The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.
Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.
So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.
This is one of a series of posts presenting some ideas of my dissertation, in progress.
The first of the three parts of my project involves investigating how a group of four teachers I worked with figured out ways to include civic learning and engagement in their English instruction. These four middle school English teachers had been colleagues for years, and worked together in what’s called a “Professional Learning Community” (PLC). I presented the general idea of integrating civic action of some kind into their English classes, and I offered suggestions and coaching along the way, but primarily I wanted to let them devise how they would make the idea materialize in their own classrooms. I learned a lot both from their individual, unique ways of trying out this idea, and from their dynamics as a team, the things they learned from each other and how their team interactions produced interesting results. The clearest result was that the question of how to get students involved civically in their English classes tapped into, and put pressure on, what this PLC of teachers thought mattered most in their jobs, their core visions as teachers, and opened opportunities to pursue those priorities together.
I spent a whole school year working closely with these teachers, attending their meetings, watching their classes, interviewing them. It was fascinating to watch the different ways that they interpreted the idea of “civic engagement,” and how each infused the vague idea I presented of doing “civics” in the English class with their own visions of what it meant to be a participant, a citizen, a young person active for justice. It was also fascinating to see how they learned from each other, the ways this team of long-standing colleagues exercised their teaching talents uniquely.
To offer an example, I would describe the approaches of two of the teachers. These two (we’ll call them Carol and Donaldo) had been colleagues and friends for years, both veterans at the school. Both had taught English, Leadership, and special programs for underserved youth. Both were seen as teacher leaders and enjoyed strong relationships and rapport with students around the school. They embodied the school’s philosophy of putting relationships of high expectations and respect at the center of a rigorous yet caring atmosphere.
Yet they were stylistically quite different, in some ways opposite, when it came to teaching English. Carol could be masterful at orchestrating a lively debate in her class, students on the edges of their seats and talking over each other to share their perspectives and experiences about issues relevant to their lives and concerns. Donaldo, on the other hand, would organize and tinker with his students to produce visual presentations (sometimes digital, sometimes on paper) that were diligently crafted and revised into gallery objects of individual expression. And though their reading and writing instruction were strongest at those tendencies, that’s not to say their teaching repertoires were limited or narrow. They were professionals who expertly taught skills and knowledge that didn’t necessarily fit neatly in their wheelhouse. Rather, it was by playing to their respective strengths that they made other aspects of the English curriculum exciting and vivid. Carol made energetic arguments in the classroom into motivation to write thoughtful essays. Donaldo used the occasion of writing a compelling personal narrative about family photographs as an opportunity to embed lessons about precise language and word choices.
Thus the projects that each teacher ultimately conducted with their students, which I’ll describe next, reflected their different tendencies as English teachers, even as the two teachers influenced each others’ notions of how to integrate civics into their teaching. But their projects also reflected their different ideas about what it meant to engage young people civically, which were again a Venn diagram of shared values but distinctive approaches. Both sought to make the idea of civic engagement something personally meaningful, inviting students to seek out and research a social issue that touched them individually somehow. Both built their curriculum around culminating projects where students had the opportunity to create something that would become a kind of civic self-expression, which served both as preparation for their future democratic participation and as a contribution now to influence others about their issues of concern.
Carol wound up having her middle school students create a picture book that they would read to a younger student, at an age level they could choose, about a social issue they had interest in. This followed from a year of selecting and reading texts that bridged the chasm between larger issues of justice and young people’s personal sense of power or place. Students in one of her classes had read Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, a book written as an Open Mic poetry slam for a class of urban youth, and Monster by Walter Dean Myers, about a young African American standing trial dramatizing his experiences as a screenplay. Carol integrated reading these texts with lessons from Teaching Tolerance and activities surrounding the school’s Ally Week. In all of these teaching units, Carol helped her students to feel the personal power of how social injustices impact young people’s lives, and her encouragement to speak up productively and compassionately represented an important ideal of civic engagement. Creating picture books and reading them to younger students as a civic education practice aligned with those ideals of engagement and language, where standing up and showing caring as an ally or older sibling was how these adolescents could become agents in their formation as members of their communities. Corresponding with her language teaching tendencies towards interactional exchange in a community of fairness and respect, Carol presented a version of civic engagement where young people took on the responsibility of communicating with younger community members to teach and demonstrate values of social concern and allyship.
Donaldo’s culminating project also focused on civic participation through persuasive storytelling and advocacy media. In Donaldo’s class, his students heard samples of recorded radio essays from the series “This I Believe,” and composed their own “This I Believe” essays. These essays included a blending of the writing types that the team had taken on as a goal, trying to effectively blend narrative, expository, and argumentative writing. And they had to tackle a social issue that was personally meaningful to them, another attribute Donaldo’s project shared with Carol’s. But rather than a project built on creating a tool for interacting with a younger learner, Donaldo’s project was aimed at producing an essay that would be accompanied by a recorded audio reading of their essay by each student. Donaldo also set up a well-lit location to take professional quality photographs of the students’ faces that could go with their essays, most of them featuring a quote from their essays printed over them. These images, together with the audio recordings of the essays, and the essays themselves reprinted and posted on a website, could be shared with peers or adult audiences. They conveyed a strong sense that these “This I Believe” essays, despite being concerned about a social issue, were profoundly personal expressions for the students, a piece of crafted, multi-media expression of self as advocate on the broader public forums of the internet and social media. Though Donaldo’s project had similarities to Carol’s, his tendency towards teaching language in the context of presentation and performance rather than dialogue and interaction corresponded to the suggestion of civic action as an organized expression of prepared advocacy and artistry.
Together, these two teachers’ projects provide a glimpse into how English teachers might make the connection between teaching English and engaging in civic action. Both demonstrated that young people’s civic engagement is often imagined or perceived as powerful when it is an act of self-expression and personal conviction, tied to narratives of young people’s own experiences and observations of the world. At the same time, both teachers pushed their students to communicate in registers other than the personal narrative mode, to seamlessly integrate factual information and persuasive rhetoric into their pieces. Both imagined a social component to their language, though the audiences they conceived of differed, one picturing a civic role of teaching younger children, the other a public contribution of multimodal media production.
Over the next few posts, I will describe some of the development that occurred among the teachers in the course of doing these projects, for Carol and Donaldo and the other two. I will use some of Carol and Donaldo’s students’ work and how these two teachers introduced, aided, and adapted to their students’ learning and language as my examples and evidence. (I will have much more to say about the other two teachers in later segments, when I discuss the case study classrooms and focal students.) These examples will tell a story of how focusing on civics crystallized many of these teachers’ pre-existing ideals of what teaching English was all about. At the same time, the circumstances, potentialities, and constraints of these civic action projects also surprised these teachers in some respects, and those surprises are also instructive about the prospect of the English classroom as as civic development space.
The last seven years, since I started my PhD program in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, I’ve been learning how to do research. Academic luminaries like my adviser, Sarah W. Freedman, and faculty mentors Laura Sterponi, David Kirp, and Kris Gutiérrez have surrounded me with an unparalleled set of role models and communities of support. My classmates and colleagues have been inspirations in their intellect and achievement.
But for the last three years especially, as my family responsibilities have unexpectedly grown rather than stabilized, I’ve had to withdraw from being a regular, responsible, contributing part of the academic community. I don’t take courses anymore since I’m in my dissertation stage. Though I’ve been collecting data, analyzing, and writing my dissertation, it has all happened at a much slower speed than I’d anticipated. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a research group, attended an academic conference (much less presented or submitted to one), or published any academic writing.
My strange, bell-curve shaped academic career so far, in contrast to the straight-line upward trajectory of academic activity I expected, has sometimes given me a feeling of failure. I don’t even think I’m doing well now as a graduate student, not even to mention how I will do once my academic career properly begins after graduation, if I ever find a position. Though I’m only a few months worth of writing and revisions away from being finished with my PhD, an excruciating series of family health catastrophes and personal life interruptions have made those last few steps stretch out farther and farther like a cruel prank where you glimpse the finish line but it turns out to be running away faster than you are.
The challenge isn’t just lacking the scheduled time and the support system to finish– and instead having various family and other duties draining away my hours. It’s also lacking the public, the community, where I can become a researcher. As a student, I loved courses. I loved the interaction, the syllabi, the readings and assignments, the knowledge-drops from the brilliant minds surrounding me, the works in progress we shared with each other. When I went to class, what I loved was not just the discipline and structure of a course of study, something that I can formulate for myself (and have, many times over). I also found invaluable the others, even if they were just three or four, who undertook that journey with me. Without that surrounding me, I grope around for a lifeline, fighting against all the other expectations and burdens that
My experiment is to use this blog as a place to finish my dissertation “in public,” so to speak. To write bits that I would share with a colleague or classmate or professor in a research group. To explain and describe the things I’m learning, forcing me to formulate them in a way that makes sense to regular people, not just the artificial audience I construct in my own head. I think that sums it up: to get out of my own head.
And so I’ve retitled the blog “Academic in Public.” Because I’m trying to learn how to be an academic who is not hidden away in a tower. Especially in these times when suspicion of academic, intellectual, and cultural elites has elevated to a frightening pitch– and perhaps with no one to blame more than those elites themselves. (Or is it “ourselves?”) I want to keep engaging in public.
The title is also appropriate because of what I’m going to be writing about: schools and development, civics and politics, culture and literacy. Those are the interests of my dissertation study, so they constitute the unexplored territory my research is mining. They’re also those areas that I think about, read about, talk about, and work at all the time. Academics: the research community, schools and teachers, knowledge and evidence, children and young scholars. And the Public: our polity and communities, our policy and strategies, our politics and struggles. Academic in Public.
This morning, I’m praying for refugees, displaced peoples, and migrants the world over, but particularly from those countries and faiths that this president has targeted. I’m praying to a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, who hangs out with the outcast and exiles, and who brings low those proud rulers who set themselves against him. I repeat their names, as many as I know, as I read about them or hear from friends who know them, repeat them to a God who knows their circumstances. I pray against the systemic evils that push people from their homes, and the ones that leave them homeless when they’re looking for sanctuary, a safe place. I pray for those sanctuaries under assault.
And when I can hear their points of view, especially when I can know them by name, I pray for people who feel differently. Their cheers prick like more of the deep hurt that punched me in the gut on election night, the sentiments they might call mere politics or consider speaking up for themselves, or trying to retrieve an “America” lost, or equalize things they resent have somehow become unequal. They have aspirations, hopes, hurts, and hesitations. They pray. They have views that they feel are underrepresented, though those views seem so often tinged by misinformation, and so dangerous and out of proportion that I fear for the consequences of those distortions on their souls and spirits.
Though I convulse with disgust whenever I actually try to listen to President Trump, honestly straining to hear past the bloviating and hucksterism to really find some substance, something that drives him beyond a terrifying TV narcissism that has disastrous consequences on real human lives, to search in vain for something to help me understand those who support him and what he appeals to that is good… I pray for him and his administration as well. Not for winning. Not for triumph. Not because when our president succeeds, we succeed. I can’t pray that with any honesty to the God I’m addressing.
But I pray with more understanding of the radicalism that made the prophets and apostles pray for their worldly leaders. With fearful dread of the extent of the earthly power they wielded despite their patent, human self-centeredness and the havoc it wreaked on their subjects, especially the vulnerable, including their supporters. BUT, meeting that dread immediately, an even greater fear-of-God that knows with tear-stained, life-giving faith that God is greater than these powers. The arc of God’s cause isn’t some ridiculous and deadly regime of cartoonish tyranny and hellish brutality. Rather, awe at how God breathes life into the humble and unseen to welcome the stranger and defend the fatherless, how God moves forces we can’t economize to unmask deceit and remind us of our frailty, how God engages every minute towards the outcomes of millennia.
So what I do pray for the president: to hear the voices, see the faces, consider the administration’s power over the lives of human beings all over the world… now, before he hears and sees them again when we’re all called into Account. I pray for him not to be enslaved by a twisted conception of the cheers and hoots of his red-hatted supporters, to realize the hopes they’ve pinned on him aren’t meant for his insatiable ego and capitalistic machinations, but are meant for a responsibility to call them to the best, rather than the worst, sides of themselves.
I pray for these things even though I’m convinced all natural likelihood is that God’s people of conscience will have stand against most things issuing from this administration: approval of torture and unlawful detention, irresponsible stewardship and exploitation of lands and peoples for profit, and so much more. But prayer is for things that are beyond natural likelihood. And the hopes of my prayers are not set on the puppets in power, but on a God of justice, how that God animates those who serve and love, how that God moves.
The fierce urgency of now dictates that it’s time to act. I’m ready. I’m willing. But… can I get some babysitting?
As much as I resonated with President Obama’s farewell speech and its defense of a democratic vision, its aspirational declaration of unity with the best streams of the American tradition, I also agree that now is the time for the assertive tone that Congresswoman Barbara Lee has taken in vocal opposition to the incoming administration. Truly, it’s a tone that’s not just about speech, but action. Working diligently with action versus merely trumpeting inflammatory talk is a contrast that has now been thrown into the mounting pile of Wonderland-esque, horrifying absurdities that is the Trump performance art of ludicrous, surrealistic authoritarian propaganda, as #notmypresident now sets his sights on ever-more infamous foes like civil rights luminary John Lewis. Next up: perhaps Trump anoints himself in contrast to “sad” Lincoln, “overrated” Martin Luther King, and “failing” Jesus.
The good that’s coming from the Trump’s naked exploitation of people’s resentments and darkest impulses is that it inspires speech and action across the spectrum, from those values leaders rightfully aghast at Trump’s indecency to organizers like Lee and Lewis (and more workaday, unheralded heroes) finding the stark and simple platforms to stand up for justice and morality. Hope mobilizes but sometimes it anesthetizes, while opposition and oppression can at least serve as a backdrop for clarity. It’s time to act, no ifs ands or buts.
But at such a moment, the hard temptation is for me to become discouraged at my own inaction. Now is a time for movements. But I’m distinctly caught in a stage of life when that calling and responsibility toward political action threatens to be overwhelmed, more than ever, by my callings and responsibilities to take care of my family members. To navigate the health care system rather than to fight for it. To work through the dilemmas of public schools rather than to defend them. To traverse cultural walls rather than prevent the erecting of them. I keep thinking, every day, reading reporting and news, “I should be doing more.” But every day, I am overwhelmed by my struggle to even handle even everyday duties. Feed my daughter. Visit my mother.
I try to regularize activities like signing petitions and calling congress members (which is a set of actions that makes me wish I lived in a different district or a red state). I find comfort that my teaching and writing have always been about learning, equity, justice, and mercy, and I redouble my efforts, knowing their clearer significance. I devote thought, talk, and words to understanding people, to moving us beyond mockery and comfortable satire to genuine dialogue that is practical, empathetic, and solutions-oriented.
But only sometimes. Because most days, I’m just trying to figure out what appointments come when, which pills and dosages are right, what salmon to avoid, and how long traffic will swallow me in its vortex. Most of the purported labels I would like to attach to myself (“academic,” “activist,” “critic”) are laughable in contrast to my actual daily activities, as if I could equally label myself a “biker gang member,” “interpretive dancer,” and “deep sea diver” just because I fancy it.
Once again, Scripture in my lectionary reading stirs up my reflections about this and gives me insight. I read, on one hand, Elisha’s calling, when the great prophet Elijah tells him to come along, but he can’t, not before he takes care of his parents. I wonder about the disciple that Jesus called to follow him, who protested that he must go back and bury his parents, to which Jesus replied the shockingly direct, “let the dead bury their own.” And I’m not sure if I’m supposed to drop all the small family obligations that can seem petty in the face of the larger mission, a more universal mission; or if I’m supposed to remember Jesus’ condemnation of the religious teachers who instructed others to give to their system as Corban rather than caring for their own parents, defying God’s actual word of loving duty with their human religious tradition.
I’m actually comforted by this seeming contradiction in direct marching orders from the examples of Scriptures. What kind of God would tolerate neglecting one’s own family members when they need us? What kind of God would settle for our complacency and inaction in the face of systems of oppression that threaten to exploit the weak, the alien, the fatherless, the widow? False choices that are all too easy for us to use to justify our neglect of either one or the either, justice or responsibility, the stranger or our family.
They’re false choices but they feel like real conflicts in the day to day decisions where we play out our actual priorities. I come back to the connectedness of true righteousness. Our fight for better stewardship of the earth also entails careful stewardship of our own homes. Our stand for a health care system that is just and good also entails finding the best program for our children and parents. Good schools involve choices that remember that all our children are ours, not only ones that seek the best for our own. As that last link reminds us, these are non-negotiable obligations, callings and responsibilities we all share– to act in the very local locality of our own communities and families, to think in the very global sphere of our societal and even eternal stakes– indeed, to “think” and “act” in both layers at all times. But they are also patently in contradiction with each other, at times. These contradictions require living in faith and faithfulness, erasing the rubrics and yardsticks that the world wants to impose, keeping our eyes on a higher calling.
So I take “all of the above” as my activist response to this anti-minority, anti-worker, anti-earth, anti-equality, anti-peace administration: I will take care of my daughter as best I can, raise her as best I can, as I also try to take care of all daughters and sons by nudging our school systems and opposing disinvestment in equity and public schools. I will not be silent for the cultural and civic change that causes us to consider one another, but also struggle on to be considerate of my neighbors, friends, and enemies, in my own hood. I will visit/”visit” the sick, whether they’re a world away and caught up in distant devastation that should inform our foreign policy, or they’re in the next room, waiting for us to drive them to the doctor.
Preparing to live in America under Trump is reminding me that we are not meant to be so at home in this place. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel at home, to feel safe, to feel belonging. There’s only something wrong with mistaking a place that’s not supposed to be ours for home, for security that’s false, for belonging when we’re meant to be estranged.
Hebrews 11:8-10. By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Genesis 12:2-3. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
It’s interesting that the New Testament doesn’t interpret the Old Testament narrative to conclude that Abraham’s example is his triumph as a father of nations, as the one who had seized this blessing of a great name, God’s favor and choosing. Instead, the New Testament reminds us that Abraham’s calling required of him a weirdness, vacating from familiarity, because his longing was supposed to be for something greater. A city with foundations.
I read an educational research article today about schools with “hyper-diversity,” which the ethnographer used to describe schools with a profusion of languages and cultures represented among the students. And a New York Review of Books article by Annette Gordon-Reed I’ve been reading discussed Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, which reminds us that despite the founders’ democratic philosophies and ideals, their oppressive treatment of black and Native American people was not just incidental to circumstances like slavery, but part of the citizenry-defining project of the American Revolution. Pointing towards Parkinson’s book, Gordon-Reed writes:
Instead of being treated as citizens at liberty in a republic who have the right to be free from tyranny, African-Americans are treated as if the words “liberty” “republic,” and “tyranny” have no application to them. These were some of the words the founders used as they made the case for breaking away from the British Empire and setting up a federal union for the benefit of a newly constituted American citizenry. The policing of black people, in contrast to the treatment of true citizens, too often employs tactics that might be used against a captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community. How did this happen?
It takes little stretch to think of how this same treatment might be applied to Native Americans. And the status of “captive alien group living in a country at the sufferance of a dominant community” is not far-fetched when one studies the forces that propel many migrants to leave the familiarity of their home nations to become aliens in a foreign land, one where the earth’s resources convert into measures of security and prosperity that seem to have been stripped from their communities at home.
All this makes me encouraged and challenged by the new sanctuary movements re-emerging in the American church in the wake of Trump. But I’m also reminded, at the same time, that while God’s people are called to be a sanctuary against the injustice of the empire, we are also called to continually identify with the foreigner, the alien, the oppressed. We are not supposed to feel at home in this world.
That has many implications in how we encounter the world. One of them for me, at this moment, is to give me a different stance when I read the news about the latest dismantling of ethical accountability systems or democratic norms from government leaders. After the initial shock and chagrin, I remember that my trust was never in politics or government officials to establish justice in the first place. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting withdrawing politically, and I’m inspired by people like my friend Scott Figgins, who posts daily actions on his Facebook page that rally his friends, or others pointing out how progressives can locally organize to resist. But perhaps the fight to hold the powerful (including ourselves) accountable to justice takes a different shape–one more circumspect, and perhaps more faithful to truth rather than wedded to partisanship–when we aren’t blinded by the assumption that our own arguments can be taken for granted, our own values and virtues are commonly understood, and our “normal” is how our political leaders and institutions will operate.
Another implication is how I respond to the feelings of alienation and estrangement day to day, a feeling that’s hard to articulate or even pin down, but one that reflects what it feels like to be a person somehow on the road, a sojourner, an alien in a shifting landscape. To be in a place that might be somehow called “hyper-diverse” is to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable in many situations. Because unless we want to enshroud ourselves in the familiar at all times, nestled in the safety that we know how things go and the way we do things is the way they ought to be… well, that’s the way most of us live most of the time, right?
But knowing we’re aliens means we don’t gate ourselves up in places where we’ll never be suspicious or feel suspicious. Most people who recognize that reckon with the big picture implications of that, such as losing some status or financial security. What can wear away at us is the mundane, daily ways that being alien feels. Somehow, things are awkward. Often. Somehow, you’re having to re-learn, again and again, what it means to listen to people, what it means to do right, what it means to serve, to share, to teach, to grow. Just when you think you got it, that you know something, that the hill you’re climbing is conquerable…
It’s a vulnerable position. But it’s not one that we nobly take on. It’s one that we humbly realize about ourselves. Especially when we look in the mirror, dismayed that all our garments of supposed power and security are actually the weights that keep us from taking flight.