceded by the rewriting of society in societies that undergo a revolutionary process, it is much easier to conduct successful literacy campaigns in these societies” (174).  We are teaching the work to create local and global connections, to become better writers and thinkers, and yes, that all fulfills the course objectives and gives students transferable skills—it also transforms them in astonishing ways.

Kids these days!

If you haven’t read Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed column, “Obama’s Homework Assignment” in the New York Times from the 18th of January, then take a minute and do so.  Then come back here because I think it’s something we should talk about.

As I read this I realized that not many readers would find much to quibble with here.  Friedman covers ground that is often traversed in our discussion of education in the United States.  We might sum it up as follows: kids don’t work hard these days; kids don’t care; the United States’ educational standards are low; we are falling behind other countries.  And because of all of this, we had better get it together or we’re doomed.  Moreover, he aims this at the President who has little power in education because education is largely controlled by states in our system.

And he’s right: my fourth grader probably doesn’t know as much math as fourth graders in a number of other countries.  What’s more I have students in my community college classroom every day who don’t do their work and who don’t seem to care or who seem so resistant to the kinds of writing and thinking tasks found in the college English classroom, that I have despaired about why they are there at all.  But this doesn’t really tell the whole story.  And what Friedman is leaving out is really worth our attention.

First, this business about low standards is pretty relative.  One of the most succinct accounts of this comes from Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary where he notes “statistics are often used to demonstrate educational decay” and that in “1890, 6.7 percent of America’s fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were attending high school” rising to 94.1 percent by the end of the 1980s. He notes that the definition of functional literacy in the 1930s was “three or more years of schooling” in the 50s it was sixth grade and it was only “by the late 1970s [that] some authorities were suggesting that completion of high school should be the defining criterion of functional literacy” (6).  And now I can’t think of a week that goes by without hearing someone, especially the last two presidents, call for community college or some college as the benchmark of education.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive view of standards, it does show that, in general, we are asking more of students than ever before and we are educating more of our population than we ever have.  Joseph Harris in his great book A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966 tracks a similar trajectory in writing instruction.  And anecdotally, I’ve been doing pre-algebra with my nine-year-old son and I’m sure that I didn’t see this kind of math until at least the sixth grade.  Really, folks, standards are going up, not down, but it’s too easy to talk about education in terms of crisis.  And it’s easy to manipulate people because we want our children to be well-educated and able to navigate the world.  But as Rose points out, “it’s our cultural fears—of internal displacement, of loss of order, of diminishment—that weave into our assessments of literacy and scholastic achievement” (7).  This position isn’t to say that there aren’t dire problems in U.S. education, there are, but we need to have a complete picture rather than run from one Chicken Little argument to the next.

Second, why are all of these kids so darn de-motivated? Could it have to do with 13 years of No Child Left Behind? Could it have to do with students not seeing real opportunity out there?  After all, why work for it when structural oppression will prevent many students from getting to where they want to go anyway?

Not doing homework is a form of resistance; it is a form of disengagement and I would argue that it’s intentional.  When students’ knowledge and experience isn’t taken into account, then students disengage.  It isn’t that the students are bad, rather it’s that they don’t see themselves as vessels to be filled by the teacher.  We’ve known this too, for a long time.  But still, we insist on engaging in what Paulo Freire calls the banking model in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In this model, education is seen as the depositing of knowledge into passive students.  Friedman’s choices for his two models seem to reinforce this.  The first teacher is giving them extra practice and trying to make education fun, but nowhere is there a move toward authentic engagement or negotiation of power in the classroom.  Go back and read what Friedman quotes the teacher as saying.  Isn’t the teacher really presenting her instruction as “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. … The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence (58).

And then, when the teacher isn’t successful with the banking model, she is blamed for not filling up the students correctly.  Both the teacher and the principal misunderstand education on a fundamental level.  They are still predicating what composition scholars call the “current rhetorical tradition,” which concentrates on old forms that limit the role of the writer and real thinking, often reducing writing to mechanistic five-paragraph essays, which no one likes to write and no one likes to grade.  Is it any wonder then that Friedman’s second example of the teacher who laments that more and more students don’t turn in work is in that situation? It’s a bitter irony that Friedman has written so much about 21st century market realities but uses what are ostensibly teachers practicing 19th century methods as his example.

Finally, Friedman does not tell us what all of this education is for in our society.  I take it from his concentration on competition with other countries and his selection of work ethic and responsibility, that he is inferring that education is for workplace readiness.  Friedman is really predicating his neoliberal fantasy that everything is going to be fixed by the market—heck just look at The World is Flat for an explication of his ideas on the subject.  So it is this deep theoretical underpinning of his op-ed, finally, that I resist.  Education isn’t just to make us competitive in the world—it isn’t just to prepare us to succeed and survive in the marketplace.  There are other uses for education.  And perhaps it is this overemphasis that students unconsciously resist.  Perhaps they don’t want to be mere agents in the marketplace.  Perhaps they want a different world.  I know I certainly do.

I want to add that I do not want to set Friedman up as a straw man here.  He is certainly right to point out that increasing numbers of our students are apathetic and disengaged in the classroom.  But I think that the lack of engagement and apathy comes from a lack of hope in students, rather than a lack of responsibility.  I think that many of my students see how difficult the world is and cannot see a way forward, especially when much of school is so invested in the banking system of knowledge all the while using 19th century pedagogy.  It’s simply a bit disingenuous for Friedman to not tell the whole story with standards and to leave hidden the motivation for education in his and other neoliberal estimations.

I’ll end with this: I remember a colleague of mine who taught drama at high school.  She was called on the carpet one day for not taking attendance—the principal said that she was marking a student there who had been marked absent in the rest of his classes.  My colleague explained that he was, in fact, there.  The student was engaged in her class and her teaching methods. She didn’t use the banking system and the student responded.  She was training him to be a better person, rather than just a worker and he responded.  So perhaps the question isn’t what’s wrong with kids these days, but rather what are our motivations for educating students and are they the right ones?

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