Conversation about the Reading Wars, Sparked by a New Documentary about Literacy Instruction: Q&A with Elizabeth Moje, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education

Conversation about the Reading Wars, Sparked by a New Documentary about Literacy Instruction: Q&A with Elizabeth Moje, Dean of the University of Michigan School of Education

In Brief: Drafting Absent Correctness and Universal Literature

Student Drafting without the Tyranny of Correctness

After I blogged about navigating the trivial in writing instruction, I shared the post with two first-year writing seminars. I then asked them a few questions about several of the claims I had made.

Several of the students quickly confirmed that most of their writing experiences before entering college and my class were driven by concerns about being correct and then efforts to correct their work when given an opportunity to revise.

From that, I asked if their experiences with drafting in my class had been different. Interestingly, in both classes, several students shared that they felt much more free to draft because I do not grade, I give them detailed feedback on their drafts and in conferences, and they know they will be able to address correctness later in the drafting process once they develop a draft worth editing.

The discussion did confirm that many of the students have begun to shift from focusing on the trivial and working more directly on the substantive—engaging and focused openings, specific openings and closings that help frame the essay, and maintaining the focus (thesis) throughout the essay.

I stressed to these students that I was aware we could accomplish only so much in one semester, but I felt over the next few years many would make great strides and attribute some of that to what we have established in these seminars.

On balance I feel confident many of my approaches to teaching writing have fostered healthy attitudes about language and writing in my students.

Rethinking Universal Literature: Unpacking Whiteness and Allegory

In her opening talk at NCTE’s 2018 national convention in Houston, Texas, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shared a disturbing story about a white male cab driver quickly saying he would not be interested in her writing. The subtext of his response was that he assumed her work to be for women and blacks, only.

Adichie added that she never discounted white male writers in that way; in fact, she said she loved some dead white men writers.

Combined with a Saturday morning roundtable, Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms, experiences at the conference have begun to help me push against what literature we call “universal,” and how whiteness and maleness tend to hide beneath a cloak of allegory in ways that mask the racial and gendered elements in those works.

In my young adult literature class, we are exploring the film Pleasantville as text and how different media and expanding what counts as text can create diverse literature units.

Pleasantville demonstrates in film many of the characteristics we ask students to examine in print texts; it also expects close reading of technique by the viewer.

But one powerful aspect of the film is its investigation of race by using black-and-white against color and then exploring racism with a white cast (the segregation is between those in black-and-white and those in color):

Using this film can help students interrogate what we use to determine universality in literature, and then to consider if allegory allows whiteness and maleness to be normalized, and thus unacknowledged in ways that blackness and femaleness are not allowed to be unacknowledged or universal.


See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

RECOMMENDED: John Warner’s “Why They Can’t Write”

For my 35 years as an educator, I have taught writing and fought a seemingly fruitless battle against know-nothings who either pontificate about or make policy for education.

If I weren’t already an eager fan of John Warner’s blogging at Inside Higher Ed, I feel sure I would have immediately blown a gasket over his newest book’s title: Why They Can’t Write. Although almost immediately the subtitle would have definitely given me hope: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.

I can assure you right off that this is not the sort of drivel the title echoes—Why Johnny Still Can’t Read — And What To Do About It—and instead is a very powerful call for teaching writing well from Warner who is both an accomplished writer and a seasoned writing teacher.

In fact, my strongest recommendation for this book is based on Warner’s expertise across writing and teaching combined with his commitment to remaining himself a student of both. Warner embodies my argument that teaching writing and writing are journeys, not destinations.

The opening, “Our Writing ‘Crisis,'” makes a really important and contrarian argument that, I think, guides the entire book. To the title’s assertion/question, Warner explains: “‘They’re doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do; that’s the problem.'”

As a first-year writing teacher at the college level, Warner has witnessed much of the same dynamics I have experienced over about the same time period; if students struggle with writing in ways that are expected at the college level, much of that disconnect can be seen in those students having been taught what is essentially bad practice—focusing on correctness and correcting, conforming to prompts and templates, having over-simplified concepts of evidence and citation, performing very limited writing capabilities that parallel very weak thinking (linked to the five-paragraph essay that Warner rejects).

An excellent evidence-based companion to Warner’s book, in fact, is Applebee and Langer’s research on the teaching of writing at the middle and high school levels. They detail that while most teachers in all disciplines know more than ever about how to teach writing well (in ways Warner outlines in his book), students write less often and shorter pieces in English as well as their other courses.

The culprit? High-stakes accountability in the form of standards and, most of all, testing.

All teachers who have some responsibilities teaching writing should read this book, but those engaged with first-year writing may be most compelled by Warner’s messages.

Another strong aspect of this work is that Warner’s writing is always engaging while remaining very practical—something practitioners tend to demand.

I think his Part II really shines by highlighting problems: atmosphere (“‘School sucks'”), surveillance, assessment and standardization, education fads, technology hype, folklore, and precarity. Many of these are recurring concerns I have experienced teaching high school English throughout the 1980s and 1990s as well as college-level writing since 2002.

Stylistically, Warner has chosen to be conversational, so this volume is not heavily cited with current research on composition. While some may bristle at this choice, I am very comfortable noting that Warner’s critiques and recommendations match well with that research base (again, consider Applebee and Langer, but also Peter Smagorinsky and a long list of K-12 researchers and practitioners advocating writing workshop).

What teachers find in Warner is a confession that writing and teaching writing are damned challenging. But he also offers foundational concepts and practices if our goal is to foster developing writers who think and compose by choice and with purpose.

This is not about test-prep. This is not about inauthentic compliance masquerading as writing.

Being a writer and teaching writing are mostly about problems. Warner recognizes the problems (and if you teach writing, so will you), and the challenges, but also provides some important reassurances that we can teach writing better, probably well, and then, our students? Well, they can write if offered the opportunity.

Navigating the Trivial in Writing Instruction

Most teachers charged with writing instruction at all levels from K-12 through graduate education have far too little time and almost impossible learning conditions in order to teach writing well, much less completely.

After decades of teaching writing, I have far more questions, and goals, than I have answers.

But I do have two guiding principles that I believe help my writing instruction to be more effective, if still lacking: (1) no writing-intensive course is an inoculation (writing and students are not diseased things to be cured), and (2) to invoke Thoreau, it is not any writing teacher’s duty to do everything, but to do something well.

With those in mind, this Twitter exchange provides an excellent entry point to how we should navigate the trivial in our very challenging work teaching writing:

Drezner’s original Tweet and Warner’s reply provide an important tension that all writing teachers face, the tension between the trivial (elements such as format, grammar, mechanics, and usage) and the substantive (expression, credibility of claims and evidence, audience awareness, purposefulness, etc.).

Broadly, this debate sits within the prescriptivist versus descriptivist approaches to language. For teachers of writing, I think we must acknowledge that prescriptivism remains the norm in both formal education and social norms. In other words, many people are prone to see (or hear) “errors” and then to draw some evaluative conclusions from those “errors” regardless of the credibility or effectiveness of the whole text or expression.

Drezner is typical of those who cannot look past the trivial (confusing “it’s” and “its”) in order to recognize the ultimate whole of the text.

Like Warner, I rest in the camp that rejects prescriptivism and seek ways to focus my instruction, and student drafting, on the substance of their writing as well as their journey to being writers and scholars.

But this is no new tension, as Lou LaBrant (1946) expresses, many decades before Warner’s retort: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing.”

With limited time and reduced teaching and learning conditions, teachers of writing must focus on priorities—fostering purposeful, thoughtful, and risk-taking young writers who have an awareness of prescriptivism and the consequences of so-called “errors” in their writing.

As a first-year writing teacher, I can attest that most of my students enter my writing-intensive classes mostly viewing their work as students to be about correctness and then when prompted to revise or rewrite, to be about correcting.

Their priorities learned in formal schooling about writing are the inverse of LaBrant’s mantra above; students believe correctness trumps content because they have often submitted “irresponsible, unimportant writing,” driven by the teacher’s prompts, and received high grades simply for having conventional surface features.

One example of how I try to navigate the trivial in writing instruction is the current debates about “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I offer students a mini-lesson on how language changes, a short overview of the history of the English language with some examples (grain/corn, the demonizing of “ain’t” and the tortured construction “Aren’t I?” that grew out of that), and then I introduce them to the “they” debate.

We examine pronoun/antecedent agreement and concerns about sexist language (the use of “he” as gender neutral, for example) before I detail for them that they are living in a time of language flux; many formal publications and organizations now have standardized “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun (see especially NCTE).

However, I also address with them that many people remain trapped in the fading prescriptive view of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I caution students that they may (likely will) encounter professors and others who will, as Drezner’s Tweet in the opening shows, make conscious or unconscious decisions about their credibility as writers based on the developing convention of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun.

I often follow this with a discussion of my own experiences as a student in the 1970s and 1980s that included drills and workbook exercises on “shall” and “will”—noting that poor “shall” is now deceased. This leads me to the certain impending demise of “whom” coming, I think, in my students’ lifetime.

As their writing teacher, I am committed to fostering purposefulness in my students, and to help them rise above the paralysis of correctness. I want them to have healthy attitudes about language and writing, much as linguists and writers do.

Yet, this effort to raise their awareness about the specter of the language police while prioritizing their content, organization, style, and such as purposeful writers is no easy task.

It is nearly impossible to break them from habits formed over years—viewing their job as being correct or correcting their drafts—and my own practice, I fear still seems to them to prioritize the trivial.

One of my strategies embedded in my requirement that students draft and conference with me during each essay is that I use highlighting in Word to draw their eyes to the trivial (issues of grammar, mechanics, usage, and format) and reserve comments and the conferences for what I consider to be substance.

I will still highlight, for example, a singular gender neutral use of “they,” and may add a comment asking if they have used this with purpose and with awareness, but I have no policy about their grades based on that use (I do not grade writing at all in fact).

Since many of the elements I highlight are what most teachers would call “errors,” students tend to ask me why I highlight, leading to a mini-lesson. Occasionally, the highlighting works, and students self-edit, if needed.

My work as a teacher of writing, then, is defined in many ways by the tension in the Tweet exchange above. I feel mostly compelled to foster my students as purposeful writers and scholars with healthy attitudes about language and writing.

But I also feel an ethical obligation to make my students aware that language use is political, that language use (often the trivial) has real consequences for them as students and in their lives beyond formal schooling.

I do invite them to join me is changing the norm of prescriptivism, to challenge the language police, but I also am deeply aware that is a tall task to ask of any of us.

LaBrant (1952) lamented that “thousands of teachers seem to resent or refuse to recognize change.” This, I think, is a grand failure when we are teaching writing and ultimately thinking.

Language is in constant flux, and our students are both agents and victims of that change.

Navigating the trivial in writing instruction is ultimately about honoring the human dignity of our students because language is an essential part of that humanity.

The Case of White Male Privilege and Identity (Ep45)

Empowerment Starts Here

Empowerment Starts Here with Chris Thinnes, Peter Anderson, Dr. Paul Thomas and Justin Schleider (click here to listen).

Scroll down to access links and other resources mentioned in Episode 45- “The Case of White Male Privilege and Identity.”

Slide1

In this episode, four ESH returns come back to the show to talk about being white, male and privileged: Chris Thinnes from Ep03 (The Case of Allyship in Context); Peter Anderson from Ep09 (The Case of Gradelessness); Dr. Paul Thomas from Ep10 (The Case of Critical Literacy) and Justin Schleider from Ep24 (The Case of Learning and Moving).

These four individuals give us an update on what they have been up to since recording their previously published episodes and they tell us how their thoughts have (have not) changed regarding the standard life, liberty and pursuit of happiness question (Question 2).  They also talk about their recognition of…

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Free Speech and Diversity of Thought?

Andy Smarick has joined a growing sub-genre of Trojan Horse commentary across mainstream media with his Why Schools Must Safeguard Free Speech at Education Week.

Certainly, a plea for free speech and diversity of thought in education is something everyone can stand behind regardless of ideologies or partisan politics?

And that’s the Trojan Horse here because the veneer of calling for diversity of thought as a free speech concern thinly masks that this sub-genre of commentary is primarily a blitzkrieg by conservative pundits to further erode the public’s trust in education, especially higher education, and to dismantle what is left of evidence-based discourse.

I entered the classroom as a teacher in the fall of 1984, standing in the same classroom where I had taken sophomore and junior English taught by the person who would become my professional mentor, Lynn Harrill.

Growing up in this rural South Carolina town in the 1960s and 1970s, I was duly indoctrinated into a conservative ideology that emphasized tradition and a strict compliance to authority. Looking back, I can recognize that “tradition” was also a veneer for the less delicate realities that my hometown was deeply racist and sexist, as was my home.

Entering college, I was a recent convert to the reverse racism mantra that was growing just as Ronald Reagan was elected president after the relentless shaming of Jimmy Carter that allowed a country to seemingly forget the deep pit that was the Richard Nixon lesson then ignored.

By my junior and senior years of college, majoring in secondary English education, I had shaken off the embarrassing ignorances of my adolescence, mostly saved, I think, by my English professors, notably Nancy Moore, who introduced me to the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and a list far too long including voices unlike the conservative bigotry of my upbringing.

I returned to my hometown to teach as a changed young man, not fully formed yet, but deeply changed. Often I had to check myself against Alice Walker’s warning against missionary zeal in her powerful The Color Purple, but I did have a mission.

With freedom of speech and diversity of thought in mind, I invite you to consider two moments from my high school English teaching career, both involved white male students and their parents—young men who in many ways reflected the person I was not so many years before I stood there as their teacher.

Early in my career, during the mid-1980s, one student submitted his argumentative essay on interracial marriage. He launched into a vigorous rejecting of marriage between blacks and whites (a recurring problem in my hometown throughout my youth and while I was a teacher there).

In those early years, I was developing my use of minimum standards for student work—as an alternative to grading—and this assignment allowed students to write on any topic they chose, but they were required to support their arguments with credible evidence.

This student’s essay was very brief, and he included not one sliver of support for any claim in the essay. I refused to accept the essay, prompting the student to resubmit with the required evidence.

The next submission, the student had essentially copied the earlier essay and added a perfunctory “it’s in the Bible” as his evidence. I rejected the essay again while explaining to him that if in fact he had evidence in the Bible to support his argument, he was required to quote and cite that evidence.

One aspect of my minimum requirement approach included that all work had to be submitted to pass the grading quarter; thus, this student knew that if the essay was not accepted, he would fail.

This stalemate resulted in a parent-teacher conference that included me, the student, the student’s father, and my principal (who had been my principal when I was a student). The father was a measured but red-faced man barely able to withhold his anger at me.

The principal had me explain the situation, which I did, and then the man interrupted, his anger slipping out some; he explained that he and his son had met with their preacher, who assured them the Bible did in fact reject interracial marriage. Although the three of them scoured the Bible for hours, he explained, they were never able to find the proof.

My principal brought the meeting to an end with “Well, I believe your son needs to find another topic.”

Several years later, probably around 1990, my American literature classes were starting a unit I taught most if not all of my high school teaching career, anchored in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” As I was handing out the essay copies, one male student backhanded the photocopy I placed on his desk onto the floor with an abrupt, “I ain’t reading that [racial slur].”

I picked up the essay, placed it on his desk with my hand firmly on the papers, and calmly explained to him he would never utter a comment like that again in my class and he would in fact read MLK. The class included black and white students, but these students also, as some shared with me, had been handed KKK propaganda smearing MLK in their churches.

A few brought me the crude pamphlets that represented about three decades ago that fake news is not a recent invention.

By holding the student to the same standard I held all students concerning the use of evidence in argumentation, by silencing a student who believed he was justified to reduce MLK to a racial slur and to refuse the curriculum I had provided—were these classrooms hostile to free speech, classrooms shutting the door on diversity of thought?

So let me return to Smarick’s disingenuous and frankly lazy argument. So many of these think pieces have sprung up lately, they suffer from circular reasoning because they tend to cite each other—Smarick leaps onto the easily discredited long-read on this same topic, The Coddling of the American Mind.

This commentary is a bit more ambitious than my student’s baseless and racist screed against interracial marriage, but it fails the credibility test in its use of evidence. Even more damning, these calls for free speech and diversity of thought seem to entirely misunderstand the concepts they claim to support.

These commentaries expose that conservatives think “free speech” and “diversity of thought” guarantee that people who have no evidence for their “opinions” should be afforded equal space to those with grounded and evidence-based positions. Their cries for both are cover for racist/sexist language without consequences.

Certainly as an educator, I strongly support academic freedom, but the classroom and scholarship are specifically seeking ways to navigate “thought” with discernment. To teach means to guide students toward credible and ethical thought, not to a lazy marketplace of ideas in which all speech carries the same intellectual weight.

Some ideas are simply not in debate. Typically in formal education, for example, the Holocaust is not taught as a debate that has equal sides between Holocaust scholars and Holocaust deniers. Some students are never exposed to those denials.

Some ideas remain in debate, but for education, even ideas in debate require credibility among all the positions expressed.

Conservative hand wringing about a lack of diversity of thought in classrooms are simply partisan pandering to ideologies bereft of ethical or empirical evidence—sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, and more.

Finally, another way to understand these commentaries are insincere is to note conservative pundits will not, however, have an honest and open discussion about the reality that free speech and diversity of thought are not about license, not freedom from accountability. They rarely discuss that some ideas have no place in discourse, that “let’s agree to disagree” is simply a way to maintain a status quo of inequity.

Some thought need not be aired, but it does need to be confronted and eradicated. When have you read those pleas from the right?

Conservatives cannot afford to support classrooms and academic settings that are about evidence-based, grounded discourse, but are not spaces for people just to say whatever they think, believe, or want.

Like my hometown, conservative ideology in the U.S. remains inextricably tied to ideologies the pundits dare not utter, bigotry of many kinds usually masked as “tradition” or “nationalism.”

Vapid arguments that education is some sort of liberal indoctrination are, ironically, jumbled efforts to indoctrinate, desperate efforts to maintain power by erasing the power of careful and evidence-based thinking, the very thing teaching and education must remain grounded in if we genuinely believe in freedom of thought.

Equity and the Zero-Sum Game Mirage

A picture may be worth far more than a thousand words in today’s partisan political climate; consider this:

As Stephen Johnson reports about the 2018 mid-term elections:

  • Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
  • In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
  • Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.

This image triggered for me an important realization about equity and the persistence of inequity. Consider next the inequitable representation, historical and current, in the U.S. Senate:

white men in senate

Stacey Jones also details about Fortune 500 CEOs that “[o]f those high ranking officials, 80% are men and 72% of those men are white”; for example:

gender fortune 500

These pie charts are important, I think, because they help us confront the zero-sum game thinking that impacts people with inequitable access to power: white men.

An equitable Senate would have 30-40 white men; an equitable distribution of CEOs would be about the same percentage, 30-40%.

So here is the trap—in order to reach equity, the current power structure must change and those with current inequitable power will perceive they have lost something substantial, something they believe they have earned. In fact, however, what they must lose is privilege, unfair advantages.

Is equity a zero-sun game? I think not, but it certainly must feel that way to those with the current status quo of power because, as the recent gains among Democrats shows, when we move toward equity of power, the demographics change, primarily with a reduction of white men.

The failure of zero-sum game thinking is deeply partisan, as Danielle Kurtzleben explains:

Exit polls also showed wide partisan gaps in views of gender. An overwhelming majority of Americans, nearly 8 in 10, said it’s important to elect more women to public office. Among those who consider that “important,” two-thirds voted for Democrats. Meanwhile, more than 8 in 10 of those who consider that “not important” voted for Republicans.

This gap suggests that Republicans attract those who perceive moving toward equity as a loss for the the inequitable status quo.

The tide that must turn is when we all can agree that equity expanding is a net gain for everyone, especially as we move toward our positions of power reflecting more closely those over whom they have that power.

Pecan Pie

A friend ordered an appetizer before dinner a few nights ago, Brussels sprouts. I asked what was on them, and she said, “Chopped pecans. Here,” pushing the plate toward me to confirm.

I hadn’t expected chopped pecans on Brussels sprouts, but since we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, my mind took another unexpected turn: Suddenly I was struck by the realization that I would never again have a pecan pie made by my mother who died about eleven months ago from stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after suffering a stroke and witnessing my father’s death just a couple weeks after the stroke.

Maple Pecan Pie

My mother was from North Carolina, mostly the central hills of the state from Lexington to Salisbury, Spencer, and Concord. My father grew up and always lived in my home town of Woodruff, South Carolina, in the upstate, the foothills.

I learned to distinguish between my parents’ Southern drawls once I lived away from home for a while. As my father did, I grew up pronouncing “pecan” with two hard syllables—PEE-CAN—the last rhyming with “man,” not “con.”

And once I was permanently on my own, my mother began focusing even more heavily on pleasing me with food if she could coax me to visit. My father, however, had come to recognize my favored status when I was a teen. Supper began to feature both what I preferred and when I would be home (after basketball practice, and such).

When I talked to my parents by phone, my father would usually joke that I needed to visit so he could have a good meal.

Children of the 1950s, my mother and father always spent way too much money showing everyone in the family their love. Holidays were manically overdone, especially Christmas, with gifts and food.

Fall and winter were a flurry for my parents who were overgrown children at Halloween; they carried that glee through the new year as well.

Thanksgiving in my home kicked off Christmas season with decorating the house and putting up the tree, all of which stayed up until New Year’s Day. I grew up thinking these traditions were universal because we had made it all so regimented and the holidays simply pervaded everything in our lives for well over a month, late November into January each year.

I also developed an affection for pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—as holiday food. My mom often made them from scratch.

Her pecan pie was wonderful even though it was always a challenge to make well. Some were a disaster, according to her, but I never noticed.

Crunchy on the outside then deliciously sweet at the center, her pecan pie was about the only thing that could compete fresh out of the oven with her just-made sweet tea that bordered on being syrup.

As my parents aged, and both struggled with heart issues for many years, they clung to the holidays, but Halloween soon became too much for them. For many years, they dressed up and dozens of children came by for my mom dressed as Mother Goose requiring a rhyme for candy.

Thanksgiving and Christmas also gradually dwindled—the meals no longer made by my mother, even the pies, and the gifts becoming fewer, the cash cards holding less and less.

My parents died with almost no money and mostly their house to represent their legacy, their shot at the American Dream.

Even during those last years, years I really didn’t see as last, when I visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother always steered me to the vegetable tray—she made sure there were red, yellow, and green peppers, and carrots—and she always bought pies, pecan as well as potato or pumpkin, or some times all three.

I struggled for many years with the reality of my infirm parents against my stunted conception of them, the idealized mother and father who existed for much of my life.

But I also struggled against my parents clinging to a certain fixed image of me—especially my mom always trying to feed me those pies even as I nearly never ate pies in my adult life, except to please her at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When I did my obligatory visits on those holidays, I had to try all the pies, and grazed throughout the visit from the vegetable tray. And then my mother would wrap up pie to take home—and I almost never ate them despite her frail gestures of “I love you.”

In those moments, I couldn’t rise out of the trap of my own life to see everything clearly, to appreciate that every single thing in life is fragile.

Even a pecan pie. Especially the last pecan pie.

There will always be a last time, and we almost never know that until afterward, until it is too late to appreciate the last time as we should.

I used to teach Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and watching it in front of students presented the same problem I had with other plays, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These works always make me cry.

Emily dies young in Our Town, in childbirth, but realizes she can return to rewatch some of her life. The Stage Manager warns her against it, and she does find the experience painful, lamenting: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”

I love this scene in the play, and I hate it.

It breaks my heart.

I sat in the restaurant, the faint taste of pecan in my mouth, fighting the urge to cry because I had suddenly realized my mother would never again make a pecan pie for the holidays.

I talked about it briefly, withholding tears.

But I am not really sure what else to do with it. I am aware we all will likely be too busy with our lives to really look at our living, to fully see what matters in the moment.

And then the last time will be behind us.

We missed it. We will always miss it.

Expanding Access to Voting Despite the Failures of Partisan Politics

It has been a strange journey for me as a leftwing intellectual having grown up and always living in the very narrowly conservative South.

Most of my voting life has been committed to voting against candidates, solidly rejecting Republicans who were uniformly elected in my home state of South Carolina.

I then about a decade ago adopted the pose of a non-voter, calling on George Carlin‘s and W.E.B. Du Bois‘s philosophies about partisan politics.

However, with the election of Trump, I have once again been tossed around in how I navigate a very political world that is mostly paralyzed by partisan nonsense.

Hillary Clinton was the best mainstream Republican in the 2016 election, and Barack Obama was a solid moderate—nothing akin to the socialist the Right tried to smear him as being. (Obama was no Eugene V. Debs, someone I could vote for.)

Even Bernie Sanders is no lefty if we frame U.S. politics against Europe or even Canada, and Sanders continues to prove himself tone-deaf on race.

However, Trump is a special kind of outlier, I fear, and as a result, I have returned to the voting booth where, again as I vote in SC, I had limited choices and a significant list of races where only Republicans were running.

I wasted my time, made something like a hollow symbolic gesture by voting:

2018 vote
I used a dramatic black-and-white filter on Instagram and thought about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I took the selfie.

So I was sitting with cycling friends at a taphouse after the elections, listening to two internationals—one from Argentina and one from Germany—talk about how ridiculous U.S. politics is.

Argentinians are required to vote, even prisoners, under penalty of fines if they fail to do so.

Germans have automatic voter registration.

In very real ways, despite the historical chest-thumping about democracy in the U.S., much of the world is more free than we are in terms of access to participating in a democracy.

My good German friend offered off-hand that he suspects he pays a bit more taxes in Germany, but, as he noted, he doesn’t mind because he gets so much more for that extra cost.

And since election day in 2018, races have become in doubt because of voting irregularities and remaining ballots counted, exposing that a significant number of U.S. citizens are effectively disenfranchised from the process.

Here then is the new paradox for me as well as my new commitment.

We must expand voting access for every eligible voter, even as we acknowledge that our partisan political system is horribly broken.

We must acknowledge that the wealthy and the privileged are voting, rather easily, and that those with the least power are most likely to be barred from voting—from the poor to the imprisoned.

Expanding who votes and the ease of voting, then, is a goal we must all seek even as we are disappointed in our two-party system and the inept and corrupt leaders it has spawned.

Let’s commit to some or all of the following:

  • Automatic registration of eligible voters, while also expanding who is eligible across the U.S.
  • A 5-7 day window for voting followed by a 72-hour embargo on election results until all votes are counted and verified. This includes no reporting on polls, exit or otherwise, once the voting window starts until after that 72-hour window ends.
  • Electronic forms fo voting—computer and smart phone voting, for example.
  • Online verifications of voting that alerts (email, text, etc.) each voter their vote has been cast and allows each voter to report irregularities.
  • Consideration of lowering the voting age to 16, possibly for local elections only.
  • Reinstate the popular vote in presidential elections and curtail gerrymandering.
  • Address imbalances in candidates’ representation of populations (see the House and Senate majorities versus a minority of citizens represented).
  • Full public funding of all campaigns, ending political donations and standardizing political ads and debates.
  • Vetting all political ads and debates for accuracy.

The ugly truth in the U.S. is that those with power and privilege do not trust or want a full democracy where everyone has a voice.

We may not be able to create immediately a better ruling class, but we certainly can create a more vibrant democracy by expanding access to having a voice for everyone.

If that goal is approached we may find that the ruling class changes for the better.