Why teaching is political and why it’s worth it

Working together with some incredible colleagues today, I shared a thought that occurred to me years into my work as a teacher and a coach, that much of teaching and being a teacher leader was a matter of navigating politics. This often feels secondary, like a distraction, like ugly business and irrelevant to the real work of teaching kids. In many ways it is. But I came to understand at one point that working on those politics, building bridges with those lone ranger teachers, tactfully speaking up to or finding common ground with admins with different imperatives, working in solidarity with your union even when their protections require creative workarounds… Yes, it can be a lot of politics piled on to 8 hours of teaching plus evenings of lesson planning and grading.

But it is in fighting for the things that matter for kids in the midst of those politics, for the sake of the kids, that collective change and growth happens. As teachers we should have the ideal situation to support meaningful collaboration and colleagues ready to share the best they have, so that our focus is utterly on great instruction, assessment, and relationships with kids.

But in reality, those politics that seem constraining are the very territory over which the relevant battles are fought. The stakeholders don’t always have the best motives compelling them at each moment, but they very often have good intentions that you can appeal to. And even where people are the enemy, they are wolves we must protect our flock from, and worth our efforts. These stakeholders impact our kids. To engage them with integrity, strategy, commitment to equity and humanity, and love, is often to serve the kids and communities that are our bottom line.

Daily manipulables


These bathtub letters have demonstrated the versatility of manipulables of the alphabetic and numeric base units. My daughter learns orthographic conventions like placing letters left to right, phonetic stuff like peppering words with vowels to make them utterable, and symbolic conventions like this, her invention of a “new calendar” with different numbering systems. She pairs letters together which can be wedged together and makes boats out of them, asking what the paired letters might stand for: UV, HR, DA, and even two-letter phonemes and words. She made a label for a birthday present and produced the spelling to “to” and “from” and “hi” largely thanks to her play with these. Now if we could get her to willingly shampoo…

“Anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” -Dewey

Having “boiled” down the purpose of this blog to four aspects of my identity and thought, I still feel the necessity of qualifying each of them still further.  I’m not sure which of the four is more presumptuous, but from one perspective, scholar takes the prize.  Yes, I own a lot of books, to the chagrin of my accountant and the delight of Jeff Bezos (haha–as if I had an accountant.)  But at present, I’m merely a lowly graduate student, a Ph.D not-yet-candidate.  Moreover, I’m in an applied and interdisciplinary field, Education, which by some lights at least is chronically under-theorized and -developed.  I beg to differ.  Being an educationalist means a necessary interdisciplinarity, as well as a necessary engagement with praxis and pragmatism, as well as a reflexivity about scholarship itself, that conditions us to a unique kind of epistemological rigor.
Dewey and this quotation headlines my contemplations about and as a “scholar” because, instead of entrenching more deeply in the institutional structures that ensure/enshrine safety for an academic, I hope that my scholarly work does not merely describe, but changes.  That presumptuous verb change lacks an object, and it is underspecified to suggest why “scholar” or even “scholar-activist” cannot stand alone as an identity.  When it comes to disciplines and discourses, personally, my ambition is to be a bridge-builder as a researcher, to exercise grace and civility in an often cold and contentious academic culture.  Yet, I would not sweat the tedium of academia if not infused with the belief that from one perspective, “we at war.”  Our science must be strong (even us interpretivist, phenomenological, qualitative types) because the stakes are so high for our product, for what we hustle and grind for.
To wit:
Dylan Thomas
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
As a scholar, I hope I make the choice again and again, to choose life.  My meager contributions are the smallest drop in the largest bucket, but we had best mind the currents we flow in, because they shape canyons.

CLEVR, Argumentation, Logic, and Authorities/Audiences


As with so many across the country in the wake of Common Core, my partner and I, who share a job as middle school English coaches in our district, have been working on Argument Writing. The intrepid colleagues that we collaborate with have stretched our thinking about what argumentation looks like, how it’s taught, how it can be assessed, and what value it has.  The poster is a reinterpretation of George Hillocks’ schematic representation of Stephen Toulmin’s now-classic delineation of the elements of argument, which he arrived at inductively from a study of arguments in contemporary usage (in contrast, to, say, Aristotelian logic).  Trying to be conversant with the parlance of the field, we’ve used the language of claim, evidence, and reasoning.  That differentiation seems to have a lot of utility and currency in Science, Social Studies, and literacy in the Common Core standards themselves.  The teachers we work with now make reference to introducing “CLEVR” as a means of analyzing and evaluating arguments and of developing their own arguments.

Even as I applaud the rigorous thinking that elaborating this construct is developing, I admit I’m lukewarm on it.  Yes, much academic and professional writing is conventionalized to require an explicitness in the logic, premises, criteria, and so on, that undergird an argument.  The need for students to develop that facility is not lost on me.  (I could probably use a good dose of it myself).  Yet, consider this paragraph from Steve Coll in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column this week:

The Tea Party’s anti-intellectualism reflects a longer, deeper decline in the Republican Party’s ability to tolerate a diversity of iras and public-policy strategies, and to adapt to American multiculturalism. Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Latino voters in 2012 helped insure Barack Obama’s reëlection.  Republican leaders, chastened and without any other obvious way to increase their vote base before 2016, pledged earlier this year to revive a comprehensive immigration-reform bill.  Yet party leaders, in part because they have been tied down since July by the debt confrontation, haven’t found a way to move legislation past the nativist caucus in the House.

Try to isolate the pieces of claim, evidence, and reasoning from that paragraph and you’re likely to realize that New Yorker audiences would be insulted by such explicitness about inferences they do not need an author to make for them.  Indeed, the same goes for a television sketch that would feel the need to explain why it’s funny, or virtually any other form of discourse which makes some kind of point or claim.  “If I have to explain the reasoning to you, then what are you doing here?”

Of course, the very function of language of schooling is to not rely on such inferences, implicitness, innuendo, in-crowd language, inside jokes… to express all complexities on the surface of language.  But I think teaching students claims, evidence, and reasoning without a concomitant attention to the irreducible element of an argument’s situated-ness in particular authorities and audiences is an incomplete education.  What reasoning is good reasoning?  Depends on who you’re speaking to.  What evidence is good evidence?  Depends on your sources of authority, your notions of truth, your epistemology.  What claims are forceful claims?  Who knows but those from whom we learn and to whom we speak, in the dialogicality of real-life interaction?

It seems like Toulmin extracted a nice scheme from real-life arguments.  I argue that we need to teach with a relentless consciousness of putting arguments back into real life.  Analyze the claims, evidence, and reasoning, but lay bare the addressivity and addressees.  Identify the warrants and backing, but know those aren’t abstractions, but the narratives and worldviews of living and breathing speech communities, cultural groups, participants of discourses.  And when we unfold the dimensions of claims, evidence, and reasoning that belong to the scientific community or the field of historians or the lingo of BBoys or culinary patois, we should not withhold from students reflection on all their specificity of location, politics, and development.  “Copernicus derived these conclusions from these calculations.  And he analyzed in this way in contrast to these predecessors for these reasons.  He ultimately published in this fashion and was taken up in these ways by these proponents.”  No arguments without arguers.

“The teacher…is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” -Freire

The language teacher, more than anyone, ought to understand that teaching for social justice does not mean only supplying students with the tools, the doctrines, and the canon that will grant them access to elite education, employment opportunity, and exit from their communities and oft-pathologized cultures.  This is because the language teacher leads students to examine an object–language– whose very lifeblood is the ingresses and egresses of populist energies, the dynamics and vicissitudes of changing standards and expectations, and the particular potency of symbolic subversion, even as language also simultaneously asserts stability, routinization, and rigidity.  Language is that most democratic of things, signifiers shifting all the time at the hands of creatively appropriating humans, and kids teach us language (even the stodgy teacher who scorns and mocks it cannot long sideline its intelligibility and therefore communicative effectiveness) all the time, and we cannot resist its powers.  Bakhtin said it best in a metaphor that has proven memorable and durable to me: there is a centrifugal and centripetal pull, simultaneously, with language, that makes it push outward towards diversity and what he called heteroglossia, and at the same time a centering pull toward unity, uniformity, and authority.  Both operate at all times in language.  We sense it in every novel we read, in the playfulness or ponderousness of poetry, in the ways we and students perform, try on/take off, and otherwise make a practice of language.

Therefore, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children granted, it is not enough to give students the tools of the culture of power.  We must also unmask the culture of power and give them the tools of its revision and subversion, particularly the symbolic tools, the ones that eventually lead to material consequences.  Yes, students must learn how to compose academic essays.  But they must also do so to craft deft arguments that challenge the notion that the non-essayist is blinder, stupider, less articulate.  And moreover, must illuminate for the rest of us darkened minds the greatness of those considered the least.

This is not a romanticization of the poor or “illiterate.”  This is a recognition that in our profoundly divided and hierarchical society, where wealth inequality continues its steep increase, as Freire reminds us, our humanization depends on the moral clarity and force of “students” to transform the voice of the “teachers,” the oppressed to teach oppressors, the poor to intercede for the rotten rich.  Or, put another way, those who teach in “underperforming” or “low” schools had better be prepared to learn a thing or two from their students, even while they responsibly teach them.  Together, we synthesize what’s new, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, whether we like it or not.  Understanding how that synthesis is configured is where our work is done.

The Literacy Episteme

Reading “The Literacy Episteme: From Innis to Derrida” by Jens Brockmeier and David R. Olson in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (2009).  My summary and thoughts below:

My outline summary of Brockmeier and Olson’s argument:

In previous centuries, the “life of letters” was the indulgence of elites with such things as leisure time and armchairs, the “clubby habitus” of a few.  Literacy is now so pervasive, so ubiquitous a fact of social life, that it explodes definition boundaries; observe how not only does a child in school read a book, but a basketball player “reads a defense,” people socially network in textually mediated relationships, and everything from institutional learning to the internal life find literacy practices at their center.  Brockmeier and Olson contend this near limitless diversity of and yet commonalities among literacies belong to an “overarching cultural discourse” they call the literacy episteme, drawing from the larger Western tradition of epistemological inquiry, but especially from Harold Innis and Jacques Derrida, both of whom plumb the materiality/physicality of concepts/language.

The Literacy Episteme and Its Scope.  What makes an episteme: “the cultural order of ideas and concepts that define, at a given moment in history, what knowledge is and how we gain and transmit it” (6).  There are scientific objects that basically only exist on paper, so to speak… the recordings on a computer of protein connections, for instance, or states that don’t exist in a reality apart from models and calculations, that are basically treated as or equated with “real.”  So too hunters ‘read’ the tracks of a deer from signs that imaginatively recreate a history of movement.  Or the cultural dimension of “self” that exists uniquely in the modern Western discourse.  This is a Foucaultian “historical a priori” as opposed to a Kantian “a priori,” meaning that they belong to concrete human discourses and not in an ideal and transcendent pre-knowledge human universal.  Two implications of literacy as episteme: writing is not derivative of speech, but its own form of language; and the privileged place of the “book learning” form of literacy is being dissolved.

The Rise of the Literacy Episteme.  Literacy has been long considered and studied since Plato, but the elevated epistemic status emerges in the West in the 60s, simultaneously in national projects of development via education and in academic attention on literacy (such as Havelock, McLuhan, Levi-Strauss, Goody and Watt):  “Great divide” theories of orality and literacy, from La pensee sauvage to McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, and of course Goody and Watt’s Consequences of Literacy, along with the Western uptake of Vygotskian sociocultural perspectives of mind.

Widening the Frame: Innis and Derrida.  These two quite different scholars contribute two developments to the literacy episteme: Innis’ focus on literacy “as a momentous factor within a practical, economic, social, and political trajector,” Derrida’s handling of literacy “at the heart of the history of philosophy in he twentieth century.”  Innis is a Canadian economist studying structures of communication in ancient empires and among fur traders; Derrida is a French theorist of deconstruction.  Despite their differences, however, for Brockmeier and Olson, both contribute attention to power and hegemony in Foucault-like ways that join what is traditionally kept asunder, the material and the conceptual, in their thought on literacy.

Why Did the Dam Burst?  The argument here is that all of a sudden, literacy becomes unprecedentedly promoted and studied, mattering not only theoretically but materially as social reality (for example, in the power exerted by schooling).  McLuhan, Goody, Innis and others poised at the century’s midpoint saw the “interdependencies” of communication technologies, the ever expanding “literacies” of media, networks, etc., that revolutionize culture, society, and thought.  This interdisciplinary recognition of the role of sign mediation in social scientific thought works to collectively overcome its Schfiftvergessenheit (expansion of Derrida’s idea that Western philosophical thought forgets or overlooks the ‘writing’ on which it is based, privileging speech and immediacy).

They close by again underscoring the diversity of literacy uses and practices (a nod to the social practice perspectives of New Literacy Studies and the like), but also what is common to literacy everywhere, to its uniqueness as a dominant form of communication against others, its still-primary role in societies, “development” in whatever forms, etc.

A few responses…

Somehow Brockmeier and Olson don’t quite take the tantalizing notion of a “literacy episteme” as far as I thought they would, not even as far, for instance, as the scholars they cite in their title do.  I would simplify their argument by saying that they demonstrate how literacy is not simply one subject among others, but so consequential, not only to what philosophy and human sciences study, but to “study” itself, that rather than “literacy consequences” or “literacy practices” or “literacy ideologies,” the scope of literacy studies is on an epistemic level, all the way to root questions of knowing.  This idea is vastly suggestive… and sufficiently expressed in just the title.

Then, a philosophical trajectory is combined with a social-political trajectory (to some extent), demonstrating the indivisibly theoretical and material presence of literacy in the mid-20th century onward.  I think the recognition of literacy as quintessentially conceptual and material (that is literally what is it… concept materialized) as the core insight of the literacy episteme, I will return to again and again in my thought.  Yet I am somewhat dissatisfied with where the authors take this.  Perhaps it is because theirs is the first chapter of an entire handbook that unfolds the implications they would supply…

Also, I wonder about the equivalence of literacy-as-technology transformations with the proliferation of mediation forms we have been and are part of.  Brockmeier and Olson are right that literacy is indeed broadening, exploding, imploding, so that we talk of the transportation of an “image” (say, a video of my cousin in Taiwan showing up in my Twitter feed) within the literacy episteme, as a continuation of the “reading” and”writing” that as consequentially changed knowledge and our relation to the world and experience.  But traditional literacy, alphabetic words on a page, quickly begins to fail as the metaphor, significant though it is historically, for what goes on now semiotically, for the video in my Twitter feed.  Does “literacy episteme” freeze us in particular consequences that modes are now changing, emptying, replacing?

The critiques may be unfair; they are pointing toward something too vast for a chapter to capture, and I glimpse the expanse and expect more coverage than reasonable. What the authors draw together in philosophical and social thought, though, under the literacy episteme, I will draw from again and again.